Canada 2017·Future Now

We replaced our front lawn with a vegetable garden — and grew our community with it

They first got side-eye and questions. Now this Ontario family's front lawn garden is a neighbourhood gathering place.

'Gardens — whether food or floral — are supercharged humanitarian environments'

They first got side-eye and questions. Now this Ontario family's front lawn garden is a neighbourhood gathering place. (Selena Mills)

Who among us is living like a person ahead of their time? And what might Canada need to do to catch up with them? Future Now is a new series featuring individuals who are living their version of the Canadian future… today. 

​When my husband and I replaced our front lawn with raised bed vegetable gardens, we didn't think we were doing anything extraordinary. And yet, in the small city that we live in of Barrie, Ontario, many traditional, perhaps even old school neighbours congregated to conduct a hearty inquisition with much side-eye and exuberance.

A few in particular seemed downright dismayed that we would grow food in our front yard instead of painstakingly trying to keep a perfect lawn! Natural, curious questions arose, such as, "why not in your backyard?" and, "what, are you Italian or Portuguese?" To which I answered, "nope, Native!" only to be met with confusion as befuddled eyes trailed across my mixed-blood snow-white skin.

Selena Mills dug up her front lawn to grow vegetables instead of grass. (Selena Mills)

My decision to grow vegetables instead of a lawn had trickled into my conscious as I watched neighbours going about their business, weeding their lawns. I surmised then and there, that I had neither the time nor patience to free it of dandelions each spring and maintain it to suburban perfection. Even as a young girl, I admired homesteads that were unique and outside the ordinary. As a parent, I wanted to create opportunities for my kids to learn how to grow food and dig in the dirt on the daily.

It is through moments like these that I've found horticulture and growing food is not just about growing produce or pretty annual and perennial gardens. It's about growing community too.- Selena Mills

I didn't realize when we started, that our front-lawn gardens would become a neighbourhood gathering spot too, and eventually a refuge in times of sorrow.

From kitchen sink dreaming to learning the fundamentals

Mills's son Wydham in their first year of front-lawn gardening, 2013. 'His first garden carrot, from a seed he helped grow.' (Selena Mills)

Along every inch of my initial, romanticized (naïve) vision, my husband and I have accrued years of much sweat, steady grime, a few tears and big smiles — from the first build (of cutting and digging out grass and measuring and building boxes), to culminated years of humbling moments like mite problems, poor growing conditions from not rotating beds, not sowing or thinning properly and not staying on top of weeding.

There have been years that we've spent more money than others because I missed the pocket of time for germinating and sprouting seeds inside, and last year, beetles ravaged my cucumber and zucchini crops. I had to endure watching all of those bountiful "would be" squash blossoms wither away to nothing! I know now, thanks to the powerful good of social media, that spreading out wood ash at the first sign of an infestation (mottled, mildew like formation spreading out on leaves) will wipe them out.

Agriculture meets society

'Some for drying, some for fresh.' Lavender, orgegano, mint and basil from the Mills's garden. (Selena Mills)

This past growing season, when June gave way to July and the plants they grew, so did the nasty beast that is cancer in a dear neighbour of ours.

His children, two young lads who were losing their father, could silently pick and eat to their heart's content or rowdily cohort with water guns along our rambling raspberry bushes. Our garden offered simple things to investigate and inquire about, like, "are the carrots ready to eat yet?" and, "can we pick some raspberries to eat?"

There was staggering heartache in the neighbourhood after our neighbour's passing in the autumn, and we weeded through, wanting to somehow ease the young family's pain.

I went into my garden and harvested early the sage to dry and smudged all who dropped by. It was as simple as sharing our plant-rich green spaces with our neighbours to have their own individual experiences.

It is through moments like these that I've found horticulture and growing food is not just about growing produce or pretty annual and perennial gardens. It's about growing community too. Environments that pull people in, inspire, calm, and holistically fulfil them.

Neighbourhood children enjoying the Mills's garden. (Selena Mills )

Growing food is highly infectious! Can you do it too?

While front lawn vegetable gardening isn't a brand new concept for Canadians, it definitely isn't as easy as urban garden enthusiasts trumpet! For us, advancing in our skills has meant re-prioritizing how we spend our time, scaling down when we need to and making the most of our space through square foot gardening. Honestly? Spending less time in the digital world and more in the natural one has become a most magical source of finding the time we need to make our gardening goals a reality.

'Don't let fear of the unknown stop you.' Mills started her front lawn garden from scratch and is now a devoted gardener. (Selena Mills)

My advice:

  • Observe and measure your results as you go by keeping a notebook categorizing each plant/herb/veggie by variety, planting day, first harvest, last harvest and comments.
  • Expand your plot as the seasons pass like we have, or start with a few pots on your balcony if land-space is an issue.
  • Embrace the permaculture philosophy in its simplest terms of working with what you have.
  • Incorporate elements of your everyday interests into your plans — we created seasonal outdoor work-play spaces for our kids, their friends and myself since I work from home.
  • Merge vegetables with bee and butterfly friendly plants like we have (as well as medicinal herbs to use year round for ceremony, gifts and in the kitchen).

Don't let fear of the unknown stop you… I knew nothing of vegetable gardening when I first started and now I'm a devoted enthusiast! What I've learned along the way is that gardens — whether food or floral — are supercharged humanitarian environments. You plant, you heal and you nurture. You go on, come what may.

Follow #millsgarden on Instagram for more of Selena Mills's gardening adventures. 


Selena creates digital content, art and crafts, shares stories, wrangles children and cooks delicious food whenever and however she can. When the chaos permits, she's an avid permaculture gardener who looks for other parents to revel (or kvetch) in motherhood with. She’s also a body positive coach, artisan, brand designer and social media consultant.