Like most yards in our neighborhood, we have a public sidewalk in front with either grass or a garden bed with shrubs marking the line of our property. It’s quite clear what’s “mine” and what’s public. People walk their dogs through the neighborhood but know it’s a “no, no” to let your dog do its business in the middle of someone’s property. We walk by and admire what each other has done, but these are not yards to really stop and enjoy. While I’ve yet to see a “Keep off the Grass!” sign in our neighborhood, neither are front yards an invitation to community.
I was first stimulated to think about this when I learned about Springwater Community and the “little free libraries” dotting the Lents neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Here, in front yards, was an invitation to stop…to open a tiny door and either leave or take a book. This simple expression of community, of sharing, really began to open my eyes to front yard possibilities!
Last fall we gathered a whole lot of plain cardboard boxes, flattened them out and covered all the grass in the front yard. My folks had just removed a couple of dead trees from their yard and the chips from all the branches provided a nice thick mulch over the cardboard. It sat this way over the winter as I pondered and prayed about what it could become.
God was challenging me to explore what it would mean to live more fully into the plans and purposes of God every day of the year, right in my neighborhood. What would it look like to design our front yard with God and neighbor in mind?
And that’s where my vision for the front yard was transformed. As I sat looking out over the yard, I began to ask questions like:
- What does our front yard reveal about what we value?
- How do front yards create barriers to community?
- As we walk through our neighborhood, what inspires us about other people’s front yards? Why?
- Are there front yards that make us feel excluded or unwelcome? What are the elements that provoke those feelings?
- Are there front yards that feel more inviting? Why?
What do we value? Personally, I know I need solitude. our backyard is a place of prayer and deep reflection. Others are welcome there, but usually only by invitation. But I also value community. Over the years I’ve had a lot of opinions about what community is, or should be. It’s easy to let our opinions run away with me until “community” becomes some collection of people who conform to my standards and ideals. But that’s not community.
Community comes to us on a multitude of terms. My involvement helps shape it, but so does the involvement of each of the others who participate. Community is not my backyard sanctuary where I’ve pre-defined the conditions. Community is often messy, welcoming of the other right where they are. What would that kind of community look like in my front yard?
We began exploring what it would look like to have an inviting space. We don’t want this to be a space people feel they must be personally invited into, we want this to be a place that draws people in. A space that says “Welcome”. Whether we are in the front yard or not, we want people to feel this is a place of rest, of quiet conversation, reflection, and community.
Although we have only 40 feet of front yard garden space, we created two paths from the sidewalk into the garden. The paths fan out at the sidewalk, a kind of visual invitation to venture in. Paths radiate in waves like rays from the sun. Nothing is straight, but flowing and natural. We didn’t want it to feel like a formal garden but a place to casually explore.
Soon we added a bench next to a micro-library along one of the paths – an invitation to come in, to sit, to share. We also have plans to include a you-pick tea garden with a variety of mints, lemon balm, and herbs for the taking. Later we may even add vegetables and flowers to share.
A Grand Experiment
This is really all a grand experiment. We don’t know where it will lead. Already God has touched and challenged us to rethink what it means to love God and love others in the context of our landscape. As we’ve explored what can be done, I’ve found myself more open to how this all applies outside the confines of our own yard. Curious neighbors have stopped by to find out what we’re up to, which has led to some wonderful conversations and new ideas for the space. While talking with our neighbor to the south, we were inspired to purchase together two espalier apple trees to plant on the border between our yards. Soon we’ll be sharing the fruit of friendship!
And really, as I reflect on what God is cultivating in us through this redesign of physical space, I’m realizing that the cultivation and nurture of friendship is not limited to a garden or a yard but is a challenge to each of us whether we live in urban centers, suburbs, or way out in the country. Perhaps the most authentic of gardens are the ones that break down the barriers between us and them, and mine and yours. And maybe the garden is simply a metaphor to encourage us to more intentionally cultivate community from the barren soil of alienation and loneliness and to nurture friendship from soils contaminated with fear and suspicion.