The Value of Front Gardens in a Pandemic, and Always

The last few weeks have been a surreal time. Many people are suffering physically, emotionally and economically. Some are lucky to just be bored and restless. The silver lining of the Covid-19 lockdown, for me, has been the wonderful re-sensitisation that comes from doing very little and not leaving my suburb. I’m feeling particularly grateful for front gardens, which have become the focus of my sharper-than-usual attention. My daily stroll has been transformed from a relatively ordinary affair into an emotionally sustaining activity, and observing my community’s wonderfully diverse gardens is a key part of that sustenance.

For a while I’ve been wanting to write about the importance of the garden as a ‘gift to the street’. Imparted to me by landscape designer Philip Smith, this phrase calls for little explanation. ‘Gift’ sums up what a front garden should be: a thing given willingly to others without payment; a present. The whole neighbourhood is the beneficiary, not just the owner.

The garden as gift to the street comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be gracefully considered or haphazard: a single tree perfectly composed in lawn and drystone walls, a pebblecrete slab with some potted pelargoniums, a grapevine smothering a car port, squashed olives on the pavement from an overhanging branch. 

A front garden can be an illustration of a specific horticultural addiction (cymbidiums, dahlias or aroids) or a gnome fetish; an expression of cultural heritage (olives and grapes and figs, plastic drums overflowing with dragonfruit, or trays of gotu kola), or an advertisement for benign neglect, a wilding mess that is more vital than any of the above. One of my current favourite gift landscapes is a pair of spotted gums growing either side of a street from different gardens, forming an archway, a feeling of procession. Reminders of the ancient forest that once grew here.

Monterey, California.
Leura, New South Wales.
Los Angeles, California.
Los Angeles, California.

A front garden’s value to the community can be measured in many ways: beauty, novelty, eccentricity, humour, a sense of abundance or a sense of cultural or historical connection. In all cases, something is produced, whether physical  – like food or seasonal flowering – or an emotional reaction. There is something satisfying about a tree in fruit, even if you don’t taste it; and something life-affirming about flowers grown just for the sake of it.

Berkeley, California.

As someone who makes a living designing gardens, I must admit that professionally designed gardens rarely succeed in giving to the neighbourhood in this way. All too often, designed gardens are low risk, low maintenance, low excitement; afraid of seeming earnest or being vulnerable. Too cool. Perhaps part of this is because they’re typically designed for the client and the designer’s portfolio. The community is rarely perceived as a client. Perhaps it’s because sometimes their origin is in a desire for status – a statement of wealth, success, or control. Moreover, landscape design is increasingly used as a tool for clients to insulate themselves from neighbours with fences, hedges, walls and screens. As I see it, the most exciting gardens are invariably those created by their inhabitants, and they should be elevated and celebrated.

Auckland, New Zealand

There’s a second, related, way in which other people’s gardens bestow value: Now, more than ever, we need to see each other and have some level of safe social contact. In the last three weeks – at an appropriate distance – I’ve met and chatted to more neighbours than at any time in my life. I benefit from the fact that – unlike many places – Inner-West Sydney mandates a level of openness in front gardens, so you can’t put up a great big fence. Everyone’s garden is on display, whether they like it or not.

The garden as gift to the street comes in all shapes and sizes

ROBert champion

Of course, the interactions stem from a universal yearning for social contact. But all conversations with strangers require a ‘way in’. And talking with your neighbours about their gardens is an infinitely better starter than talking about the weather (especially with the effects of climate change rendering weather talk a no-go). Perhaps gardens are the ideal conversation starter, as they live predominately outside politics, religion and controversy… and almost nobody dislikes plants. 

The lockdown finally got me talking to the vegetable gardener down the road whose garden I envy, to the woman who can’t seem to get rid of her weeds, and to the ladies across the street about my passionfruit crop. Recently, after briefly complimenting an elderly gentleman on his majestic jungle of a front yard, he said: “May your soul flourish”. In a time of individualism, echo-chambers, transient neighbourhoods, low home ownership and mistrust of strangers, it’s these small exchanges that make me think that everything’s still okay. Perhaps I do live in a community, not just a suburb. I heard a psychologist recently saying that time spent talking to strangers directly increases happiness and well-being. Maybe this is more essential than we think.

For those of us who are relatively young, healthy and privileged, this time is a very enlightening glimpse into how some of the elderly, infirm or less fortunate in our society experience life in ‘normal’ times. Those who have little social contact, those unable to work, those who haven’t the money to travel. Life for many is limited to a small area, to isolation, to deprivation. We are being shown the importance of living in neighbourhoods of beauty, warmth, wildness, diversity, and a friendly over-the-fence chat. Perhaps this time may help us re-evaluate why we garden, and for whom.

Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California.