Neighbor Envy

I’ve made more gardening-related
New Year’s resolutions than I can count, and I’ve kept fewer of them than I’ll
ever admit. I live on the coast in
northern California, and while the climate is fairly mild—the term “last frost
date” is meaningless here—it’s the constant rain that keeps me out of the
garden. With nothing to do but pace,
plan, and flip through seed catalogs and picture books, I can go a little
crazy. I’ve imagined pergolas,
elaborate Celtic designs, water features, and all kinds of other grandiose
projects that I have no real intention of carrying out. 

Still, the new year is a good time
to reflect and plan, even on a more modest scale. One of the best ways to do
that is to take a quiet winter’s walk through the neighborhood. Take notice of what grows well, what
attracts wildlife, and what kinds of designs integrate with the neighborhood’s
architecture and character. Peek over a
fence. Introduce yourself to the other
stir-crazy gardeners on the block. Some
people may think of this as keeping up with the Joneses, but I firmly believe
that the best gardening strategies are the ones that have proven themselves

Here are some of the ideas I’ve
gleaned from my neighbors:

Learn from serendipitous
 My next-door neighbors planted sunflowers in
August. They didn’t know any better;
they are brand new to gardening and just picked up whatever seedlings looked
appealing at the stand outside the grocery store. But we had an unusually cool summer and a long, warm fall, so
those sunflowers shot up and provided glorious fall color, not to mention a
great source of seeds through winter. (Nobody told them to tidy up the garden in November, so fortunately,
they didn’t.) I realized that I’d been
gardening according to the conventional wisdom that you plant summer annuals in
late spring, but in our climate, with that enormous air conditioner called the
Pacific Ocean just a few blocks away, this made no sense at all. Planting summer flowers in late summer is
one of those great ideas I never would have thought of. 

Appreciate different
. I’m an all-or-nothing
kind of gardener. I get an idea and I
jump in headfirst. Plant a vegetable
garden? Great. I’ll get up Saturday morning and clear half
the backyard, and have more vegetables than we can ever eat in the ground by
Sunday night. Then I get lazy, and
neglectful, and that oversized vegetable garden gets invaded by weeds, by which
time I’ve decided that what I really want is a garden of only dahlias. The cycle begins again.

But I have a neighbor who is my
exact opposite. She is methodical and
patient. She plans. She waits. She takes small, incremental steps. She thinks of her garden in terms of years, even decades, not weekends.

Once, several years ago, she got
the idea to remove her lawn and plant butterfly and bird-friendly wildflowers
and natives. Did she rip the sod out all at once in a frenzy of lawn-destroying
enthusiasm? No, she did not. She very neatly cut out a square in the
center of the lawn (positioned so she could see it from her kitchen window; cut
into a square so the mower could get around it easily), planted just a few
modest feet of wildflowers, and stuck a birdfeeder on a pole in the center.

She liked the results, so the next
year she cut out a few more feet of lawn. Then a few more feet. By then,
some of her low-growing, native perennials were large enough to divide, and
she’d saved wildflower seed, so she didn’t even have to buy very many
plants. It has taken several years, but
the lawn is entirely gone, and the results are spectacular. From her I have learned to start small and
see how something works before I plant it on a large scale.

Make a plant list. If it’s doing well down the street, it’ll do
well at your house. When it comes to
knowing what will thrive in your climate and your soil, the neighbors are the
experts. This is especially important
when it comes to investing in large shrubs and trees. Don’t make major decisions about big plants without walking
through the neighborhood to see what fares well and what does not. You might find that the tree you thought
would only reach a modest fifteen feet can soar to twice that height,
interfering with power lines or crowding the rooftop. You might realize that a shrub you’re planting for early spring
flowers doesn’t actually bloom until May. Learn from your neighbors’ experience.

Don’t forget to observe the ways in
which plants interact with the architecture of homes in the area, not to
mention the layout of streets and sidewalks. There’s a particular shade of light blue that’s popular in my
neighborhood; my house has a little of that color in the trim. Several people have discovered that the
brilliant burgundy foliage of Japanese maples look stunning against this
blue. It’s a color combination that I
would not have thought of, but I’m happy to copy their ideas.

Do all the homes in your
neighborhood have a hot, dry strip between the sidewalk and the street? Take a walk and see how people deal with it.
Planting a tree might work, but look carefully at other trees planted in that
same spot. Have the roots lifted the
sidewalk? Does the tree drop sticky
fruit on parked cars? Is the growth
habit neat and easy to maintain, or does it tend to get overgrown and block

At a friend’s house in the
Southwest, we walked through the neighborhood and discovered a wide range of
attractive xeriscape options for this strip along the sidewalk. We made a list
and planted what we knew would work. Over time, more neighbors have followed the same plan, and now several
streets in the area have a unified planting scheme of drought-tolerant natives
that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. 

Follow the wildlife. I live just a few blocks from a creek that
cuts through town. It travels through a
gulch that is overgrown with trees and brush and shrubs, so it’s most
impenetrable to walkers. But I can
watch the birds and butterflies that emerge from that thicket and see which
direction they head. To my surprise, a
few of the tidiest, most manicured homes in my neighborhood conceal a backyard
given over entirely to wildlife.

Such habitat gardens are vital as
way stations for birds and other creatures moving through the area during
winter (and at other times of the year, too). Think of the way your town might look from the air: how far is it between nesting sites? What about nectar sources or water? If your neighbors are already luring wildlife
to the area, you can capitalize on their success by providing yet another
stopping-off point. 

I found out that two of my
neighbors participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife
Habitat program. Over fifty thousand
wildlife-friendly gardens have been registered with their program; whether you
are the first or the fifth on your block, it’s a worthwhile adventure. Visit to learn more.

Get invited backstage
. If you don’t
know the owner of the best garden in the neighborhood, stop by and say
hello. Some of the most interesting
gardens in my town will never be on the local garden tour; the gardener is too
busy or too modest to open his or her sanctuary to the public. But most people are happy to show the
neighbors around. Bring some seeds or
cuttings from your own garden and offer to trade. And invite them into your garden. You never know—when you try to keep up with the Joneses,
sometimes you find out that the Joneses want to keep up with you, too.