Shawnee & Lenexa

Yards gone wild are producing wholesome food

From the front, the home of Phil and Cheryl Kimmi looks like any other in Lenexa’s Greystone Estates South neighborhood. Neatly tended bedding plants line the sidewalk in front of a house that looks pretty much like the others on the block.

Closer to the curb is a little container of papers for people to take. It looks like those boxes real estate agents put up when a house is for sale. But it isn’t.

Instead of a list of how many bedrooms and bathrooms the home has, readers will get an explanation of a rather unusual and ambitious project for their subdivision. Fruit and nut trees in back. Terraces to conserve water. More edibles in front. A rainwater catchment and irrigation system. Medicinal herbs. Cardboard mulch.

The Kimmis, led by their son, Clayton, are attempting to do what’s never been done in their neighborhood and only rarely in Johnson County. They are starting a “food forest” in their back yard. And it has inspired awe, curiosity, and yes, a little distress in a neighborhood where most gardening takes the form of a lush green lawn and a few begonias.

Food forests — also known as “permaculture” — are an old idea that has become new again. Land is planted in fruit and nut trees, with berries and perennial vegetables growing underneath. Clayton and his parents see it as a way to not only improve their diets but help the environment of their neighborhood.

Although food forests are still unusual, the idea of growing food in the suburbs is not. The Kimmis are part of a food-not-lawns movement that has been gathering steam in urban areas but is only beginning to take root in the Johnson County suburbs.

Community gardens and charity gardens have sprung up on odd patches of formerly unused land near public buildings. Some backyard gardens have become arranged around chicken coops and beehives. And, more and more, homes have sprouted rain barrels.

As the flyer in the Kimmi front yard puts it: “Welcome to the Sustainable Suburbs.”

Of course, there’s nothing new about backyard gardening. Some of the Founding Fathers were well known for their extensive gardens. Home gardening even played a role in World War II, when people were urged to plant Victory Gardens so that more food was available for the troops. But then, people got away from it.

Several trends contributed to the fading of kitchen gardens in the 1980s and ’90s, said Jennifer Cockrall-King, a food journalist from Edmonton, Alberta and author of

Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution.

The globalization of food production made it easy and cheap to buy from supermarkets, she said. At the same time, American workers were being asked to put in more hours and more women entered the job market. People began to eat out more.

“It was an extreme treadmill type of lifestyle,” she said. “What you’re seeing right now is a reaction to that type of behavior,” she said.

As a result, home gardening is making a comeback.

All kinds of reasons have been cited. Inner city “food deserts,” obesity, concerns over contamination in grocery store produce and lack of labeling of genetically modified organisms. But the new interest in gardening has sometimes taken an activist bent.

Some calling themselves “guerrilla gardeners” took to throwing “seed bombs” over the fences of vacant lots. In San Francisco, a group called Guerrilla Grafters covertly grafts fruit-bearing branches onto similar types of ornamental trees.

Johnson County hasn’t reached that point yet. But interest on growing food is definitely on the upswing.

Figures are hard to come by, but here are some indications:

• Kansas City Community Gardens, a nonprofit encouraging community gardens throughout the city, now has 14 school garden partners and 30 community garden partners in Johnson County — up from zero participation in the county five years ago.

• This year, Cultivate Kansas City will have the biggest Urban Grown Farms and Garden Tour ever, with 60 gardens participating June 22 and 23. On it will be five gardens from Johnson County, which is the most ever. The Kimmis are one of those stops.

• Vegetable gardening classes offered by the county extension office continue to fill quickly, and vegetable-related calls to the Master Garden hotline continue to increase. Many of them are from first-time gardeners, said Dennis Patton, county extension office horticulturalist.

“Ten years ago I would have almost bet that vegetable gardening was dead and gone,” Patton said. Now, not so much.

“This has been an underground movement gaining momentum and becoming more mainstream,” he said. “I think more and more people are tuning in to buying fresh and buying local.”

Starting a food forest has been a longtime dream of Clay Kimmi. After completing an economics degree at the University of Kansas, Kimmi worked and traveled in the northwest, learning about sustainable agriculture and off-the-grid living. Gradually, he began to convince his parents — neither of whom is an experienced vegetable gardener — that a food forest would be just the thing for their property in Lenexa.

