Who Is Your Garden For – You Or Your Neighbors?

WHO is your garden for?

I spent too much of my life caring about what other people thought of me.

Especially people who didn’t really seem to care too much about what I thought of them.

I still care too much sometimes.

But I try every day to make decisions based on what I want and what will be best for the people I love, rather than what looks good to the rest of the world.

Many of us spend too much time living our lives for the people who don’t really care about us.

That makes for a sad life.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who figure out there’s another way to live, it can be a blissfully powerful revelation.

Many gardens are created for people who don’t really care about us, in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses or to increase the resale value of the house.

That’s one reason why so many properties have a tall, slender cedar hedge for a privacy screen.

Not because it’s the best choice, but because everyone else does it (side note: it is often the most affordable choice, so I can’t knock it entirely).

I’m not saying you should forget about resale value altogether. If you’re planning to sell in the next 5 years, that will influence your garden design decisions and perhaps you won’t tear up the whole front lawn in favor of a pumpkin patch.

And I’m not saying ‘sod off’ to the neighbors. Indeed, a big organic vegetable garden in the front yard can be a great way to build community. It’s just that in this case you’re doing it from a place of love instead of a place of fear or shame.

So yes, you can design your organic garden for the folks who will be tending to it after you’ve moved up the hill, or for your neighbors as they take their dogs out for a morning walk, but let us expand this narrow list to also include those people who matter to you most:

  • Housemates. This could mean your husband, wife, live-in relatives or roommates. Most of them would probably appreciate having a say in the design process, especially if you make it easy for them by painting a picture of the possibilities, and giving them some choices: Do we want a barbecue and eating area? What are your favorite fruits and vegetables? What would you like to spend time doing in the backyard?
  • Little kids. Your little kids and grandkids need a little place to play. A lawn is good for that. A sandbox too. Swings are a hit, and with some foresight, can be converted to an exercise area when the kids get older, and then a tomato trellis. If you can, build them each a small raised bed that will be their very own organic vegetable garden. Give them a chance to develop a passion for gardening, food and nature early in life.
  • Big kids. Need a bigger place to play. If your yard is small, the street or the park down the street will have to do, but a “cool” hangout area in the back corner can be great if you want to encourage them to spend more time around home. Of course, if you want to encourage them to spend less time around home, make it decidedly “uncool” and sing Irish fishing songs while gardening in your underwear.
  • Companion animals. They like to run, dig, stretch, chew… fetch, chase, sleep, poo. Give them a place to do as many of these as you can. The rest of your garden will be left unscathed, or at least less-scathed. Of course if you have a cat, you need to find a way to keep the birds safe (while perhaps still giving her dibs on the mice, depending on your love of mice).
  • Other animals. If you’re fond of fauna, you have a great opportunity to provide birds, butterflies, insects, earthworms and many other animals with food, water and habitat. That takes some planning: you’ll want to use a mix of plants that provide year round food for them, a mix of water features that allow each animal to drink and bathe the way they prefer, and a mix of plants/rocks/water/other that allow them to live where they like to live. To me, building an animal sanctuary is such an inspiring opportunity.
  • Self. We musn’t forget the gardener. What do you want to see when you look out the window? Which foods and flowers do you want to harvest? What do you want to do in the garden besides gardening? A couple of weeks ago, I asked why grow a garden. Be sure to have a meeting with yourself about that one before you start planning this year.

The first step to designing your garden is to figure out who it’s for.

I’d love for you to tell me down below – who is your garden for and what do you do (or what will you do this year) to make it special for them?


  1. GardenSuz on January 17, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    I garden for myself first but it’s a deep rooted feeling as my father, born and raised on a farm, always gardened and taught me how to plant my first seeds at age 4. I always loved to watch things grow to the point that when my husband and I bought out first house I let some of the weeds grow just to see what kind of flowers I would get. We’re still in the same house and it’s been 32 years. Looking back I can say that I’ve always gardened for myself, ignoring everything such as the chemical lawn fertilizing, lawn maintenance and landscape design companies. Every year I try something new. Last year was converting flower boxes that are structurally part of the house to have self watering reservoirs. I do have to acknowledge that how I design respects the old neighbourhood. I fell in love with the rolling lawns that connect us all and keep it that way. My lawn is a mishmash of what grass wants to grow, Creeping Charlie, plantain and other things, but I do pick, by hand, the dandelions and do so out if respect for the neighbours with the perfect (in the traditional sense) lawns. This year I’ll harvest them for my salad. So to sum it up it’s a balancing act. Ultimately it’s what I want but within the norms that make our neighbourhood a sought after area. I have to say that the compliments I get are not my reward but are just so nice to hear.

    • Phil on January 17, 2015 at 5:12 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing this. This idea that we can garden for ourselves and our neighbors is a direction I was heading in with the article at one point, but cut it down to keep things shorter, so thank you for filling that part in for me 🙂

  2. Mat on January 17, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Talking about garden designing Phil, do you have any recommendations for garden planning software? I use the generic one that is pushed by various seed companies (mine is Sutton Seeds, but I think a number of companies use the same engine) but whilst it makes nice layouts it doesn’t seem to be very functional as a ‘tool’.To be honest I think I’d do as well with a sheet of paper and a pencil… Maybe I’m expecting too much. In particular I’d like something that enabled me to make copious notes.

