A few months ago I reviewed Amy Stross’s book The Suburban Micro-Farm for Mother Earth News. As I read the book I thought “man alive, this gal is like my gardening sister from another mother.”
Her suggestions are practical and realistic and she doesn’t varnish over her failures or discount her remarkable successes.
After reading her book, I got in touch and asked if she would write an article for The Survival Gardener when she got a chance, and she graciously agreed to do so.
Many of us plant-lovers and edible landscape enthusiasts have dealt with some neighborhood disapproval – and so has Amy. I think you’ll appreciate her thoughts on keeping your neighbors close and your edibles closer. -DTG
Improve Neighbor Relations with These Tips for the Edible Landscape
by Amy Stross
While farming is a tradition in wide-open, rural spaces, it does not share the same social acceptance in lawn-centric residential areas. In fact, differing opinions may collide at the property line. Follow these tips for improved neighbor relationships and a productive edible landscape that everyone can approve of.
Farm Your Yard and Have Your Neighbors, Too
If you enjoy having a garden in your yard, you may have to manage neighbor relations, especially if they aren’t amused with your activities.
There are two ways to tackle this challenge:
(1) You can focus on how to walk the tightrope of relationship and navigate communication
(2) You can focus on edible landscaping techniques to create a beautiful, yet productive, front yard garden that wows the neighbors.
I think doing both is a recipe for success.
I’ve had many people tell me with a great deal of irritation and assuredness that neighbors have no business sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, so they have no plans to change their gardening practices.
I totally agree — we are certainly entitled to a certain amount of liberty on our side of the fence. However, having good neighbor relations can make living in close proximity to others more enjoyable.
With the following tips, everyone wins. If you would like neighbors to respect your privacy and interests, you’ll need to offer your respect to their perspective on life, too.
Negotiation and compromise don’t come naturally for most of us. Just about everybody on any side of an argument believes that they are “right”. But these negotiation skills—valuable in all aspects of life—are worth giving a try.
Model What You Wish To See (2 examples)
The following are two examples of interactions I had with neighbors that could have gone poorly if I had reacted with my gut. Instead of lashing out, staying positive allowed me to have a more pleasant experience with my own gardening pursuits.
I calmly (yet stubbornly) built my edible landscape which gave them a visual for what is possible. I needed to bridge the gap between manicured landscape and a food producing system. When I started digging up my front yard to “grow food”, I couldn’t expect my neighbors to know what it would ultimately look like.
Some were struggling to sell their houses, and they didn’t need an eyesore to reduce property value or scare away potential buyers. All they saw in the beginning of my project were mounds of dirt and ditches.
As humans, we are more accepting of that which has some connection and likeness to our current view of reality. Creating this bridge helped me transform a handful of lawn purists into gardeners and allies!
Example #1: Here’s a 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 I began my edible yard project, I was concerned about our next-door neighbor’s lawn chemicals draining into our yard. My husband explained the problem to him. “Would you 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!
When approaching a neighbor whose yard practices may affect the health or 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, blame, or accusations. Chastising neighbors for their actions is unlikely to make them feel like helping you out. In fact, it could incite more abusive tactics.
Example #2: Keep the Status Quo
One neighbor with an interest in immaculate lawns was particularly distressed when he saw us digging up the front yard in late winter. We’ll call him ‘Grouchy Neighbor’ (GN). Of course, GN couldn’t have known my ultimate vision of a tidy, edible landscape.
He riled up a few other retired neighbors who enjoyed their lawns, and they glared at our progress with a judging eye from a distance.
Once mid-summer rolled around, the front yard garden was in full swing. Flowers bordered neat curvy rows with rock borders. Our landscape was much greener than many surrounding yards because of our passive rain catchment system that caught water from the roof for irrigation.
That’s when GN humbly came over and asked for a tour of the edible landscape. It took a lot of courage for him to come over after making his campaign against front yard gardens. Luckily, I had remained friendly toward him, so he felt comfortable enough to come over and see what was going on for himself.
GN was shocked to learn more about the landscape—the water catchment system, the different combinations of plants, and how they benefited each other to create a functional mini ecosystem.
It had never occurred to him that there could be so much thought and intentionality put into a landscape. He was so impressed that he called a few other retired fellas over to see. Then he offered the ultimate olive branch: A portion of his backyard in which to expand my gardening operation.
My late father-in-law always said, “You get more with sugar than you do spice.”
3 Edible Landscape Tips for the Neighbor-Friendly Front Yard
These tips will help you grow a productive and low-maintenance edible front yard that keeps the neighbors happy.
Plant Edible Perennials
Conventional landscapes are filled with perennials — a hedge of bushes lining the front of the house, a specimen tree to provide interest, shade, or privacy; a mass of perennial flowers to add an aesthetic punch.
The perennial landscape is popular because it doesn’t need to be replanted every year. The permanent plants anchor the landscape year-round. Try swapping out those non-productive perennials for some food-bearing perennials to achieve the same goal!
Berry-producing shrubs, everbearing strawberries, and fruit trees are all beautiful, come back every year with little work, and require less water than annual gardens.
Plant Long-Lasting Vegetable Crops
Leafy greens like Swiss chard, kale, and collards, as well as fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, all create “permanent” interest in the edible landscape during the growing season.
Leafy greens quickly grow back after each “leaf” harvest, while tomatoes and the like are plucked from plants that retain vibrant foliage. Grow container varieties of fruiting vegetables for compact and tidy plants.
Plant Herbs as Landscape Anchors
Identify a handful of perennial herb plants to repeat throughout the landscape. They will provide consistency, flowering beauty, and add culinary and medicinal value. You’ll also inspire a mini ecosystem to develop, as perennial herbs attract beneficial insects and repel pests.
They’ll even provide valuable nutrients to the soil when chopped back.
Model what you wish to see by being respectful of neighbors and sharing your joy of growing things. Plant a beautiful, tidy, edible landscape that supports a diverse array of plants and beneficial insects, and your neighbors are sure to love it as much as you do.
Don’t forget to smile and share your harvest!