Because the plants produce every year without re-seeding, the garden would be easier to maintain, he said. Kimmi, who lives and works in Lawrence, didn’t want to start the years-long project at his home because he wasn’t sure of his long-range plans, he said.

The fact that it has stirred up the neighborhood has only been part of the fun. Kimmi said he hopes the conversation it has started will teach and inspire others in the area to take up the cause of a more sustainable yard.

While the front yard looks traditional, the back was a work in progress recently. Some fruit trees and shrubs had been planted, but they were tiny. Pieces of cardboard rested between the swales, waiting for Kimmi and volunteers to cover them with mulch.

The homeowners’ association has been equal parts mystified and wary of what the Kimmis are doing in their yard. There have been questions — some of them pointed — about the backyard plantings, the rain barrels and the recycled materials used for a wall.

But the formerly unkempt condition of the Kimmi front yard has had neighbors upset for years, said Bob Burger, association president.

Cheryl Kimmi said this is because she refuses to use chemical herbicides or pesticides.

So when the family announced plans for the food forest, some neighbors were skeptical that it would be an improvement, Burger said.

The Kimmis have worked to allay those concerns, he said. They put up a wood privacy fence in back, where things are most undeveloped. And they painted two front-yard water tanks the same color as their house.

Overall, the neighbors have been accepting, Burger said, because the front yard has been improved. “It’s still different, and people are slowly getting used to it,” he said.

“You’re always going to have people who don’t like what you’re doing in your yard, no matter what it looks like,” he said.

And the Kimmis have proved they are willing to listen to neighbors’ concerns by putting up a nice fence to conceal a back yard that is “pretty unattractive,” he said. The association was still trying to get them to remove the two water tanks near their front entrance, however.

Food forests and rain barrels are still a new concept in Greystone Estates South. Out of 189 homes, there are perhaps a dozen rain barrels, he said. Aside from flowers, “most don’t even have much of a garden. A few tomato plants, but really nothing of any size,” Burger said.

“We are doing things that are not standard for a Johnson County homeowners’ association,” Cheryl Kimmi concedes. But Kimmi, the founder of the Kansas City Fringe Festival, doesn’t mind coloring outside the lines. “Sometimes people assume if they tell you you can’t do it, you’re just going to say, ‘Oh,’ and go away,” she said. “I’m not one of those.”

Unusual as it is, the Kimmi garden is not the only food forest in Johnson County. Cultivate Kansas City has been working on one in Merriam that is coming into its third year.

On a rainless weekend, it’s not unusual to find volunteers working on the hillside tract that is planted in terraces of apples, plums and chestnuts with berries, rhubarb and greens growing underneath.

Summer Cassity of Overland Park was one of the volunteers out on an early spring morning. “There’s a real satisfaction from growing your own stuff and being able to provide for yourself,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to buy everything.”

P.J. Quell, steward of the quarter-acre forest, said pesticide use by big food producers was what got her interested in starting the forest at her home on Mastin Street. “My father-in-law said you should peel everything you eat. And I thought, that’s wrong. That’s where the vitamins are,” she said.

The food forest was meticulously planned by Daniel Dermitzel of Cultivate Kansas City. Organizers there say once it’s well established, it could produce fruit and berries for 20 years.

Food forests, with their wilder landscaping, may have a few years to go before being accepted by mainstream suburbia. “It will be a long time before this kind of thing catches on in an established neighborhood like Greystone Estates,” Burger said.

But a garden doesn’t have to look unusual.

Witness the one-acre yard of Sherri and Larry Thomas in Overland Park.

From a distance, it looks no different than any other suburban landscape. But look close and you’ll see kale, chard, fennel, Chinese long beans and yes, tomatoes mixed in with those ornamental flowers. There are bees out back and even an apple tree trained to grow in the decorative espalier style.

Thomas is a master of disguise when it comes to vegetable gardening — because she’s had to be. The former science teacher has worked with her husband, building and selling houses in all kinds of upscale areas. They’ve lived in 11 places and gardened in each.

“We’re aware of the value your yard gives to your house,” she said.

But Thomas, a self-described “environmentalist from the ’70s,” also has concerns about the environment and the food supply. “People are spending a lot of money to water and fertilize their lawns, and to what end?” she said. “I just feel like we have to be more responsible.

“I’d rather eat a raspberry than mow the grass.”

