When you think about “pioneers,” mostly what comes to mind are the iconic images of trail-blazing adventurers who boldly leap into mysterious and uncharted territory, changing the world around them as they go. Rosalind Creasy is a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. In the 1970s she blazed a trail into the unknown worlds of edible landscaping and eating locally. Little did she know where the journey she started would lead.
Rosalind Creasy began her career as a landscape designer and restaurant consultant in the 1970s. Accompanying her husband, Robert, a famous computer scientist, on his business trips around the world, she was impressed with different cultures’ ways of gardening and growing food.
In Hong Kong, gardens were created wherever tiny space was available. She noticed both Egyptians and Italians seemed to make no distinction between attractive landscape plants and those that produced food. On a visit to an Israeli kibbutz, she saw innovative ways of composting food wastes in order to create precious garden soil in a severe, arid environment. She wrote, “Where folks (in America) were growing lawns, junipers and maybe an ornamental tree or two, they could grow a meaningful amount of food, which would be a much higher and nobler use of their soil.” All of those observations led to her own gardening practices and eventually to her first book.
In the American exodus to suburbia following World War II, edible plants were considered unimportant, often hidden in the back yard or behind the garage. Certainly no one considered planting vegetables in the front yard, and many homeowner’s associations specifically forbade it. Meanwhile, Creasy got involved with the Sierra Club and other groups which worked to prevent farmland from being turned into housing developments. She took a landscape design course during that time and as she wrote later, “Out of the 450 plants the class studied, only two were edibles.”
Rosalind, her husband and their two teenage children were living in Los Altos, Calif., near Stanford University, and close to where Robert worked for IBM. The house they bought was a typical California ranch-style home, with a narrow lot, houses close on both sides and a very modest front yard. The landscape included some bushes, a small tree, and lawn, like every other house in the neighborhood. Everyone on the block subscribed to the local exterminator service, which drove by once a month and sprayed the entire yard with insecticide. Creasy tolerated the landscape and the spraying practices for about a year, then in true pioneer style, she rebelled.
Concerned about her pets and children playing in the yard, Rosalind cancelled the spraying service. (Remember, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book that transformed how we look at chemicals and pesticides had only been written a decade earlier in 1962.) Neighbors and the exterminators warned her that she would be overrun with pests, but Creasy forged ahead and started creating the best organic environment she could for her family.
The second thing to go, after the exterminator service, was the front yard. Creasy, a highly talented and creative landscape designer, ripped out the front lawn, took away the bushes and the useless, decorative tree. She says while she was working, she could look across the street and see neighbors, peeking through their curtains, watching suspiciously. When they inquired what she was doing and she answered, “Planting vegetables,” she says now with a laugh, “The neighbors were visibly aghast.”
Creasy began writing about how much land is wasted in our country. In her forthright way, she lectured about how ridiculous it is to buy food that has been transported hundreds, even thousands of miles away, when much of it can easily be grown in your own yard. In her first book, The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping (Sierra Club Books, 1982), she advocated growing with few pesticides, using sturdy, practical garden tools and a simpler way of cooking and eating.
In a subsequent book, Cooking From the Garden (Random House, 1992), she worried about our nation’s dwindling vegetable gene pool, and she strongly advocated for heirloom fruits and vegetables and seed saving.
“I’m not sure these things could have happened anywhere else,” says Creasy. “It was a convergence of ideas. Alice Waters, the local foods chef at the nationally famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, helped me choose edible flowers and lent her support. My neighbor who was working at Zoecon, Ruth Troetschler, was doing one of the first research projects into organic pest controls and garden predators. She shared information with me for my book. I was friends with Dave Smith and Paul Hawken, who created the Smith & Hawken line of handcrafted garden tools; they provided garden tools for me to use and review. All those things were new, cutting-edge ideas back in the ‘70s and all of the ideas and methods sort of merged together during that time.”
She was involved in the Sierra Club, based in San Francisco, plus other local and state land preservation and organic farming projects. The board of directors of the California Organic Certification Trade Association, the first such certification program in the United States, met in her living room to establish organic standards in 1985 and ’86.
The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping was published in 1982 to considerable acclaim. By then, people in her neighborhood had come to appreciate her methods. Her front and back yards were not only stunningly beautiful as landscape, but amazingly bountiful with fresh produce. Nearly every available vegetable, fruit and herb thrived there. She grew enough for her family, and shared the surplus with neighbors, friends and the local food bank.
Today, not only do you find a front garden full of vegetables, front and center, with more tucked in every available space all the way out to curbside, but thanks to her late husband Robert, who had a pet rooster for many years, she also raises chickens in the front yard, right next to the street. Do the neighbors complain? Absolutely not! In fact, local school kids, on their way home from school every afternoon, can be seen detouring through the garden pathways right to the chicken coops to bring hands full of French sorrel from the garden to feed the chickens. The chickens are the most popular pets on the block.
Creasy says that in order to write about her discoveries as a gardener and landscape designer, she also had to teach herself to be a photographer. Not only is she now a highly accomplished photographer, but her photos of heirloom edibles have been bought and published by the Seed Savers Exchange for many seasons of stunning calendars. The Garden Writers Association, an international association of professional writers and photographers, awarded her the Hall of Fame Award in 2009. Edible Landscaping received the American Horticultural Society Award in 2011.
Rosalind Creasy has written and photographed an impressive library of gardening books since those early days, all advocating healthy food, grown organically, on your own land. She has promoted heirloom varieties and saving seed, since those very earliest days of gardening, and she has changed the attitudes of millions of people about growing good food. She has demonstrated many times over that a vegetable and fruit garden can be stunningly beautiful, worthy of being the focal point of a home landscape, regardless of the kind of house or neighborhood in which a person resides.
Creasy has had a profound influence on upscale restaurants which can boast they grow their own produce for the patrons they serve. None of that was happening before she pioneered the ideas of what an edible landscape could be. It is through her efforts, along with just a few others, that phrases like, “edible landscape,” “eating locally” “organically grown,” “heirloom vegetables,” and “eat local – think global” are now part of the everyday lexicon. When Creasy began her crusade with that first spadeful of lawn removed, having a garden instead of an “acceptable landscape” was an outrageous, radical idea. Now, all these years later, it’s not only practical—it’s fashionable. Rosalind Creasy is a pioneer in the truest sense of the word because her actions and her groundbreaking books have changed the way we all look at food and gardening.
Rosalind Creasy’s newest book, Edible Landscaping (Sierra Club Books) was published in 2010, based on her earlier work, but with lots more information. It, like her earlier books, will become one of the most important books for a gardening generation.