    • Phil on January 17, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      Ya, I’ve played with that software too, but I always come back to a paper and pencil as well. Feels more like gardening. Sorry I can’t help you more with the software side of things.

    • Mat on January 17, 2015 at 11:11 pm

      Thanks PJ – its the same software as I currently use. Pencil and paper it is then….

    • Carol on January 19, 2015 at 6:47 am

      I use the graphics of a desktop publishing program (MS Publisher in my case) to map out my garden. I can zoom in, zoom out, and have an overall map of the garden as a whole. I then add individual pages for each particular section (ie kitchen garden, front garden, fruit tree area, etc) which can be as detailed as I wish.

  3. Anne on January 17, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Gardens is for me and my love for eating and sharing with others tasty meals from organically grown vegetables

  4. Bob on January 18, 2015 at 7:10 am

    I garden because I grew up with my dad and uncle always gardening. They mainly did tomatoes but, I’ve expanded. My wife has totally fallen in love with the fresh veggies from our garden and we both love the “movie theatre” of birds and animals that grace our yard for the flowers and other purposefully planted plants that are attractive to them. It really is a blast to sit out on the deck and just look at what’s going on in our back yard. Now to get to work on the front. It’ll be for us but, it’ll probably entertain the neighbors as well.

  5. Terry on January 18, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    I garden for my health and for peace of mind. The produce we buy has been sub-standard for decades and until big Ag gets their act together growing as much of your own food as possible is a must if you want to live healthy and not just exist.Just as importantly, I find the garden is the best place in the world to just sit and commune with nature. Sit and listen to the pollinators work all around you. Close your eyes and listen to the wind rustling through the leaves of the plants, calling you back to a simpler, happier time.When I was a child in the 60s I spent hours in the garden, working and playing. I didn’t always want to be there then, but I do now! And if I close my eyes and concentrate long and hard enough, I’m there! And so is my dear mother, she who taught me a love for gardening and for all the beauty nature brings. Then I open my eyes and the sun glistens in the tears on my cheeks.Thank you for the memory Phil!May 2015 bring you much joy and happiness!Terry

  6. Donald on January 18, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I garden because I want better nutrition, a place to hang outside, privacy screening, and a habitat (in order to establish balance) for as many animals and insects as possible, . Trying to learn as much about permaculture techniques as I can to implement food forest concepts with polyculture guilds. In the back yard I have established raised beds to grow annual plants (making them hugel based) with pathways which (being created this spring) will be mulched swales for irrigation and rain water harvesting. The rest is perennial, or will be, food forest as I further develop my space into the five zones with six of the seven layers ( the canopy being dwarf fruit trees). The neighbors are watching my progress and I get mostly approval mixed with occasional derision from those who little understand the permaculture approach and wish to flaunt their imagined superiority with row gardening. The front yard I am devoting to curb appeal with nitrogen fixing redbuds and bushes for privacy and beneficial insect attraction as a compromise between resale plus insurance considerations and the needs of my soil and plantings.

  7. Becca on January 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    I garden for connectedness…with myself, my family, and the planet. No where else can I feel a connectedness to the life forces than in a food garden. Nature is so abundant…but I must admit I had been feeling overwhelmed about my garden. Following years of drought and water restrictions forbidding any watering the drought broke with floods. Our home had been flooded and much of the garden destroyed. I live in a subtropical region of Australia but felt like my garden was impossible. Hot humid summers that make most plants wilt in the heat…I dreamt of a temperate climate. After deciding to learn how to improve my soils I subscribed to your academy, I realised my summers might be hot but you have to deal with snow…when almost nothing can grow…summers here produce mangoes and pineapples and papaya…I realised how ungrateful I had been. I am really excited about what I can grow now. I just have a suburban block but my goal is to produce most of our fruit and vegetables. Every night I dream of what I can do in the garden the next day. I am hoping it will also transform mine and my families health. Thankyou Phil 🙂

    • Donald on January 18, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      Becca, have you looked into contour swale creation for water management? If you know where water enters your land you can slow, spread, and soak much of the water in drought conditions and direct the flows away from your house in the flood events with contour swales. Hugel beds (buried logs debris and mulch ) will retain a higher amount of annual moisture in drought and flood years. I use beneficial nematodes for termite mitigation in my yard with all the organic matter being used for plant nutrition and stay away from planting or heavily mulching near the house

    • PJ on January 18, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      Becca, I too am in a subtropical region. I found some lettuce, tomato seed at Baker’s Heirloom Seed as well as Annie’s Heirlooms that are good in hot weather. They ship anywhere but where I am. If you want names of these seeds, I would be happy to share.

    • Donald on January 18, 2015 at 2:35 pm

      Sorry, my comments box went wild. I just wanted to add that your wilting plants could benefit from planting perennial overstory for shade (fruit trees and legumes) and wind protection (both blocking and/or directing flow). Bill Mollison, a Tasmanian, has written extensively about your subtropical climate as well as other zones, in his “Permaculture: A Designer’s Handbook”, and Geoff Lawton maintains a website which discusses application of permaculture design techniques that you might find very interesting.

