Tag Archives: seeing a community through its gardens

People Are What They Grow

I’ve been living in McMinnville for five and a half years now and when I first arrived I marveled at the obvious love this town had for: lawns, tiny stands of shrubs and/or perennials dwarfed by expanse of lawn, Japanese maple trees (the mini kind with red leaves), and the sameness.  All the mind numbing sameness from house to house, yard to yard.  I had just moved up from a northern California neighborhood filled with a wonderful diversity of garden styles so the sameness here struck me as being stark, sterile, and depressing.

Naturally I’m painting a broad picture.  I’m telling what my impressions as a newcomer were.  It is to be understood that all this time there have been a sprinkling of gardens that have not fit this standard mold, that have stood out with their more interesting styles.  But I promise that those gardens were (and still are) in the minority.

I have come to understand that the garden style here represents the people here very well.  This is a conservative town that likes things to be neat and tidy, likes the diversity of flowers to be corraled in liver shaped segregated (easily maintained) beds.  This is how it deals with people as well.  People are superficially friendly here but any outsider will tell you that it goes air deep.  People aren’t actually that friendly here.  They are not eager to let new people into their inner circles.  There is a hierarchy that, while it exists in all places where humans gather to live, is more strictly observed than it ever was in the city I moved here from.  This orderliness, this silent segregation of people into groups and cliques, this tight containment of plants reflects the people who grow them.

My own garden “style” very much reflects me as well, both my good qualities and my bad.  I rarely weed.  I put my mess of fruit and vegetables where people can see them.  I let my roses run riot.  I let my trees reach out too far.  I eschew order and encourage my plants to live together in a chaos of tangles.  Every once in a while I trim some things, weed a little, pretend to make order.  My garden reflects my mind, which is not an orderly place at all but constantly full of thoughts, of ideas, of questions, of anxiety, and of reflections – all of it in an untidy mess.  What you see is what you get.

I’ve been noticing gardens changing slowly over the last few years.  I’ve seen some lawns ripped out and vegetable beds put in in their place.  I’ve seen more gardens leaning towards permaculture ideals, and more daring combinations of perennials, some of them even edible.  Blueberries as shrubs in the front yard!  I’ve been seeing more herbs, more flowers, more fruit trees being planted.  I’ve seen those liver shaped beds expand, shrinking the obsessively clipped lawns surrounding them.  I’ve seen more lawns go brown in the summer.

Best of all of this is that I’m seeing more and more vegetable gardens being put in front yards.  I am seeing sidewalk strips turn into corn patches.  I am seeing squash plants spilling out toward curbs.  I am seeing more and more food being grown right there in front where all the neighbors can see.  I suppose in some ways this is a sad reflection of our deep recession.  Food prices constantly going upwards is forcing people to see the merit of growing their own food.  Letting lawns go brown in summer is a reflection of thinner pocketbooks creaking under the weight of water bills.  I’m not sad about this.  I hate that people are getting more and more strapped, myself included.  I hate that so many of my friends are enduring hard times, scrabbling for enough money to pay mortgages, some going on food stamps.  I’m not happy for the stress that financial distress is bringing to people but if this is what it takes for people to understand the value of growing food instead of lawns, I can’t do anything but cheer for the transformation.

The apartment building in these pictures is around the corner from my house.  For years it has favored institutionally low maintenance landscaping.  The people who live in it are mostly middle aged to old, no kids, and truthfully they seem a dour motley crowd that rarely smiles back at me.  When I saw these squash plants pop up in early summer I was taken completely off my guard.  I was absolutely charmed.  It gave me a glimmer of hope for all of mankind to see them plant tomatoes against the chain link.  Many tomato plants in the place of azaleas and useless stinky Pieris.  I ride my bicycle past this little patch often and every single time it makes me happy.  It reflects change in a stolid community.

I wonder if eventually most lawns will disappear and give way to a diversity of garden styles and garden plants.  I wonder if McMinnville will ever lose its crazy love for utilitarian shrubs in favor of more daphne, herbs, flowering quince (or even fruiting!), and free range wild flowers?  I doubt it, but a girl can hope.