Devin McGrath and Abby Bartig stand in front of their...

Devin McGrath and Abby Bartig stand in front of their Northport home, framed by their vegetable garden that occupies almost the entire front yard. (Aug. 3, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Rebecca Cooney

I grow vegetables and herbs, just as you might, in the backyard. Up until this year, I crammed my tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, string beans, basil, parsley, stevia, sage, onions and even corn (once) in a 10-by-4-foot strip of earth beside the deck. This year my husband built four raised beds for me, and the crops I'm reaping are better than ever. But still, they're in the backyard.

The front yard has always been reserved for plants like daylilies, roses, catmints, purple coneflowers, anise hyssop, a couple of butterfly bushes and various shrubs, trees and transient annuals. The standing rule is edibles are always planted in the back, out of view like a skeleton in the closet, while the pretty stuff gets front-and-center treatment.

But a growing movement of front-yard vegetable gardeners on Long Island and elsewhere is showing even staunch ornamentalists -- those who snub vegetables because they aren't "sexy" enough -- that the lowly edible can be quite va-va-voom! Ripe red or yellow tomatoes dangling from their vines can compete with a rose almost any time, especially in August, when most roses aren't blooming. Peppers are available in red, orange, purple and green varieties. And loose-leaf lettuces like 'Red Fire' and 'Freckles' also are quite the lookers. And have you seen rainbow chard? Its stem and leaf veins are stunningly yellow, red, purple or bright orange.

Traditional planting rows aren't really necessary for crops, so you can get creative and carve out a circle or a triangle. An octagon could work well in the front yard, too, as long as you respect plant-spacing guidelines. You can even install raised beds if you want. Consider training beans to climb colorful trellises and incorporating red or blue tomato cages to create interest in place of traditional garden statuary, or creating a border with purple sage or basil.

Aside from aesthetics, planting vegetables in the front yard makes good use of a piece of land most homeowners don't use much. Plus, it frees up the backyard for a play area, hot tub or additional entertaining space.

I'm not suggesting you plant only edibles in front of your home; that would be a mistake, and come winter, you'd be sending me hate mail. But there's no reason you can't replace part of the lawn with a bed or a border planted with the types of annuals you can eat at the end of the season instead of composting them.

Besides, replacing a section of grass is always a good idea: Lawns are water and nutrient hogs, and their fertilizers can pollute the groundwater. Plus, you have to mow it, or pay someone else to do the job.

Need a tree by the front door? Why not a pear or an apple variety? You can even create a mixed garden that intermingles vegetables, fruits and herbs in beds with perennials and shrubs. In fact, you should plant French marigolds around tomatoes to repel hornworms, and petunias everywhere to repel a variety of garden pests. Nasturtiums trap aphids and deter Mexican bean beetles, squash bugs and tomato hornworms. As a bonus, their flowers are edible and add a peppery bite to salads. And after a long day of work what could be more convenient than harvesting what's needed for dinner on the way in the door?

Drawing admirers

Planned well and cared for properly (keep it tidy and weed and water regularly), a perennial-edible-annual garden would very likely stop traffic on your block.

Drivers on Zhang Jun De's street slow down when they drive past his front-yard vegetable garden in East Meadow. One of the admirers is Fran Slobodin, of nearby Uniondale. The main attraction, she says, is "the support structures for all the vegetables are tree branches." Zhang, a native of China's Fujian Province, has been growing edibles like bitter melon, water spinach, cabbage and tomatoes on the street side of his house for about four years, according to Amy Jiang, his daughter-in-law. And, while functional, those branches add a creatively unique touch to the appearance of the garden.

Rosa Patterson, of Ronkonkoma, grows tomatoes, zucchini, beans and cucumbers among flowers in a 4-foot-square bed in her front yard.

"They mix in well with the impatiens, marigolds and all the other flowers I have in my garden," she said, adding that she incorporates new topsoil in the beds every year and applies mulch, bone meal and fertilizer both for vegetables and flowers.

