Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Food over Flowers

Joe and Lara Pipia are obsessed with their yard.

But not in that suburban Americana, trim-your-grass-with-toenail-clippers kind of way.

They’re part of a new era of lawn jockeys determined to take their peaceful little parcel and make it a working part of the world, an eco-factory of zucchini flowers, tomatoes, chickens, and honeybee hives that sustain the chef and her husband, who also run a restaurant consulting business.

“I think there must be little in life that compares with the satisfaction of growing your own food,” Lara said. “As a chef, I also appreciate the freedom to grow something that can be expensive to purchase or hard to source, and I love trying out something new in the garden every year.”

There is very little that the Pipias are unwilling to try.

I was invited to a party at Lara and Joe’s, and upon visiting the backyard strong smells – parsley, mint cilantro – greeted me as if all were being chopped directly under my nose. (I snagged a leaf of the Bolivian cilantro and put it the pocket of my jeans; the smell filled my own house for days after). That night, Lara also showed me a lemon verbena, varieties of tomatoes, and a giant-leaved basil plant that we harvested for fresh pizza toppings.

In this magical little backyard, the couple has constructed a small but efficient system of food production. They have a beautiful orchard – by late summer mostly just tomatoes and culinary herbs, and a coop with hens sharing a corner with beehives.

Joe, despite being a staunch vegan, insisted on the chickens.

“I don’t even eat eggs, but I had a strong urge to have some chickens running around,” he said. “They provide so much entertainment – they’re always surprising me. They’re awesome pets, and everyone loves the eggs.”

Which underscores the spirit of the edible yard. It’s not merely a matter of food production; there’s clearly a joy in coexisting with other species, a return to an older, natural way of living.

“People may be Instagramming pictures of their gardens, but humans have a long history of agriculture,” Lara said. “It’s what allowed us to settle in one place, and I feel that knowledge is still present deep inside of us.”

The Pipias aren’t the only new homesteaders. Liz Martin, executive director of Columbus Soup, recently purchased her own brood of birds.

“I have a knack for killing plants – a black thumb, really. But I have a great track record of exemplary animal care,” she laughed. “Plus, flowers don’t lay eggs.”

Martin admits she was eager to connect with a food source “at a direct level,” but her inspiration goes beyond home-sourced eggs. Locavores that favored supporting area farmers can now become one.

“Supporting local has gone a long way to uplift and embrace small farmers and inspire city dwellers to create their own,” she said.

Benjamin Jara, a Chilean doctoral student in agricultural sciences at Ohio State University, sees these “yardens” as a practical duty.

“Any garden space should be prioritized by its potential functionality,” he said. “Aesthetics can be thought as a valid functional purpose, but I prefer to use that space for food production at any scale, if there’s enough light and the possibility of doing so.”

There has been some pushback to the trend, as the aesthetic doesn’t always match the preferred look established in some residential areas. Lara isn’t worried if push ever comes to shove.

“I do like to imagine a secret society of back-alley gardening,” she said. “We would become garden-guerillas, I suppose.”

Which shows just how strong and empowering growing your own food can be. It’s fair to say the Pipias, Martin, and others like them won’t be turning back; converting your yard into an asset for the community and for your self-sustenance is too alluring to dismiss.

That, and some seriously killer omelets.

For more information and tips on edible landscaping, visit
Ohio State University Extension.