      • PJ on January 18, 2015 at 2:49 pm

        I grow a garden because it grows me.

      • Becca on January 18, 2015 at 10:02 pm

        Thanks Donald. I have been following Geoff Lawtons work…but I really enjoyed the Backyard Permaculture film which you kindly included the link for. (A great motivation injection) I already harvest most of our rainwater…but am looking to increase it and am also interested in the the grey water for my fruit trees….I have also been considering planting on my nature strip…which ties in with Phil’s post. I was thinking of some dwarf fruit trees like a mulberry so that anyone passing by can also enjoy them. 🙂

  8. mensamom on January 18, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    My garden is an extension of myself. I grow what my hubby and I like to eat. Since he knows there will be fresh veggies on the table, he’s always willing to pick green beans, okra, squash, or whatever is ready. He was never into gardening and really wasn’t thrilled about my desire for one. But after the first year, he’s out there helping me tend “our” garden.

  9. Lynea Mitchell on January 18, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    My gardens has 3 purposes…education, motivation, and beautification. My gardening squad is made up of fifteen 10-17 year olds. We built 3 gardens last year on two local school campuses (a preschool, and their elementary/middle school) in an at risk neighborhood that is labeled a food dessert. The gardens educate the preschoolers, school aged students and their families about healthy choices and responsibility. The students take home food each time they work in the garden, but all that is left over is sold to a local chef. They are constantly using math and interpersonal/communication skills to keep these gardens going. The gardens motivate others to start a small plot in their yard, or join the local community garden to start reversing the effects that eating processed foods has had on their families. And the gardens are just plain beautiful!!! It is a tricky balance between caring too much of what other’s think and not caring enough. I am always double checking the administration that what I am doing is pleasing to all…when half the time I should do what I know is right and believe that if they don’t like it at first…the power of growing food will change them in the end. As I gear up for this season, (I live in Cleveland and we are covered in snow at the moment) I have it as a top priority to try to fulfill the ideas and hopes of the students first.

  10. Keith Taylor on January 18, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    One can have a perfectly respectable-looking garden with borders planted up with all manner of flowering plants, as long as one ensures that the plants will attract beneficial insects to protect and fertilise the vegetables and fruits are are interspersed with them. We live away from the city, on a smallholding where nobody cares what anyone else does, so we do pretty much as we please. There are stables and kennels nearby and even a dairy. The cattle are driven past our property a few times a month and we often go out and collect cow pats to add to the compost heap. The soil around here is sandy and very stony about a foot down, but raised beds with lots of organic matter incorporated and spread thickly ontop as mulch has, over the past year, given very good returns for our efforts.We save our own seeds and let toads, lizards and predatory insects make themselves at home in the garden so that, in the end, we pay nothing for the produce we place on the table.

  11. Donna Mollaun on January 18, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    I grow for my pleasure, but I take the neighbors and the neighborhood’s real estate value into consideration – that effects my wallet too. My backyard is mostly private, but the prettier veggies are in view: Peppers, herbs & bean topiaries (pole beans and peas can be grown on creative supports that are actually beautiful. Plants like tomatoes & squash that look terrible by August are behind the other pretty veggies. My raised beds are surrounded by flowers – pretty ones that deter pests.I’ve considered ornamental cabbage (pretty) here & there in the front yard. I use it when displaying food, so why buy it?Fruit trees are attractive. Front yards work for that.Why not be considerate of others in the neighborhood? The “others” like to get some of the harvest too.

  12. Carol on January 19, 2015 at 6:42 am

    I’ve always gardened pretty much for my own pleasure. I used to live in a small coastal village, where some well meaning neighbours used to mow my yard for me. They couldn’t bear to see the grass grow long and straggly, something I didn’t mind. But they thought they were helping out the lady next door, as I always appeared rather frail when trying to push a mower about. While I didn’t mind the grass growing long and straggly, it was something the neighbours couldn’t live with, so I’d look out the window and there they would be, mowing the grass to within an inch of its life. Another well meaning person decided to look after my garden while my husband and I were on holidays for a week. When we returned home, all my herbs had been “weeded out” my triple graft apple tree had been severely pruned – below the graft – and wait for it – a tall woody weed in the backyard had been carefully pruned into the classic fruit tree vase shape!My husband and I have since moved interstate and to a very rural village in an agricultural area. The neighbours don’t mind how long my grass is, afterall there is 8 ft high sugar cane across the road and behind our few houses. My husband is not interested in gardening and has stated the garden is mine to do whatever I want. So I grow tropical food plants – as many perennials as possible as I’m not getting any younger, and I have a small pond that I can view from the comfort of the verandah and watch my little pet ducks splashing about.

  13. Phil on January 24, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    As I’ve come to expect, all of your comments have turned this topic into a great learning experience for me and hopefully for others. I’ve been enjoying sipping my tea and reading through your stories. Thanks for sharing. For anyone else, it’s never too late to add your thoughts 🙂

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