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Why is what I grow in my garden anyone else's business?
Can naturalized gardens ever be embraced in residential neighbourhoods where traditional maintenance like mowing, blowing, spraying and shearing is considered a homeowner's moral obligation?
I am writing this because of a comment I received in my last blog post about Beth and Craig Sinclair’s naturalized garden which is in its infancy in Smiths Falls, Ontario.
This is the comment:
The garden in Toronto looks beautiful, looks like an English Garden, the so called Mess in Smith Falls is a disgrace to the neighbours, their neighbourhood and to the Town of Smith Falls. I hope these people are Canadian, because if NOT, please send them Packing back to Seattle fast. Did you check the Net, they had been asking for money to fight this. Come on, you don’t move to a small town and try and take over. But if they are Americans, that is their typical MO.
Their yard is a disgrace, not kept up, they should be cleaning the street near he stop sign, and the people of Smith Falls have every right to continue to fight this. Change he laws. And give m3 a break about forest on both sides. A few trees, and there is no way there are 150 new planted trees. My Uncle Vince and Aunt Cecile rest their souls, would be turning over in their graves, if they saw what a mess Smith Falls has fallen too. This couple had an agenda, check out what they were like in Seattle. I am sure their neighbours back there, were happy to see them move, far, far away. Check them out, I am sure they have a history.
I’m not going to talk about the value of a naturalized garden in this brief post, but rather about the rights of a property owner to garden in their own way, as long as they are not harming anyone.
It fascinates me that some neighbours, community members and even residents from far away think that a homeowner’s choice of how they manifest their yard or garden, firstly, is their business, and secondly, if it is “different’ can be characterized as “taking over” a town. Apart from this comment being flagrantly bigoted, inflammatory and self-satisfied, it is just plain mean-spirited and I’m afraid it reflects much of the attitude that the Sinclairs came up against in their fight to change their town’s property standards bylaws so that their lawn-free and ecologically healthy front yard would be deemed legal.
Apparently some people believe that it is every homeowner’s moral imperative to garden just like everyone else and that a front yard is actually not private but instead, belongs to everyone else on the street. Moreover, it appears that to some, a well-tended lawn, with tidy, well articulated flower beds means the homeowner is a good neighbour. It means they’re good people. Trustworthy people. People who have no secrets, go to church on Sunday and abide by the rules. People who don’t do this must surely have a very, very dark agenda and can’t be trusted. Because they are different, it is appropriate that they be vilified, charged with infractions and forced to comply, or encouraged to just go away. Or when all else fails, paint them as pushy, money-grubbing and entitled Americans (!), “other-ing” them and trying to run them out of town.
When I graduated from horticulture school and was looking for business, I rang the doorbell of a neighbour down the street and offered up my services, saying that they were obviously very busy and needed help with their garden. Well, you can imagine how that ended. I had a lot to learn about starting my own horticulture business without shaming potential clients.
Sure, we’ve all walked by gardens that might not speak to us; they might use plants or colour combinations that we despise (my nemesis is that variegated phlox - see below), ones that we know will cause problems later on (like goutweed or ribbon grass), or the now predictable display provided by a whiskey barrel on its side, spilling out a flower display.
But we needn’t go to the front door of these houses and tell the owners we don’t care for their taste or their approach to gardening. Nor should we hide behind social media or the anonymity provided by a bylaw officer to express our discontent. It is none of our business. When I
shamed questioned homeowners who used dyed red mulch years ago in an article in a community newspaper, boy, did I catch flak. Turns out not everyone minds it. Go figure. Another learning moment for me.
What if a neighbour was choosing to grow plants that were appropriate for the location, that didn’t need synthetic fertilizer to thrive, whose newly planted roots were kept moist because of the thick layer of organic mulch that insulated them - at least until they matured and provided their own carpet of leaves and debris? Would this be offensive to you? What if another neighbour was using synthetically produced fertilizers and herbicides on their perfect lawn, were shearing all their shrubs into the same rectangular shape and were using gas-powered machines to manage their property? I ask you, would you rather live next to the first or the second neighbour?
Can we simply just learn to live and let live? Especially in these days when we are all just trying to stay healthy, motivated and happy. Learning to accept a new way, like the time I watched my then-husband cut mushrooms in halves and then quarters rather than slicing them, should be something we zip our mouths shut about and then, like those quartered mushrooms which are now a part of my routine, we accept and champion them!
If you’d like to read more or listen more about sustainable natural gardening, especially with native plants and those that will thrive in your specific conditions, give this interview a listen: https://www.ecobeneficial.com/audio/interview-with-ecological-landscape-designer-author-benjamin-vogt/
Benjamin Vogt operates his own prairie garden design business in Nebraska called Monarch Gardens where he champions garden spaces that are “climate resilient, adaptable, and provide numerous ecological benefits while artistically reflecting wilder landscapes”. He has had his own run-ins with grumpy neighbours and visiting bylaw inspectors which you can read about in his 2018 blog post here.
And you can buy Vogt’s book ‘A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future’ here and look out for his new book this autumn called ‘Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design’ in your local bookstore.