Confessions of an Outlaw Gardener

When growing vegetables becomes an act of civil disobedience.

By Cristina Santiestevan


frontyard gardens and the HOAEven before I moved into my house, I was making plans to break the rules. It’s a fine little house—a 1970s-era split level on a half-acre lot, in a neighborhood filled with other 1970s-era split levels on half-acre lots. It’s a nice neighborhood, too. Kids ride bikes in the street. Adults walk dogs and push strollers and pause to chat about the weather. When a winter storm brought a tree down in my driveway, my neighbor brought his chainsaw and helped clear the debris.

Yes, this is a nice neighborhood. But it’s governed by a homeowner association (HOA), and there’s the trouble. More specifically, here’s the trouble (excerpted from my community’s declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions):

Article VI, Section 10: Vegetable gardens shall be allowed in the rear or side portions of said lots only.

That was going to be a problem. The rear and side portions of this particular lot are heavily wooded with five maples, three pines, two dogwoods, and more than a dozen cedars. The brief snatches of sunlight that make it past those trees are not enough to support a vegetable garden. If I wanted homegrown tomatoes, I had to break the rule.

And so I became an outlaw. I expanded the planting beds along the foundation and stole some land from the lawn. I ripped out several overly sheared shrubs and replaced them with blueberries. I added an herb garden, planted native flowers, and began to sneak vegetables into the mix. The idea was simple: Grow a vegetable garden that didn’t look like a vegetable garden.

“Incognito edibles” became the garden’s guiding theme. I chose ornamental varieties whenever possible—‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, ‘Siam Queen’ basil, ‘Burgundy’ okra—and did my best to hide the homelier crops. Sweet potatoes overflowed bushel baskets. Heirloom tomatoes shared trellises with ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runner beans. A dense border of basil, parsley, and purple-tinted ‘Velour’ filet bush beans hid less-attractive edibles from the street. Throughout the beds, native perennial and annual flowers disguised the operation.

The garden thrived, and the neighborhood noticed. Folks began to stop and chat while I weeded. Several drivers rolled their windows down to shout encouragement. No one complained about the vegetables.

Photos: Rob Cardillo