A gardener’s walk in the neighborhood


Years ago my 15-year-old foster daughter asked me a question I’ll never forget: Why, she inquired, do you make a beautiful garden in the back yard, but not the front yard? Don’t you think we should grow flowers in the front yard too, so the neighbors and people going by get to enjoy them?

I was humbled and embarrassed that such a thought had never crossed my mind. She was right; I spent countless hours in the back yard of our little rented house cultivating a vegetable garden and ever-expanding beds of shrubs, berries, ornamental trees and flowers. In the front yard, I had done nothing more than mow the grass and pull the weeds around a solitary rhododendron by the front porch.

Needless to say, that changed. We dug up a big border in front, planted roses, and seeded flowers around them. She also filled an enormous cement planter that had been sitting empty for years with petunias. That enterprise made her a lifetime gardener and made me a better person.

Now when I go for a walk in my neighborhood, I think about her, and about the meaning of front yards. She taught me that a pleasant front yard is a gardener’s gift to all who walk, bike, ride in strollers, or drive past.

That gift is not always even consciously received. Most people in transit are pretty oblivious, especially those with their faces in their phones and earbuds that block out birdsong. Still, I harbor hope that at some subliminal level, even the peripheral sight of a garden in bloom may have some green, earth-appreciating effect.  And of course, many passersby are tuned in to the natural world enough to fully receive the gift. They breathe in the fragrance of lilies or break their stride to savor the sight of bees in lavender.

Many neighbors – renters and homeowners alike – are also pretty oblivious to the message their front yards send. Most likely, they don’t recognize they are sending a message at all. But every front yard is a measure of its steward’s awareness of the people around them. I try not to judge; after all, it’s unreasonable to expect that everyone had a kid as smart as my foster daughter. But still ... 

Even though my neighborhood has quite a few front yards overrun with weeds, we have more front yards that speak to their owners’ dual affection for the natural world and their neighbors. Some are more practiced gardeners than others, but that’s not what matters.

What matters is the way our front yards contribute to the character of our neighborhoods, the environment children grow up in, and the community identity front yards help create.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com


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