The Dirt / When gardens are front and center
It can cause a neighborhood uproar
This West Side front yard is filled with flowers and pollinators.
Front-yard gardening is a trend throughout the US. Gardening for curb appeal or even growing food out front are neither new nor difficult concepts. A front yard lets a gardener show off and give a gift of beauty to passersby. Attractive front gardens add real estate value, create neighborhood pride and self-esteem, and bring communities together. Evidence has shown that crime decreases when people garden out front and meet their neighbors. Gardening is also healthy exercise. Who could be against a front yard garden?
Sometimes the front yard is the only place to garden. Ellie Dorritie, Garden Walk Buffalo gardener (Cottage District) explains, “Our houses around here are so close together, the space for a backyard is squeezed between them and shaded by our homes most of the day, so all the color and scent that a sunny yard allows has to take itself out front. My front space is tiny, so I had to fill the hell strip too. Seeing my riot of flowers stuffed into this little space frees people from their preconceptions. Some are empowered to try it themselves. And look what’s happened around Buffalo as a result!”
The result Dorritie mentions is the phenomenon of garden tourism triggered by Garden Walk Buffalo, now twenty-six years old. “The Walk”, as its 400-some gardeners call it, now attracts 75,000 visitors or more during its late July weekend. Combining this with the fifteen or more other local garden tours and Open Gardens, there are at least 1,000 gardens for tourists to visit. It’s clearly been a facelift for Buffalo.
Ed Healy, Vice President for Marketing, Visit Buffalo Niagara, says, “Buffalo’s front yard gardens make a statement about a community that cares. What visitors see on the streets of Buffalo are carefully tended gardens full of life and color. Many visitors declare they want to live here, like a local, and be part of this city’s neighborhoods. Those visitor experiences go a long way toward creating a new Buffalo brand.”
Edible front gardens have rapidly gained popularity during the past decade or so. Home gardeners, increasingly urban millennials and younger, care about health, organic choices, and want to know where their food grows. Values such as sustainability, support for biodiverse ecosystems, and the urge to cut back on transportation used for food distribution are motives for growing multiple-use plants in any viable soil on one’s property. As Gerry Rising, educator and Spree nature columnist wrote: “We need to reevaluate our ill-considered devotion to lawns.” Food and flower gardens, ground covers, grasses, shrubs, and trees—especially native species—provide essential ecosystem services, providing more value than water-guzzling seas of turfgrass, which may also require pesticides/herbicides and gas-powered care.
Not everybody agrees
It only takes one citizen complaining about “annoying bees” or “an overgrown yard” to cause a city inspector to assess a front garden. The result is often a citation, court appearance, fine, or even the threat of jail time.
Infamous narratives abound
2012, Tulsa, Oklahoma:
Code enforcement officers entered the front yard of homeowner Denise Morrison and ripped up the food garden she was depending on during a difficult time in her life. There went the herbs, grapes, strawberries, and fruit trees. The ordinance said, “Plants can’t be higher than twelve inches…unless for human consumption” but the inspector saw “weeds.” Morrison lost in court.
2011, Oak Park, Michigan:
Julie Bass kept a beautiful, well-manicured, edible garden in the front yard. City officials threatened her with more than three months in jail, calling the basil, cabbage, cucumbers, and tomatoes “unsuitable plant material.”
2012, Orlando, Florida:
A sustainability consultant, Jason Helvenston, battled with city officials who ordered him to rip up his front yard garden. A neighbor had complained that it “looked like a farm.” In this case, Helveston won and kept the front yard garden.
Parkside area gardener Jean Dickson was cited and fined repeatedly for a garden that the inspector said “doesn’t look like the other yards.” She was accused of “overgrowth,” even though the yard was a bird and butterfly haven, filled with such useful plants as Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry) crabapples, highbush cranberry, mountain ash, and Kentucky coffee tree. City officials backed off, but only after extensive pressure, involvement, and cost for the gardener.
