The front yards in my neighborhood are smaller than a lot of people’s master bedrooms. And it looks as though folks like it that way. By this time of year, with as much rain as we’ve had, things are pretty lush. But more often than not, on my street, that means plantings, rather than simply lawns.
A walk down the avenue reveals a patchwork quilt of personalities: picturesque prairie; golf course green; tidy and trim; wild bird habitat, experimental kitchen garden. You name the style, the easy-going neighborhood culture here has encouraged someone to try it out.
It reminds me of my favorite children’s book by Daniel Pinkwater, The Big Orange Splot. In this whimsical story of a “neat street,” all the houses look the same and the residents are proud of that. Everything changes after a passing seagull dumps a bucket of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s roof. Instead of covering it up as expected, Plumbean incorporates the splot into a home mural and extreme makeover, complete with a clock tower and palm trees. Although the neighbors are scandalized, he manages to convert them one by one, until they all turn their homes into vivid expressions of their dreams.
I like to think about that story when I walk down our “neat street”: all but one house on the block was built to virtually the same plan in the 1920s. A sweep of the eye along the thirty-some rooflines yields a view as orderly as a musical scale. But the sightline at ground level is as varied as an entire orchestra.
This is in contrast to the lawns of the suburban homeowners I know, who feel constant pressure to keep them looking perfectly manicured, and perfectly the same as the rest.
I realize there’s a certain kind of community spirit at work in that suburban sameness. But I revel in the free expression of the individuals who make up the community on my street. It indicates to me that people feel comfortable, and are even encouraged to be themselves by the idiosyncracies of their neighbors’ yards.
There’s even a fun cross-pollination that happens because of this, as people get ideas, and even plants, from each other.
Years ago, I put up a little sign in my garden that said “Pesticide Free Area: Safe for children and wildlife.” Eventually, the wooden stake it was attached to broke down, worn out by the elements (and blows from children’s basketballs). This spring, I thought about ordering a replacement. Before I could do so, I was delighted to see that a neighbor had posted a prettier, more striking version of one in her yard. When I asked her if I could snap a photo, she confided that it was seeing my sign that had prompted her to get hers.
Fortunately, such a sign is probably not all that necessary in our neighborhood–I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of those little yellow pesticide application markers on our block. And there’s a high tolerance for plants on the move (even though I did get a little overwhelmed by those Queen Anne’s lace plants that seeded themselves from a few yards down). The little orange splot that showed up in my flowerbed seems to have a grandmother up the way, that was herself a volunteer.
She is being allowed to thrive year after year–however random she looks–in the corner of a street strip rock garden.
These tiny, happy gardens foster well-being, both of residents and the urban eco-system.
For instance, few years ago, a new neighbor moved in to find a yard that had become a little more chaotic than most. With some repairs needed on the house, she didn’t have a lot of time for yardwork. The neighbors on each side volunteered to give it a makeover, working together one weekend to re-landscape the yard.
And, while I don’t know that everyone refrains from the use of synthetic chemicals, these yards are definitely more easy on the environment than those large suburban tracts. Where grass isn’t king, much less watering is necessary, mowing uses little energy, and it is hardly worth applying herbicides to such a small space. Let’s hear it for tiny, happy gardens!
As Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors finally realize,
“Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.”