Driving by Sunny Chen's Leland Manor home, most people don't realize that the front yard is planted with vegetables and fruits. A closer look reveals a row of tall sunflowers intermixed with natives and drought-tolerant plants -- and a few cantaloupes and eggplants.
Three years ago Chen worked with Fanny Obadia of Green Thumbs Up of Palo Alto to replace her grassy lawn with a more eco-friendly landscape. The large area next to the driveway was transformed from a rose garden to a thriving space with seven raised boxes -- with enough bounty to share with neighbors and friends.
Chen's garden will be included in the 10th Common Ground Edible Tour, which takes place on Saturday, July 23. About 20 private and public gardens, including six in Palo Alto, will be included, with the tour organized around four hubs (Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Jose). Each hub will feature a community-oriented garden as well as nearby gardens. Upon registration, maps will be provided, indicating how to reach the gardens, as well as information about local garden stores and eateries.
Although she didn't grow up gardening, Chen was inspired to grow her own vegetables -- with as little water as possible. She even took one of the City of Palo Alto's composting classes to get started and today creates her own compost, being careful to omit meat or cooking oils, which can breed bacteria (she noted that the city can include these in their compost pick-up because their compost reaches higher temperatures than a small home compost pile can achieve).
She chose to plant her veggie garden out front for more sun exposure. Also, there are fewer pests.
"The squirrels don't like to come to the front," she said, noting that there were no trees to entice them.
Today a drip-irrigation system, with the ability to increase or decrease water flow to individual plants, keeps the garden balanced and happy. Chen augments her twice-weekly watering with buckets from the kitchen.
"If you use good organic soil, you don't need much water. We're using less than before (when we had a lawn)," she added.
Facing the sidewalk, a row of artichoke plants is nearing the end of their season, with the "chokes" turning to lavender flowers.
When she agreed to place the wooden raised beds in the side of the front yard, Chen figured if it didn't work she could just replace the vegetables with bushes. "I'm not a green thumb person at all. ... With the boxes, I feel like it's containable," she added.
"Once I started, I just fell in love with it. If I see a leaf turned brown, I just clip it," she says of her daily hour or two in the garden.
Today she has seven successful boxes, with eight varieties of tomatoes (including black cherry and pineapple), onions, string beans, peppers, eggplant, Chinese spinach, broccoli, edamame, okra, kale, kabocha pumpkins and chayote). Along the side fence are espaliered tiny table grapes, not so successful this year because of a powder-mildew issue ("But no rats and raccoons," she said.) The pear and apple trees are doing better along the back fence.
The first year Chen planted her garden, she left for four days on vacation.
"My mind was in my garden, because they grow so fast when the season kicks in. I could harvest a dozen zucchini every day. If not, they get like baseball bats," she recalled.
The more you pick, the happier the plants, she said, and there's less chance of disease and bugs. "At the end of the season you see that and I take them out," she added.
Chen does a bit of experimenting each year, moving plants from box to box to vary the light and water. Her cantaloupes seemed to thrive wherever she planted them.
"I gave up on cucumbers," she said, noting that with a sudden change of temperature -- either too hot or too cold -- the cukes were bitter-tasting.
Chen buys many of her young plants at SummerWinds Nursery or Home Depot, but each year she saves seeds and starts some of her garden from scratch.
She attributes her success to having healthy soil and planting at the right time -- but also to the daily care she devotes to the garden.
She cannot begin to eat or cook all that she raises, but Chen offers much of her bounty to her neighbors, and they in turn offer up their fruits.
"That's the most fun for me, sharing and trading. There's no way I could finish all this zucchini and pumpkins. It's also a nice way to engage with neighbors who stop and admire the garden," she said.
The Edible Tour raises money to support Common Ground Garden projects, including operating a sustainable demonstration garden, teaching classes to students from Terman Middle School, Gunn High School and Young Life Christian Preschool and donating food to local food closets.
IF YOU GO
What: Common Ground Edible Tour
When: Saturday, July 23, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Begin at Common Ground Garden, 687 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, or use map provided to visit four gardens in Palo Alto as well as 14 others in nearby cities.
Cost: $15 general admission, $30 for Garden Heroes, $5 for children