They walk by at least once a week, sometimes more often.  They gawk; it’s natural, especially when the landscape is so devoid of anything happening, anything exciting.  Who or what are they?  Pedestrians.  Delivery Personnel.  Soccer Moms.  Tourists.  Husbands And Wives Returning Home From Work.  People Who Took A Wrong Turn.  Future Leaders.

Not everything is worth taking with you.  Teenagers home from school on break might use the front lawn to lounge in bikinis for a week each year, but otherwise traditional lawns are an out-dated throwback to a time when America put down the roots it had always known.

To put it bluntly, it’s rather boring to drive or walk through most suburban neighborhoods.  One reason is that there’s nowhere to go, no adventure to have, unless you get off the sidewalk and hike into an undeveloped area nearby.  If you are lucky enough to have such a natural amenity.  Overall, most lots look about the same, with minor variations.  I’m not saying personalization isn’t meaningful.  What I’m talking about here is service to a higher good, something not done in the age-old race to meet the accepted standard and fit in.

It is simpler than it might seem to reinvent a front yard and utilize it as a demonstration site that promotes sound ecological principles while also offering a gift to the block on which you live.  In my work I have seen many old installations that were clearly thrown in by the property developer as an afterthought.  Usually, trees are planted only a few short feet from foundations and have to be removed, adding carbon back into the atmosphere and killing a tree that, if sited correctly, could have fed the biosphere for years.  Shrub varieties chosen for their mega-durability are often plopped in a haphazard arrangement, leaving no room to use the landscape in a satisfying way.  Other species are not doing well because they were improperly placed for growing requirement considerations.  These are just some of the tappable opportunities to start with.

A key step is to consider that your transformation needs to be understandable to viewers not used to seeing ecology in an urban or suburban setting.  Creating manageable wildness, so to speak, will give passersby the framework for seeing and accepting something not seen much yet in this context.  Here are two ways to accomplish this.

  1. Frame your demonstration yard with expected border material.  This can be anything from wood to structural plants and can extend around the perimeter if you are using your entire front yard as a demonstration site or just around a patch if you want to start small to test this out before committing.  Some research indicates that people respond well to “messy” ecology when it is contained.
  2. Provide a description of what is happening on the site or a way for visitors to interact with the landscape.  A sign pointing out plant species and their function for wildlife and water conservation, as well as descriptors for other features and their uses can legitimize a site and add to its educational service for children or ecology class field trips.  Perhaps you have the space to create a footbridge over a water feature with an invitation to walk over it, a bench with inviting fragrant flowers, or a kiosk where neighbors can share books and post fliers for activities.

If given the chance to experience something different from the norm, different people will have individual reactions; however, with some key considerations from the design end, another ho-hum turn around the block can become:

  • a destination that gets people out of their homes more often because they want to see what’s happening
  • an ecological oasis providing wildlife with needed stopovers that link larger habitat pockets in a dwindling ecosystem
  • a demonstration of how to make the transition from outdated to relevant
  • a stopping place to chat and enhance real community

In meditating on what to do with a front yard, consider the opportunity you have to lower your own costs as well as labor inputs while beautifying your neighborhood and showing your friends a new standard for keeping up with the Joneses, one which serves the greater good and not the ego.  Well, once you (and your neighbors) see it in full swing, maybe just a little bit of pride is okay.