'Edible Landscaping' pioneer Rosalind Creasy eschews grass for vegetables

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 10:07 PM

LOS ALTOS, CALIF. -- The yard needs work. You think: I'll stick in some azaleas and re-seed the lawn. Rosalind Creasy is here to put you straight. Forget the lawn, forget the azaleas. Think Swiss chard and blueberries, apple trees, arugula, beets, wheat.

Don't mow it. Eat it.

Creasy, 71, was a demure New Englander who came of age in Northern California in the 1960s. She became a rebel. Her causes? The environment. Organic gardening. Veggies.

She has gone from being an eccentric voice in the wilderness to an omniscient earth mother. She didn't just anticipate the wild embrace of growing your own food, she was a key voice in its resurgence.

After railing for four decades against environmentally destructive gardening practices and showing the way with fruits and vegetables, she has lived long enough to temper her zeal with a sense of satisfaction. "It was such a struggle for so long. And now it doesn't feel like a struggle anymore."

For Creasy, a lifelong gardener, reinventing the American yard was always more than just an armchair rant. This month, she is putting the finishing touches to what she calls a "change-out" in her front garden. Out go the old whiskey barrel planters, the small pretty pots, the steppingstones. In go a new brick patio, planter boxes, fresh containers. The trellis gets a new lick of dark green paint. The last of the peppers and tomatoes are pulled to make way for an array of lettuce and other winter greens.

Creasy's quarter-acre suburban garden changes dramatically every six months. What used to be the front yard of her California ranch has become a parade of landscape ideas for the homeowner to embrace, each revolving around the radical concept that vegetables are pretty. The current reworking is Creasy's 50th since 1984.

"I have decided," Creasy said, "that this is the final one. I have made my point to the world."

Author, photographer, landscape designer and environmentalist, Creasy has widely influenced the course of domestic gardening over the past 30 years. She kept the then barely flickering flame burning in her best-selling 1982 book, "Edible Landscaping." Newly reissued and substantially reworked, the book introduced a new style of vegetable gardening while rejecting the prevailing model of the garden as a male-dominated holdover from the farm, with discrete crops in rows.

"The romance of gardening somehow didn't stretch into the vegetable garden," said Ethne Clarke, editor of Organic Gardening magazine. "Until Ros came along."

The notion of edible landscaping "has taken off like a rocket," said Clarke. Its disciples are legion, and extol the nutrition of organically cultivated homegrown produce, or see the veggie plot as a riposte to industrial agriculture or as a way to preserve and savor rare varieties of tomatoes, beans and melons, to name a few.

All along, Creasy saw the beauty: The dark, crinkled ostrich plumes of the black Tuscan kale; the neon stalks of the Swiss chard; the electric blue thistles of the cardoon. The unexpected ornament became a metaphor for all the attendant virtues of the lowly vegetable, how it could heal the planet by teaching us to feed ourselves.

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