Gardening to Meet the Neighbors

Flowers now bloom where grass and weeds used to grow.

“If you want to meet your neighbors,” said my friend and colleague Dawn Pape, “plant a garden in your front yard.” Dawn had just finished installing a curb-cut raingarden to catch and soak up the stormwater that runs down the road in front of her house, and while doing so she met just about every person living on her street. I discovered the same phenomenon myself when I tore out the grass in our boulevard strip last fall and planted native flowers and grasses in its place.

I started with the tiny corner of grass between the driveway and the sidewalks, which I dug out by hand. Our street is usually quiet, but because the church down the road was having a festival that day, I attracted the attention of not only our neighbors but also random strangers, many of whom worried that I shouldn’t be digging a hole in the heat while pregnant. We wisely chose to remove the remainder of the boulevard grass with a sod cutter the next weekend, and continued to draw attention to ourselves by parking the pick-up sideways in the street to dump compost and mulch into the soon-to-be garden. Over the course of the next few days while I planted my new flowers and grasses, I met the neighbors down the street and their little white dog, a woman who had once nannied for a family that lived in our house, and a group of groomsmen that were killing time waiting for a wedding to begin.

The square of turf between the driveway and sidewalks was the first to go.

This summer, I find time to work in the boulevard garden late in the evening after the baby has gone to sleep. Some nights, my neighbor across the street practices the fiddle on her porch and the music dances in the warm summer’s air as light slowly fades away. Other nights, people out on their evening walks will stop to talk while passing by. Oftentimes, they ask about the house, having watched as the previous owner rescued it from its previous state of disrepair. Just as often they’ll ask, “Do you have a little one? We saw the decorations on your door this winter.” We chat for a while and then they are back to their walks and I’m back to my weeding, grabbing one last clump of crabgrass before darkness descends.

I planted a garden because I was sick of watering and mowing a tiny strip of lawn between the road and the sidewalk and the grass was full of weeds anyway. I chose native perennials because they are easy to maintain and because I wanted to provide a food source for pollinators. Dawn planted a garden because she wanted to do the right thing to help to reduce stormwater pollution in her neighborhood. Neither of us set out to meet our neighbors, but both of us are glad we did.

Dawn Pape even decorated her raingarden’s curb cut.

It is amazing how something as simple as a garden can provide so many different functions and benefits. A garden can provide habitat for wildlife, decorate a yard, make a statement, hide an ugly utility box, or help keep water clean. When it’s in the front yard, the garden becomes part of the community. Like a dish at a potluck, it is there for all to enjoy. Yes, it might take a few years before our new boulevard garden truly looks good, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying spending time outside on these warm summer evenings and meeting the whole neighborhood.