Amy Stross is the author of The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People, and blogs at TenthAcreFarm.com.
While farming is a tradition of wide-open, rural spaces, it is not the tradition of lawn-centric residential areas, where differing expectations may collide at the property line. If you enjoy having a garden in your yard, you may have to manage neighbor relations carefully if they aren’t amused with your activities.
Here are five ways to improve your neighbor relations while still having that garden of your dreams.
1. Have Patience with a Smile
When we began growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in our front yard, we stopped treating our lawn. The strip of grass that remained was carpeted with dandelions that spring. One day, an older gentleman down the street—who keeps an immaculate lawn—stopped in his car. Rolling down the window, he said, “My lawn care guy is stopping by today to spray my weeds. You want me to send him down when he’s done?” I replied that it was a generous offer, but that I really enjoyed the beauty of the dandelions. He muttered something under his breath and drove on.
I continued to wave and be cheerful whenever he passed by our house, and once summer rolled around, our edible front yard was leafed out with beautiful flowers and vegetables. This time when he stopped his car, he did so to compliment the beauty and to marvel at the vigor of the tomato plants. That was certainly a lesson in patience, as I had felt very frustrated by his attitude earlier in the season.
2. Create Social Proof
One neighbor with a particularly immaculate lawn became decidedly less friendly when we dug up the front yard to put in gardens. It seems public opinion carries a lot of weight with him, however, because a year later we hosted a class of 25 people who came to take a tour of our edible front yard. Afterward, the less-friendly neighbor approached me and wanted to know more about our style of landscaping, evidently convinced that our methods were acceptable now that there was social proof.
Other ways of creating social proof are entering into yard of the week/month competitions, writing an article for the local paper about the edible gardening movement, or donating some of your homegrown produce to a local charity.
3. Self-Reflect: Are you the problem?
I was excited to dig up my lawn and create a productive garden, but I was also a little terrified of what the neighbors would think. This fear turned into irritation when it seemed none of them had heard of this type of thing. I found myself wishing I had different neighbors so I didn’t have to always explain what I was doing in my yard.
However, I learned that if I wanted my neighbors to be delighted and fascinated in what I was doing, I would have to take an interest in their lives in the same way. Reciprocity goes a long way.
4. Share the Harvest
When I planted cherry trees in the parking strip, or median, between the sidewalk and the street, one neighbor cautioned us: “You put that in the front yard, the neighborhood kids are going to steal the fruit!” To which I replied, “Great!” I imagined how lovely it would be to see the kids pulling cherries out of the trees rather than chasing down the ice cream truck.
That conversation motivated me to go one step further: tell the neighbors about the fruit trees and encourage them to harvest if they saw fruit. After all, although homeowners are responsible for maintaining the parking strip, it is also public property.
Although you might be ready to see kids on bikes and dog walkers alike joyously helping themselves to handfuls of goodness, sometimes neighbors will need encouragement to harvest from someone else’s yard. You can help them along by harvesting yourself and taking over a bowl of cherries. Better yet, bake them a pie!
5. Solve Problems without the Side of Guilt
You may have to deal with a few pesky neighbors who enjoy spraying their side of the fence with herbicides and pesticides.
When we began our edible front yard landscape, we were concerned about our next-door neighbor’s lawn chemicals draining into our yard. We explained this problem to our neighbor, and asked if he might be interested in stopping the chemical lawn treatments or switching to the organic version. We offered to pay the difference in price, explaining that we were growing food, and trying to do it without chemicals.
The neighbor replied, “You know, I’ve been getting the lawn treatment for years out of habit. I don’t even know why I was doing it. I’m just going to cancel it.” It was the most amazing response we could have hoped for. Hint: Pay garden-friendly neighbors in garden produce!
If you would like to approach a neighbor whose yard practices may affect the health or the safety of your edible crops, stick to the facts: “We’re growing edibles, and trying to do it without chemicals, but your yard drains into ours, so is there anything we can do about this? Here is what I’m willing to do to meet you in the middle.”
Don’t use guilt. If they were the type of people to be motivated by environmental degradation or human health risks, you wouldn’t need to have a conversation with them about chemicals to begin with! Chastising neighbors for their actions is unlikely to make them feel like helping you out. In fact, it could incite more abusive tactics.
In summary, do what makes you happy on your own property, but be cognizant of how it may affect your neighbors. Try not to judge others. Model cheerful neighborliness. Don’t forget to smile and share your harvest!