Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Front yards and public spaces

I have been thinking about my garden a LOT lately, probably too much.  It is my currently preferred distraction.  Instead of reading and writing at my computer while developing some serious upper-back pain, I can be outside getting my hands dirty, building garden beds and planting seeds that will grow into beautiful and healthy plants that my family and I can eat.  I love that.

My spouse and I are debating about the front yard. I have big plans.  She has legitimate reservations.  My plans include eliminating grass (which, frankly, isn't so much grass as it is weeds) and replacing it with fruit trees, flowering plants, and a patio.  Her reservations are primarily aesthetic (whatever we do needs to look nice) and economic (whatever we do needs to add value to the lot so that it is not an impediment when it comes time to sell). 

Part of my motivation for the big plan is rooted in my urge for more public life. Here's the backstory:)

We live on a quiet St. Paul suburban street, and our front yard is maybe 40' by 30'.  When we moved here in 1998, there were two older ash trees in the front, but most of the area was grass. We have slowly been removing the grass.   One ash tree came down in 2002 because it was dying, and the other ash tree came down in 2008 for the same reason. This left a large chunk of chewed-up yard that we addressed by spreading mulch and wood chips over the blighted area (it's not much, but it kept the weeds down).

In addition, the middle of the front yard kept flowering with crab grass, and no matter what we did, we couldn't get the stuff to die.  We removed the sod, dug down 6"-12", and found . . . chunks of asphalt?!  We think that the current sod was placed on top of driveway asphalt waste.  Fabulous - our own private brownfield.  After we removed the sod from the center of the yard, we added some compost and mulch, bordered it with recycle planks from a deck remodeling that we had done recently, and planted two apple trees: a Macintosh and a Harrelson.  Last year, the Harrelson produced enough apples that we ate four pies, and my son grabbed an apple on his way to school for all of September and a big part of October. 

This is what the yard looks like now (photos taken from the roof of my house looking south). 

I have big plans for the rest of the front yard.  I want to remove the sod between the apple tree bed and the maple-and-lilac bed; I want to place another apple tree - maybe a Honeycrisp? - to the south of this new bed, and I want to place another apple tree (or maybe an apricot tree) to the southeast of the current bed, and I would encircle both trees with the current garden beds to create one large garden bed with four fruit trees, a large lilac bush, and a beautiful maple tree. We could plant lovely native plants, some flowering plants, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, zucchini, . . . whatever we like.  I would like to create a stone patio between the house and the apple tree bed, complete with comfortable chairs and a fire stand.

I won't disclose the nature of my spousal negotiations except to say that this is not a done deal, and that I will have to be persuasive.  It's a good debate, and I respect her position.  I know she respects mine, too.

So what does this have to do with a web site that professes to be about civic engagement?  Quite a bit, actually.

Dennis Donovan, the national organizer for Public Achievement, likes to talk about how our houses and landscape architecture have changed the way that we interact with one another.  His words inform my thinking about my own front yard.  In fact, I'd like to think that my landscaping efforts are an example of trying to return to something that was once fairly common: the front yard as a public space.

Today, at least in the suburb where I live, most of the action is in the backyard.  My 1970s split-level home is a perfect example of this.  The backyard is big enough for a full-size volleyball court (and we take advantage of this every summer), and there is still room left over for five 4' X 8' garden beds along the back fence.  Attached to the second floor of the house is a deck overlooking the backyard.  When we are on the deck, we barbecue, read, listen to a baseball game on the radio, enjoy the sun, and watch whatever is happening in the backyard, but it is essentially a private endeavor. Even the interior of our house orients itself to the backyard: the dining room and living room windows both face north and the backyard. No one accidentally wanders into our backyard, and if they did, I would be suspicious or surprised.  The backyard is a private space.  Granted, I will speak with my neighbors over the back fence.  Often, this is when both of us are outside, working in the yard.  That's pleasant and arguably public, but it is a very small public sphere.

There was a time when the dominant orientation of a house and yard was the front yard and the street.  Front porches faced the street.  Flower gardens and shade or fruit trees dominated front yards.  One can still see this orientation in much of older portions of St. Paul and Minneapolis and in some of the newer, smaller sub-divisions in our neighborhood.  This orientation means that people are in the front yard.  This promotes interacting with neighbors who are also outside, working in their yards or walking down the street. This has happened to me repeatedly since we started working in the front yard a few years ago.  People will stop as they walk by and comment on the yard.  Teen-agers who normally ignore the middle-aged guy in the split-level at the end of the block (that's me) say "hello" when they see me hunched over a tomatoe plant.  The new young couple down the street who walk their dogs have said "hello" many times, and I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, they'll stop and we'll talk.  Drivers slow their cars when I work near the curb (ever seen The World According to Garp, the sledgehammer scene? If you have children, and you live on a street, then you can appreciate Robin Williams' character's response to speeding cars). Unlike the backyard, it wouldn't surprise me if interested people wandered into my front yard to have a chat while I was working.  When I am done gardening in the front yard, I will relax on the stone patio, admiring my handiwork and watching the world go by my house.  In public.

This argument for more public life, coming from an admitted introvert, is surprising even to me.  I think that when we are in the front yard, and we can see others and be seen by others, it adds a layer of humanity to what we do.  It reminds us that we live not by ourselves in our homes but that we live amongst others.  This makes us think and behave differently. We become more conscientious about how we live our lives amongst others.  I think that's a good thing.

How do you use your front yard?  How much do you encounter your neighbors?  Is the notion of your front yard as a public space something that appeals to you, or do you prefer to keep your home and yard private, not public?

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