Patterson plants nine to 12 tomato plants in her front yard every year, typically reaping a crop that weighs 50 to 100 pounds.

"When the tomatoes are red," she said, "people stop and take a long look, not sure of what they are seeing," before asking, incredulously, "Are those tomatoes?!"

Dylan Licopoli, a construction worker from Northport, understands completely, and he's made it his mission to help promote vegetable gardening on Long Island. He started Home Organic Gardening Service this year.

"I love the idea of a front-yard vegetable garden," he said. "Aesthetically and ecologically, it's a beautiful thing."

 Neighbors' compliments

Licopoli, 41, already has quite a few converts to his credit. This season he has built raised-bed, front-yard vegetable gardens for several homeowners in Northport and said the neighbors' receptions have been overwhelmingly positive.

"Everyone who walks by says the gardens are so beautiful," Licopoli said. "They all say they wish they had gardens like them."

Licopoli noted he pays special attention to appearance, planting sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds and other ornamentals around vegetables. In one garden he even incorporated a natural wood trellis, crafted by Kings Park artist John Scarola, for cucumbers to climb.

Last spring, Licopoli replaced Abby Bartig and Devin McGrath's Northport lawn with two raised beds that just about fill their entire front yard. Each bed was filled with a rich compost and topsoil mixture to give plants a healthy boost, and the couple's harvest now includes bell peppers, jalapeños, broccoli, snap peas, watermelons and tomatoes. Marigolds lining the walkway make for a pleasing yet functional touch, as they keep pests at bay.

"The main reason we planted vegetables in the front yard is because that's where the sun is. And it's also a statement that we don't need a manicured lawn; we can use that space to grow fresh food for us," McGrath said, adding that his neighbors' responses have been positive. "Most people are curious to see what we're doing."

Bartig mostly appreciates the harvest: "The garden has totally changed the way we shop and eat," she said. "We both feel better eating fresh veggies from the garden, and it is so much nicer than buying mass-produced produce in the store."

Kate and Eric Gilmore, also of Northport, worked with Licopoli earlier this year to install a 16-by-16-foot raised-bed garden on the street side of their home. They planted sunflowers and zinnias to complement crops that include carrots, kale, Brussels sprouts and sage, and are reaping quite the harvest.

"For the last month we have been eating lettuce and kale every day," said Kate Gilmore. "We keep cutting it down, and it just keeps coming back."

For reasons personal and practical, more gardeners -- maybe even some of your neighbors -- are planting attention-getting edible landscapes on the street side of their homes.

And let's not forget the most famous front-yard vegetable garden of all: It's growing on the White House's South Lawn.

What to do now

If you're sold on the idea and plan to plant edibles in your front yard next spring, start planning now.

Step 1: Sketch out your beds and borders on graph paper until you perfect your design, then start digging.

Step 2: Use a sod cutter or grub hoe to remove grass, and till the soil 12 inches deep, incorporating plenty of compost to enrich the soil and improve drainage.

Step 3: Test the soil's pH. You could buy a test kit or bring a soil sample to a Cornell Cooperative Extension office (516-228-0426 in Nassau, 631-727-7850 in Suffolk).

The benefit of CCE testing is that results come with specific amendment recommendations; if the pH registers too low, you'll need to incorporate dolomitic lime according to test results. The CCE will tell you exactly how much to add for the size of your plot and tailor it to what you're growing. Generally speaking, a pH between 6.0 and 6.5 is suitable for most edibles, with blueberries the most notable exception. They require more acidic soil, with a reading between 4.0 and 5.0.

Step 4: If you've been fertilizing your lawn regularly, do not add nitrogen fertilizer, as too much can adversely affect your harvests. Instead of a balanced fertilizer, which contains nitrogen, incorporate only phosphorus and potassium to encourage fruiting, aid root development and boost the overall health of plants.

Look for a slow-release product. If you have been fertilizing the lawn with a synthetic product, your garden won't be organic, but for many gardeners that isn't a deterrent. (If it's an issue for you, delay your front garden plans until at least the third fertilizer-free year.)