Lots of people want to grow some of their own food - and lots of people have front gardens, or at least a place to keep pots. But these can seem like wasted spaces to frustrated veg-growers in an age of allotment waiting lists and small back gardens. For various reasons people usually don't want their fronts to look like vegetable patches.
This beautifully illustrated book solves that problem, giving advice on how to grow and use 30 plants which produce edible crops - but which don't look like fruit and vegetables. It includes plants usually grown as ornamentals in this country, but as edibles in the countries where they are native, and some which are little known in the UK, and which can pass for ornamentals. These are crypto-vegetables - hidden edibles - perfect for the 'invisible allotment'.
There are towns in the USA where people are forbidden by law from growing vegetables in their front gardens. Those who do so can be charged with committing a misdemeanour, and even, in theory, jailed. In some places you can not only be compelled to put your front down to lawn, but even to keep it mown to a specified, statutory height.
Here in Britain, we perhaps live in a generally more liberal state, with greater tolerance of eccentricity and more respect for the rights of the individual. Even so, I once a knew a man who was ordered by his landlord to stop growing carrots in the window-boxes of his rented flat because vegetables "made the property look scruffy." (I'm glad to say that he replaced the carrots with nasturtiums, which are just about the most wholly edible plants on earth.)
But although in this country we don't need to fear a knock on the door from a local authority enforcement officer, there are still plenty of reasons why people might be shy about openly filling their front gardens with vegetables.
Most obviously, there's simple conformism; if all your neighbours plant up their fronts with grass and shrubs, tarmac and shingle, you might feel that devoting yours to broccoli and onions, spuds and beans, would mark you out as odd. We British might tolerate eccentricity - but only in other people, thank you, not in ourselves.
There are more practical objections, too. If your front garden looked like a veg patch, would that have an unwanted effect on property prices? The price of your property, that is, or - mortifyingly - the price of your neighbour's property?
Would out-front cabbages be tempting to passing thieves, or vandals? And then, of course, there are plenty of tenants with unsympathetic landlords, like my friend with the carrots.
At the same time, I know a lot of people who would like to grow some food in the front - because the front garden is sunnier or more sheltered than the back garden, or because the back isn't big enough to feed their family and they've already spent three years on the waiting list for an allotment, or because they are home-grow fanatics who grind their teeth in frustration every time they think of all that wasted space. Or simply because the front garden is the only garden they've got.
This book, and the idea of the "invisible allotment," is aimed at all those people. It offers some suggestions for edible plants that can easily be smuggled into ostensibly ornamental gardens, and detailed advice on how to grow and eat them. These are crops that you can grow without scandalising the neighbours. Your front garden won't look like an allotment, but you'll still get significant amounts of food out of it.
There are plants here which are bona fide, universally acknowledged ornamentals - sold and grown for looking at - but which, to many people's surprise, have edible parts. You may well already have some of these plants in your front garden, which will give you a head-start (and save a few quid).
Then there are species which are grown as ornamentals in this country, but which are considered vegetables back in their homelands. Hosta is a good example; in Japan it's grown as an agricultural crop, not as a herbaceous perennial with colourful leaves.
Finally, I've included some lesser-known edible plants which would be used as ornamentals in UK gardens, if they were used at all, like the Cinnamon Vine (Dioscorea batatas) which is a charmingly-perfumed climber - and as long as you don't tell anyone that one of its other names is Chinese Yam, then only you need ever know that every now and then you're going to dig up its roots and roast them.
So that you can look for a plant to fill a gap in your front garden, while knowing that it will also provide a crop for your invisible allotment, the book is divided into sections that relate to the ornamental use of the plant, rather than its edible use. Dahlia, for instance, is listed under Flowers, although it's the tubers that you eat.
Perhaps I should finish by briefly explaining what I haven't put in this book. I haven't included what might be called "vegetables that look nice." In my view, as a dedicated veg grower, all vegetables look nice. And I haven't, for the most part, included herbs used purely for flavouring. The plants in this book must meet two criteria: they need to be substantially, not just peripherally, edible; and they need to be unobtrusive when grown in a front garden.
In other words - we're not planting a potager. We're planting an invisible allotment.
I'm hoping that the hot Bank Holiday weekend will have led to a flurry of pledges for Eat Your Front Garden, with people having spent three days fretting about how dull and unproductive their fronts are. Meanwhile, I'm writing the chapter on Oenanthe javanica - a plant with very pretty, very tasty leaves, which I grow in a big tub of water. It might not be the longest chapter in the book, because…
This week I am both eating, and writing a chapter about, hostas. They are a perfect EYFG plant, widely grown in front gardens for their colourful leaves, and really delicious as a green vegetable. It's the spring growth that's used as food - the rolled-up leaves that look like witloof chicory. Slice them off at ground level and eat them lightly steamed, or use them as an ingredient in, for instance…
EYFG is now 7% funded - many thanks to everyone who has pledged, and please keep telling your friends about the book. I promised on Twitter that I would write a limerick, or clerihew, for the pledger who tipped us over the 7% line, and send it to them on a postcard. That person was Sam Farrell - so, Sam, if you'd like to contact me here or on social media, I'd be very glad to do that for you.
Yesterday's pledges took us to 5%, and today's took us over the first £1,000 raised. Many thanks indeed to everyone who has pledged. Because of the Data Protection Act, I don't receive a note of pledgers' email addresses, so I'm not always able to thank everyone individually - but please know that I am very grateful to all of you!
If you're growing oca and mashua from tubers saved from last year's crop, don't forget to check the "seed" tubers regularly from now on. If they haven't already started sprouting, they'll probably be doing so soon. When the oca have sprouts showing, move them to a light, cool, frost-free place - just as if you were chitting potatoes. Sprouting mashua are best planted in 4 inch pots in multi-purpose…
Many thanks to everyone who has supported Eat Your Front Garden so far - we've reached 2% funded on the third day of funding, which I'm very pleased with. I've always maintained that the final 98% is the easy bit ... Also, I note that of the 11 backers so far, 2 are people I don't know - which seems a very decent ratio for so early in the project. Thanks again, and please keep spreading the word!…
Someone asked me today which of the non-edible plants in my front garden I'd most like to get rid of. I didn't need to think about it long: there's a climbing hydrangea which was already in place when we arrived here, 20-odd years ago. It's one of the dullest plants I've ever known. It needs a lot of pruning, otherwise next door can't see to back their car out, it has (in my opinion) rather uninteresting…
These people are helping to fund Eat Your Front Garden.