Many a foodie or environmentalist who wants to plant a vegetable garden has run into a common problem: tall hardwoods shade the backyard and neither of the side yards, which are too narrow to yield bountiful harvests, gets good sunlight.

The front yards of these homes, on the other hand, invariably have ample space and are awash in enough sun to grow even the greediest of vegetables.

The instinct, of course, is to rush out the front door and start digging. Before doing that, however, it would be a good idea to check with the local municipality and, depending on where you live, a homeowner’s association.

In June 2011 the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University in Atlanta completed a survey of how 16 cities across the country incorporate urban agriculture into their land use plans. The study found that most, though not all, of the cities in the survey include provisions for urban agriculture, including personal gardens, in their zoning ordinances. However, the study concluded that there is no precise nationwide formula for implementing urban agriculture activities. The cities in the survey included Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Nashville, Portland and San Francisco.

Zoning codes in these and other municipalities vary widely and may not only prohibit front yard vegetable gardens but may even stipulate how the area in front of a house can be planted. Typically, that would be with grass and ornamental shrubs and trees. Covenants of homeowners associations may have similar requirements or restrictions.

While it might seem unreasonable that planting squash in the front yard could be a crime, in some areas violators could face misdemeanor charges and the possibility of serving time in jail for growing healthy food a few steps from the front porch. Even where front yard gardens are legal, it’s a good idea to win over the neighbors before changing the view from the street.

Van Malone at work in his gardenVan Malone has installed a vegetable garden in front of his home on a corner lot in the upscale Atlanta suburban city of Dunwoody, which is urban agriculture-friendly. He has several suggestions for how to grow organic vegetables, fruits and herbs in the front yard and keep the neighbors happy.

One is to design the garden in a pleasing manner that blends in with the landscape of other homes in the neighborhood. Another is to invite the neighbors to pick what they want or give them something when they see you in the garden and stop their cars to ask for an update on what’s ready for picking.

The result? Malone says so many people pause to talk to him about what he’s growing or honk the horn and wave as they drive by that his wife, Sally, has accused him of running for mayor. He’s not, he says, but adds that he has met neighbors he would have never met without the garden and they always greet him with kind words. He adds that he’s only received one negative comment, and that was through a third party.

With Sally supplying design ideas, Malone says he has accomplished his goals of trying to do the right thing and making the garden pretty in a number of ways:

  • Leaving a small grassy area in the middle of the yard.
  • Design the garden so that it sweeps up from the curb to the front steps from both sides of the yard, similar to the ornamental landscapes of some of his neighbors.
  • Edging the garden with rocks to give it a finished look.
  • Installing a gently curving slate walk from the street to the front door that welcomes passersby to stop and enjoy the garden.
  • Designing rock-edged paths through the garden that create garden sections that can be devoted to specific crops, such as garlic, onions and leeks, tomatoes, leafy greens, peppers or other favorites.
  • Placing Adirondack chairs on a patio where the Malones and guests can chat or shell beans … or both.
  • Planting fig, pawpaw or other fruit trees instead of ornamental trees.
  • Keeping vegetables such as onions that produce scapes some may consider unsightly in the back of the garden where they are less likely to be seen from the street.
  • Planting annual and perennial flowers among the vegetables and close to the curb.
  • Placing essential but unsightly compost piles out of sight from the street.
  • Using creeping herbs and strawberries as ground covers rather than ornamentals.
  • Avoiding field crops such as corn.

Malone has made his garden neighborhood-friendly in a number of ways:

  • Giving his neighbors an open invitation to pick what they want when they want.
  • Leaving a dull knife near the street so neighbors can cut their own produce.
  • Using the garden as a teaching tool to help neighborhood children learn how to grow healthy food.
  • Donating food from the garden to a local food pantry.

He has several tips for those who would like to start a front yard vegetable garden:

  • Know the law and neighborhood covenants.
  • Create a compost pile (it will take 6-9 months to produce compost).
  • Join a community garden to learn how to garden.
  • Start small.
  • Amend the soil.
  • Keep the garden attractive by employing some of his design techniques above.
  • Give away food to build support.

Malone is a pioneer in a movement that is sweeping the nation. Since The Turner Environmental Law Center completed its survey, several of the cities in the survey — Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, and Portland — have revised their zoning codes to incorporate urban agriculture.

If your municipality doesn’t permit a front yard vegetable garden, perhaps it soon will. And then it won’t matter how much shade you have in your backyard or how narrow the side yards may be.

Related: Defiant front-yard gardener faces jail time

Photo of Van Malone in his Dunwoody garden: Tom Oder

How to install a front yard vegetable garden
Many a foodie or environmentalist who wants to plant a vegetable garden has run into a common problem: tall hardwoods shade the backyard and neither of the side