By Benjamin Custer
Palo Alto Weekly (Published July 2014)
A few years ago, when rebuilding her inherited Palo Alto home from the ground up, Kerry van den Haak decided that a vegetable garden should supplant the front lawn.
Flanked by one-story houses, she turned to tiered, raised garden beds to help mitigate the tall appearance of her two-story home. She packed the garden beds with fertile soil, installed a drip irrigation system and planted a variety of vegetables including corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, pumpkins, melons and peppers.
“Some of these beds give me three crops a year, one every four months,” van den Haak said. “I grow summer crops, winter crops and in-between crops.”
Van den Haak’s garden is one of 10 sites that will appear in Common Ground’s 8th Annual Edible Landscaping Tour on July 19. In addition to front-yard gardens, highlights include greenhouses, composting, fruit trees, and chickens and coops.
Though van den Haak is a member of the Midtown Garden Circle, a group of gardeners that meets once a month in members’ homes to trade tips and share experiences, this year marks her first taste of the Edible Landscaping Tour.
“Those are really the only other gardeners who I know in the area, so I hope to pick up some hints from going to see the other participants’ gardens,” van den Haak said.
Her introduction to the tour can be traced to a Craigslist transaction. A couple of years ago, she had plants to sell and posted an ad. When the woman who answered the ad arrived to pick up the plants, the two started talking about gardening and have been friends ever since. They garden together regularly in van den Haak’s front yard.
“My friend saw the tour advertised and asked me to see if I could put my garden in the tour,” van den Haak said. “So, I called the girls, and they came out and looked around, and they were happy with what they saw. It just takes a little encouragement for me to do things like that.”
Van den Haak considers good sun, good soil and a good water supply to be her recipe for success. The clay soil native to Palo Alto is not conducive to gardening, which is why she relies on garden beds. Though she feels it would be difficult to maintain a garden in the backyard given the quality of the soil, she enjoys nine healthy fruit trees. Unlike vegetable beds, van den Haak said, fruit trees do not need to be re-dug each year.
She has cultivated a passion for gardening throughout her life. Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, she grew vegetables similar to those in her current garden, as the areas have similar climates.
“I’ve always grown food, but not in the front to this extent,” she said. “I’ve had gardens with mostly ornamentals, where I’d tuck in some lettuces or some other edible things.”
She moved to the United States in her mid-20s, spending four years in upstate New York before landing in Palo Alto. After four years on the East Coast, Silicon Valley’s mild climate was a sight for sore eyes and a green thumb.
“I can’t remember if I grew any vegetables in Rochester,” van den Haak said. “It was so hot and humid in the summer and so freezing cold and covered with snow in the winter.”
Gardening is cathartic for van den Haak, but peace of mind fuels the hobby.
“It’s about knowing that the food I’m eating hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals; it doesn’t have fungicides and things on it,” she said. “I know I can go out to the garden, pick it and put it straight into my mouth, and it’s safe to eat.”
The vegetables in her front-yard garden combine with the fruit trees in her backyard and a raised garden bed along the side of the house to supply between 30 to 40 percent of her household’s annual food intake, van den Haak estimated.
“The tomatoes are just starting, the beans I’ve started to pick, the cucumbers are ripe, so I won’t be buying any of those for the next four months,” she said.
Van den Haak still makes occasional trips to the store for vegetables and fruits she can’t grow, such as avocados, in addition to items such as rice, eggs, bread and meat.
The edible landscape also helps to take a bite out of her water bill each month. There is no lawn in the front yard, and there is a fake lawn in the backyard. The garden flourishes with the drip line system, which means there is no need for sprinklers. She said her household’s water usage is in the bottom 20 percent of the neighborhood.
And a sustainable yard does not mean an ugly yard.
“You can mix flowers and vegetables,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
Sprinkled throughout her garden are succulents, gazanias, dahlias, salvias, butterfly bush and plumerias.
Assuming she is in town, van den Haak hopes to participate annually in the Edible Landscaping Tour.