A PUSH Buffalo rain garden was cut down by city inspectors.
A gardener on Baynes (garden shown here) has received multiple notices of violations, summonses to appear in court, and a recent arraignment (the case was in progress at press time). Pictures reveal an obvious flower garden that is apparently not to everyone’s taste. The garden has received citation under this city code, which states:
IPMC-302.4 Weeds Premises and exterior property shall be maintained free of weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 INCHES. Noxious weeds shall be prohibited. Weeds shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants, and vegetation, other than trees or shrubs provided, including but not limited to front lot and combined side lot… CUT AND REMOVE HIGH GRASS AND WEEDS FROM ALL YARDS WITHIN TEN (10) DAYS (fines for high grass and weeds start at $150.00).
The tidiness and formality spectrums
The tolerance level for another’s neatness or mess—be it the toothbrush and hair on the sink, or whether leaves are raked and perennials cut back—is the cause of many arguments. Spouses, clients and landscapers, gardeners and neighbors often see things differently. Communication is key, but tempers flare and arguments escalate all too quickly, as the stories above reveal. Gardens seem neat or messy to others based on the types of plants, how crowded the plantings, whether lines are straight or unclear, the choice and condition of art and hardscape, and the uniformity or repetition of colors. There is no wrong in these design preferences, from formal to cottage-style, unless the result makes you (or critical neighbors) uncomfortable. Just look through the eyes of non-gardening observers to see if small changes will remove the pressure. Some tips may add peace in the neighborhood:
Ten tips for looking neat:
1) Put away your stuff. Hide hoses, pails, bags of mulch, plant pots, and tools.
2) Maintain hardscape. Paint the fence, repair the trellis, remove what’s broken.
3) Clean up the lines between lawns, paths, garden beds, and sidewalks.
4) Make big statements. Use large swaths of single-color plants, especially far from the street.
5) Present a clear path to the entrance and uncrowd the front door or porch.
6) A strip of mowed grass can send the message: These are the garden beds.
7) Straight, wide rows (vegetables) or clear lines between flower patches signal that this is intentional.
8) Use raised beds. Maintain them and place in a pleasing pattern as seen from the street.
9) Repetition is satisfying to viewers. Repeat the evergreens, colors, fence posts, or grasses.
10) Labels and signs: Tidy tags or signs identifying plants may tell a critic or inspector that these plants are not just “weeds.”
When you look at public or private gardens from former centuries, one design feature is common: the rose garden, herb garden, and cutting garden are all enclosed with edging plants. Kitchen gardens in Williamsburg Virginia and flower beds at the Palace of Versailles are usually surrounded by uniform edges—like miniature hedges—of a single plant species such as boxwood, Santolina, or Artemesia. No matter how free-flowing the enclosed blooms, grasses, and interwoven stems, the tidy surrounding provides definition and satisfying neatness.
Our front yards can mimic the technique: edges could be nonflowering plants as mentioned above, or uniform, one-color, showy plants such as Ipomoea batata (Sweet Potato Vine), New Guinea Impatiens, Coleus, or Schizachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem Grass). A long, continuous line of any one color foliage or flower says, “This is the garden bed.”
Edges can also be hardscape choices (non-plant material) or simple trenches in the soil, including a vee-shaped trench between the grass and the edge of a garden bed; flagstones, pavers, or slabs laid flat slightly lower than the planting beds and the path or lawn; boards, bricks, rocks, or rubber/recycled plastic barriers around a flower or vegetable bed; or actual raised beds or uniform containers.
Choose an edging style so all can see where the garden beds begin and end. Non-gardeners, who may not appreciate ever-changing perennials or a zinnia or potato’s many stages, will appreciate the clarification.
Cities benefit from gardens. Stressed pollinators and decimated ecosystems need flowers and as many native plants as possible in urban and suburban yards. Let us encourage front and backyard gardens, and figure out how to help the neighbors understand what they see.