But how to balance the need to grow food with the requirements that the yard look nice? Thomas, who also teaches workshops on edible landscaping, has some suggestions.

First, she recommends some colorful vegetables like the red Chinese beans and rainbow-colored chard. But even tomatoes and green beans can look good interspersed with flowers. “Most people don’t know what a vegetable looks like growing,” she said. “As long as it looks nice and well designed, you’re not going to get any complaints.”

Thomas also recommends keeping the less-attractive garden vegetables and structures out of sight toward the back. “If you do something up front, that’s more of a public area. Don’t push the limits.”

The garden at Teresa Kelly’s Roeland Park back yard is tiny by comparison — 4-foot-by-20-foot raised beds built around a coop where her five hens live. Kelly is somewhat famous in Roeland Park for her campaign to get the city to allow backyard chickens. She now sits on the City Council.

Like Thomas, Kelly has taken steps to make her garden attractive. The coop is colorfully painted, and the raised beds in front of it are confined by a small decorative fence. A rosebush and a lamp post are the focal points.

The chickens even participate in the garden. Kelly has a “chicken tractor,” which is a pen that confines the hens to a small area. While in the tractor, they scratch and eat weeds, effectively turning over soil that needs to be worked, Kelly said.

Like many of his fellow gardeners on the Cultivate Kansas City tour, Warren Messinger of Shawnee has a rainwater catchment and drip irrigation system. But at the Messinger garden, the huge water tanks eclipse the raised beds as the center of attention.

Messinger has 21 30-foot beds in the back yard of his rental house, where he plants hundreds of tomatoes, green peppers, okra and herbs. But the rainwater tank system, located just behind the area where he has an occasional stand selling produce to neighbors, is the real star.

The 10 massive tanks hold 4,000 gallons of rainwater, which then runs downhill through irrigation pipes to the beds below. The tanks save on the water bill because rain generates more water than you might think, he said. One rainstorm of an inch to an inch and a half will yield 800-900 gallons off the house roof, he said.

Messinger said he often counsels new gardeners who see his farm on the tour. “My talks are usually very short and to the point,” he said. “Take the seed, put it in the ground, put water on it and say, ‘Go baby, go.’”

Free — or at least cheaper — food is a big benefit of gardening, but not the only one. It also gives families a chance to spend time together getting exercise and sun while learning a little about nature.

For some people that is enough. Those are the people who do all the garden work but give the produce away to the needy.

Such is the Mitzvah Garden on the grounds of Temple B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park.

The garden got its start in 2000 as a few raised beds at the Village Shalom retirement community. But things really took off in 2010, when the congregation decided to move it to a hilltop beside the temple, on ground that may become a sanctuary someday. Now the 15,000-square-foot garden produces 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of vegetables a season, which are given to food pantries.

“The idea was to take something with no value and make it have value,” said Ken Sonnenschein, one of the garden’s planners. It takes its name from the Hebrew word that means both “commandment” and “good deed.”

“There are 613 commandments, one of which is to feed the hungry,” Sonnenschein said.

The temple gets not only volunteers but donations of compost and even elephant dung from the Kansas City Zoo. And it’s been a teaching tool and living laboratory for the youth, he said.

“It takes a garden to grow a community,” added Andrew Kaplan, another of the temple’s garden planners.

Faith-based community gardens have been a big trend in Johnson County, said Patton of the extension office.

Even county government has gotten involved in the edible revolution. The county health department recently cut out four 60-foot strips of grass from its lawn to start a garden to benefit recipients of WIC, a nutritional aid program for women, infants and children. The garden, just outside a building clients must visit, will be tended by county employees and, organizers hope, some of the clients themselves. The produce will be divided up among the aid recipients, said Julie Coon, garden coordinator for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

The garden is modeled after a similar project in Denver. If this year is successful, Coon hopes it will be expanded to more edible landscaping in the ample space at the county’s Olathe office campus. In the meantime, county nutritionists will use it to educate about healthy eating, and the extension service may give classes on how to cook with the fresh vegetables.

WIC clients only get $6 a month per child or $10 a month for adults to spend on vegetables, Coon said. The county hopes the garden will not only improve their options but inspire them to grow food at their own homes.

“Even if it’s just a pepper plant on a balcony, it can make an impact,” she said.