Backyard gardens are for you. Front yard gardens are for others.
By Sheila Squillante
On Hartswick Ave., in State College, Pennsylvania, there is a pale yellow stucco house that looks like it belongs in the south of France. In front of the house, instead of a very American lawn, a garden spills over every inch of soil, scrambles up trellises and across stepping stones of irregular shapes and sizes. In the springtime: tulips and peonies. In the summer, roses and coneflowers and blooming vines reaching for sun. When I was a runner, I would plan my route so that it would take me past this house and its not-lawn. I had never seen a front yard garden in person before, only in romantic images of English cottage gardens, heaving under the weight of their own fulsome blooms. It seemed radical and transgressive, and, in the early 2000s, when I lived in State College with my young family, I think it likely was.
We were renters at the time and had little to say about the state of the lawn. We mowed when we had to as part of our lease terms. I planted some daylilies in the tidy rectangle that had been designated as a Space for Flowers in the front and attempted a container garden built from old tires and cinderblocks I found on the property in the back. The daylilies thrived and the vegetables mostly shriveled and died, succumbing to this insect or that blight. One whole section fell directly under the shade of the enormous red maple tree whose branches were bare when I placed the tires, imagining cucumbers and tomatoes.
We moved from State College in 2013, but I’ve continued to think of that Hartswick house and its friendly front yard garden ever since. We own our own home now—a small 1950s-era brick ranch that would look entirely out of place in the south of France but looks perfectly at home in our old Pittsburgh neighborhood. The house sits on barely a quarter of an acre, most of which is made of the small front yard, overly large driveway, and side patio. Instead of a backyard, we have a strip of river rock about three feet wide that runs the length of the house. Our behind the house neighbor planted a forest of ostrich ferns years before that hide our house from her view. I don’t blame her. I like my privacy, too.
A year after we moved into our new place in Pittsburgh, we built a wooden fence to contain our escape artist dog, which left a triangle of grass outside of the gate next to the driveway. There, the former owners had designated a Space for Flowers, too. Not a rectangle this time, but a crescent shape where a dying rose bush, some culinary thyme and mint, a healthy lavender plant and an Autumn Joy sedum struggled to love themselves. It was a little sad. I immediately pulled out the rose bush and installed Black-eyed Susan in its place, plus some coneflowers and a purple salvia. I loved the anticipation of waiting for these perennial beauties to return for the first three years. Meanwhile, we mowed around it and I enjoyed the view every time I walked to the car.
Then, last May during the first months of the pandemic, I got an itch. I needed a project, as many of us did, to take me through those strange early days of quarantine and lockdown. I was sick of mowing the lawn outside of the fence, and I had learned about the benefits of growing pollinator-friendly plants. Say no to monoculture! commanded articles and websites and my own guilty conscience. That’s it, I thought. I’m tearing out that lawn and putting in a garden. With my memory of the Hartswick house fully present, I made a bulk mulch order and started ripping out the grass.
In the beginning, I tried to be most attentive to planting what is native to this region: white boneset, frothy with bees, creamy yellow coreopsis, and orange butterfly weed to tempt the Monarchs when they return each year. But I’m no purist and never have been comfortable with an all-or-nothing approach. So, I also planted spring bulbs like Siberian Irises (long my favorite), and some exotics that have no business in a mid-Atlantic garden, like the spiky blue globes of sea holly. I let the morning glories that I inherited with the house proliferate and re-seed themselves, pulling them back and out when necessary to keep them from overtaking the entire earth. I added annuals like Zinnias and then two rose bushes given to me by my mother for my fiftieth birthday earlier that year. I wanted my garden to be raucous and slightly unruly—something beautiful for my neighbors to look at during a terrifying time.
I’ve come to understand that backyard gardens are for you and front yard gardens are for others. The years I spent running past the Hartswick house were a different kind of chaos. We had small children who never slept and tenuous employment as adjunct faculty members at a state university. My mother was still an active alcoholic, and I was trying to manage her erratic presence in the life of my kids. It could get pretty dark in my head, and running helped me keep the dark at bay. I could take a variety of routes from my front stoop that would get me a mile or two from home, but the one that took me to the garden in front of the yellow house was a special tonic. The garden helped me mark time and reminded me that growth—both inside of seasons and between them—happens. That’s it, just happens. That’s all I really needed, confirmation of perpetual forward motion as I stopped to catch my breath or tighten my laces.
Not all of my neighbors appreciate my front yard garden; the neighborhood is populated mostly by old Pittsburghers who like their lawns to have edges so sharp you could cut yourself on them. The man in the house to the right of ours asks—waving his arm in a wide arc to indicate what seems to be my entire property—when we are going to “clean up the mess.” I bite my tongue and tell him sure, yes, of course, and make a mental note not to leave my weedings on the driveway in piles until I have the energy to move them to the compost, as I have been doing. But the house across the street says our house has never looked better in all the sixty years they’ve lived there, and the woman in the house in back of ours—the neighbor who likes privacy—says she can look out her bedroom window and see me out there loving on my plants.
The couple from around the corner have been walking by my house every day since the beginning of the pandemic. I am envious of their commitment to fitness, which I seem to have lost sometime in the last ten years. I am usually watering or yanking something out, covered in grit, when I see them. I wave and they wave back. They stop and tell me the garden looks beautiful, that they notice something new in it every time they walk by. I thank them and offer raspberry canes. Next year I will offer coneflowers and who knows what else. They bring me zucchini and tomatoes from their garden because I gave up on veggie gardening as soon as I realized I could grow flowers.
I recently learned the term “folly” as it applies to gardens. Garden follies were in vogue during the eighteenth century in England and France, and were architectural structures meant to look like ruins or doorways into secret rooms or other small but important buildings. They were called follies because they were illusions, whimsy, play. Built only for decoration, simply to delight. I like to think I planted my whole garden to be a kind of neighborhood folly.
I never did see the gardener outside of the house on Hartswick Ave. I sometimes imagined knocking on the door just to tell them how much I appreciated this space of beauty and rest they created. If I believe that front yard gardens are for others—and I do—then mine is for my grumbling next-door neighbor as much as it’s for anyone. Tomorrow I am going to mount a sign that explains my yard is full of native plants for pollinators, not weeds, and hope that ends our discussion about my mess. Even in this age of urban homesteading, I still think our front yard gardens are somewhat transgressive, a little radical. Small patches of hopefulness. Maybe he doesn’t share that feeling. Maybe eventually he’ll come around and see past the piles and into the whimsy of it all.
In the meantime, I plant and water and weed. I delight. ■
Sheila Squillante directs the MFA program in creative writing at Chatham University, where she is Executive Editor of The Fourth River, a journal of nature and place-based writing. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family and has let the morning glories take over the yard. Learn more at www.sheilasquillante.com.
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