Romancing the vegetable garden

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; C01

IN 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.

"I think it's the highest and noblest use of the soil," Creasy says of the type of lush gardens that today surround her home. Her aesthetic approach dispels the scruffy image of the vegetable garden by expanding it to include fruiting vines, shrubs and trees, adding herbs, and this crazy idea: incorporating them into a decorative landscape. In one bed, she is letting a red-leaved green named orach go to seed. "It was so beautiful with the dahlias a month ago," she said. Deep purple figs are ripening in a container-grown tree. A border is edged in pineapple sage, elsewhere the silver rosettes of artichoke leaves are beginning to bulk up.

She applauds Michelle Obama's garden at the White House and how the first lady has used it as a vehicle to teach children about gardening and its connection to health and nutrition. Creasy reflects on how parents of her generation and a decade or so younger, were so busy raising children while building careers that they lost that vital link to the land. "It was the first time probably in the history of the world where a whole generation didn't know how to grow their own food. That's a profound statement."

Creasy seems taller than her 5 feet 6 inches. Her ready smile, pixie haircut and youthful face seem at odds with her fervor, but there she is, towering in the heavenly canopy of her garden.

In Creasy's scrumptious outdoor trial gardens, the integration of edibles with ornamentals brings a paradisiacal feeling to the late afternoon. Her back garden is formed into three basic sub-gardens, the central one enveloped by wings of the house and softened by vines and fruit trees. The silence is broken by the sound of a startling thud in a perimeter bed. A plump navel orange has detached itself from its large, groomed mother tree. Creasy chuckles. "This is actually a food studio. Some things stay on too ripe, but I need them for the photography." She leads a visitor to a cozy, elevated terrace framed with an old pear tree, a grapefruit in flower and fruit at the same time - the fruits take 18 months to ripen - and a pomegranate tree. In addition to its orbed fruit, the pomegranate produces jaw-dropping scarlet red flowers. (It will grow in a sheltered garden in Washington, but few think to plant it.)

After the initial success of "Edible Landscaping," she wrote "Cooking From the Garden" but had run out of places to grow, test and photograph her edibles. The front yard offered a precious 2,000 square feet of space, much of it lawn. Thus it was that Creasy decided to take on the most sacred icon of suburbia: the front lawn.

As radical as a front-yard cornucopia might be in most quiet suburban cul-de-sacs, Creasy's is in the heart of Silicon Valley, five minutes from Stanford University and in one of the priciest real estate markets in the country. The dozen or so homes on her street are comfortable-looking but not opulent, and yet would make Washington house values seem a real bargain.

"If you can do it in this Zip code, you can do it anyplace," said Creasy.

When the lawn was ripped up and replaced with raw garden beds, a new neighbor came running over. "I think he thought he was moving in next to the Clampetts," she said. "He asked me what I was doing and I said, 'I'm putting in a vegetable garden.' He said, 'What do the neighbors think?' I said, 'Because I always have very beautiful gardens, I'm sure they'll be happy.' " She pauses. "It worked out fine."

A few years later she added a chicken coop to house a rooster that she and her late husband, Robert Creasy, had raised from an egg. The chicken, Mr. X., died in 2009, but the coop now separately houses three older hens and three younger ones. The structure itself recedes in a landscape of edible gardens and an old deodar cedar against the one-story house. Neighborhood children stop by to feed the chickens and take the eggs. In some years, Creasy grows wheat in her front yard so the kids can make bread.

"You don't get that by growing flowers and grasses," she said. "There's a lot more soul to edible plants."

Creasy grew up in Needham, Mass., where the homes were on half-acre lots. Her mother and grandmother tended a flower garden. Her father had a vegetable garden properly screened by the garage. As a child she preferred raising vegetables to picking Japanese beetles off the roses. "My dad gave me my first garden, and it was all vegetables."

Out of college she married her husband, a computer whiz and a rising star with IBM. They moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, Creasy, with two young children, had become an environmental activist in campaigns to reduce pollution and block efforts to develop San Francisco Bay and the Pacific coast. She also traveled widely abroad with her husband and saw how other cultures had blurred the lines between edibles and ornamentals. Other factors shaped her maverick and lonely defense of the vegetable. In Israel, she found an arid valley that had once been fertile land but was rendered a desert by logging and over grazing. Would the same happen where she lived?

She was also studying to become a landscape designer and knew that edible plants could be incorporated into the landscape in a way that was far more environmentally sound than sustaining a lawn. For a major design project at school, she wanted to create an edible landscape. The professor was aghast. "He said you can't do that" and derisively called it "salad bowl gardening."

Creasy persevered. "I knew I was right. It was so obvious to me."

It also became obvious that although she did travel the country to see other pioneering gardeners, she would have to use some sleight of hand to convince readers that edible landscaping was somehow much more widespread than in a quarter-acre lot in the shadow of the Los Altos Hills. "I couldn't find examples of edible landscaping 20 years ago, so I just started making mine one garden after another, changing it dramatically so it looked like 250 people were doing this," she said.

The reworked book took six years. She took a year off after Robert was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. The neighbors kept an eye on her, taking her to the movies or inviting her over for a drink. "We call it an assisted-living street," she said. Then she got back to work on the book. "The book in some ways saved me," she said.

Much has changed since the original edition. Organic gardening and recycling practices have advanced, gardeners have embraced fruit trees as ornamentals (Creasy doesn't know why anyone would want an azalea after growing a highbush blueberry); ethnic vegetables have become mainstream, and people are aware of heirloom varieties of everything from apples to tomatoes.

There is still much to be done, she says, but the cause has been advanced significantly. "My goal is when people buy a house and think about changing the yard, they don't say, 'Where do I put the lawn?' and instead say, 'Where do I put the edibles?' "

In her 50th garden makeover, the last piece of front lawn has been replaced with brick and planters. It was a panel of turf just eight feet by 12. The dragon has been slain.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company