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F eature Story

Eating the Landscape

By Eric Dorman
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I t seems to us that foodscaping, also known as edible landscaping or “front yard farming,” would simply be the logical next step in the homegrown revolution, and that may be mostly true. But it wasn’t always true. While foodscaping is a hot trend now, the practice was revived during the recession of 2008, when people had less disposable income, and companies were charging more to try and cover costs and keep laborers. As a result, a lot of folks realized that choosing between farming and landscaping just wasn’t a decision they wanted to make. So why not combine the two? It saves time and money.

Over the last decade, the awareness of foodscaping and its benefits has escalated. Today, foodscaping isn’t just about pinching pennies during a season of financial difficulty; it’s become an environmental trend, and more and more people are choosing this nontraditional beautification for their homes.

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After all, no one will deny that food is beautiful and enticing. And here, we’re not just talking about deliciously appetizing food arranged on a dinner plate; we’re talking about the colors of vegetables and berries, leafy and aromatic herbs, the diversity of fruit trees.

There’s also something inherently satisfying about growing one’s own food. We all fantasize at one time or another about digging our hands into the soil and pulling out some fresh crops, grown by our own effort, even if we never actually do it. There’s something about the payoff of putting in the work that makes the food taste all the better.

It’s all very romantic.

When you think about it, it does seem a bit daft to spend all that time and energy on keeping up a lawn. Yes, lawns and shrubs and flowers can look beautiful, and there’s value in that. Yes, there’s a payoff to cultivating a great lawn, too. But in the end, what purpose does the lawn serve? Building and maintaining a lawn is a lot of work. And once it’s exactly as you want it (for the season), you get to look at it (and continue mowing or weeding or trimming it every week).

There’s some pleasure to be had in lawn maintenance. But, again, what’s its purpose? Why not make the landscape work for you?

That’s where foodscaping comes in. Two Nashville-area companies, Earth Advocates Farm and Nashville Foodscapes, are stepping in to provide alternatives to traditional lawns, and instead encouraging edible plantings.

Jeremy Lekich founded Nashville Foodscapes in 2010. He attended Warren Wilson College, one of a handful of “work colleges” in the United States, and served on the landscaping crew at the school. One of their responsibilities was to tend the edible landscape outside the “Eco-dorm.” Fast-forward to his last couple of years at Warren Wilson, and he was teaching classes and workshops on foodscaping and permaculture.

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The work took root.

“I became inspired working in that garden and learning about the plants,” Jeremy says.

Jeremy also gave tours of the school, and paid special attention to the Eco-dorm. It wasn’t long before he started to notice the regular reactions from those he was leading around. People consistently responded to the foodscaping with surprise at its beauty, and interest in replicating the idea. Like a savvy businessperson, he thought there might be a future in foodscaping, merging his experience and passion with a gap he saw in the landscaping market.

After graduation, Jeremy traveled to Europe to visit some farms and learn even more, before heading back to the United States, waiting tables for a couple years, and trying to build Nashville Foodscapes from the ground up. After only seven years, he’s focused on Nashville Foodscapes full-time, and he has employees.

“It was a lot of work. It still is a lot of work. Now it’s a brand that people know, so it’s inspiring and exhausting,” he says.

His passion comes through in his work—which media like NPR have noticed—but it also comes through in his activism. Jeremy firmly believes that organic, personal farming is simply a better way to go. Not only is foodscaping healthy and beautiful, but it also decreases our reliance on corporations.

“In some ways, it’s taking back our food supply from these profit-driven corporations that are slowly poisoning us. It sounds so evil, but I really think that’s what it is,” Jeremy says. “But I’m optimistic that people are awakening to that.”

Earth Advocates Research Farm, on the other hand, is more of a longstanding institution, or at least its founder, Adam Turtle is. Adam runs Earth Advocates with his wife, Sue, and the two of them have been working land and teaching others for decades now.

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After reading several books about the environmental situation in 1969, Adam left his career as a wood sculptor to learn about good environmental stewardship. He came to Tennessee in 1974 and has been pursuing this passion ever since.

He established a bamboo nursery to try to educate people about the benefits of the plant, for everything from decoration to eating.

“It’s the most versatile plant on earth. If things are going to become problematic, then at least the survivors would have bamboo,” Adam says.

The Turtles saw the bamboo business grow until it was sustaining their lives. About eight years ago, they wanted a new challenge, which brought them to edible landscaping. They wouldn’t be doing the landscaping themselves, but rather identifying plants that are unusual, neglect-tolerant, and well suited to Middle Tennessee. They grow about 30 different things that meet each of those qualifications.

“These are unusual things. Things you’re not going to see when you walk into your average nursery,” Adam says.

In Adam’s view, the mainstream methods of growing and getting food are unsustainable.

“We’re running out of space and breathable air and drinkable water,” Adam says. “I like to quote Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute: ‘We were the land’s before the land was ours.’”

He and Sue would like to see an increased interest in growing food and earth-care, and they plan on continuing to educate and train the next generation. Foodscaping is a concrete, beautiful, edible way to return to the land, to protect it, to cultivate it, and to share it.

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