Do I Have a Country Lot in the City?

Front yard garden

My front yard garden – the view from the street. The beginning of our second year in the house.

 

Two things happened in the past few weeks that led me to start thinking differently about our house and yard.

#1: When chatting with my neighbor as he was weeding his front yard garden he said, “You guys have a country lot. You have a lot going on around your house – piles of wood, gardens, projects.”

#2: An old coworker was in our neighborhood and drove by our house to check out our gardens. She said, I love your garden, but that style would never fly in the neighborhood where I live. My neighborhood is too formal.”

These two conversations converged and I started to wonder – do we have a country lot in the city?

front yard garden

Our garden about a year after the first photo in this post. I painted the house and we’ve grown our gardens.

I grew up in a very urban area and I consider myself a city person. I love Madison for its mix of vibrant city and natural greenery, and have lived within its boundaries the entire 13 years I’ve been in Wisconsin.

When we were looking for a new house over two years ago, we wanted to move from our suburban feeling neighborhood closer to the city core. We wanted to live in a walkable and bikeable neighborhood with amenities such as cafes, restaurants, hardware stores, and a library.

But, we also wanted a big lot so we could have large gardens and plenty of space to spread out. We set a minimum lot size and an ideal lot size, knowing that we’d have to skirt the balance between a dense neighborhood and yard space.

In Madison, most of the neighborhoods close to the city center have smaller lot sizes. Our minimum lot size was 7,000 and our ideal was 10,000 (with lots of sun). When house listings came up on my computer the lot size was the first thing I looked at. If it was under our minimum, I immediately deleted it.

The house we eventually bought exceeded our ideal lot size by 3,000 square feet! Although we do have some big trees (lots of fun for my arborist husband) that keep half of our yard in shade.

In the two years we’ve transformed parts of our yard from an overgrown mess to huge food gardens. It’s exactly what we envisioned for our new house and it’s been a blast to bring it into being.

But, the comments from the past few weeks gave me pause. How does our neighborhood view our yard?

vegetable garden with flowers

Another shot of the front yard garden from the front steps facing the street.

It’s very apparent that our house has a working yard. We grow food, we chop wood, we entertain friends for dinner and drinks, and we work on projects in the shade. My husband plants trees and shrubs, we get rid of grass and replace it with gardens, and we spread a lot of woodchips.

We keep telling ourselves that it’s a work in progress. “We’ve only lived here for two years!” we exclaim to each other when we feel guilty about our sometimes messy yard.

It’s definitely nowhere near the “perfect” American yard you see in TV commercials and magazines. We have weeds, piles of wood waiting to be chopped for winter, and a deck that’s falling apart and needs to be ripped out this summer.

But, we’re building a yard that represents us and what’s important in our life: growing food, planting trees and flower gardens, and storing wood for the winter.

So, in reflecting upon my yard this past week I’ve come full circle from embarrassment about its imperfections to pleasure in all that we’ve done. It doesn’t really matter what other people think of my yard – if I love it and revel in its imperfect beauty that’s all that really matters. Right?

See how it all came together in these posts about how we built the garden:

Building Our New Garden

Building the Front Yard Garden – Part 2

Expanding the Front Yard Garden

Adding More Garden! Our Side Yard Transformation

 

 

Learn how to get better results.

Let's starting with talking about the top 5 mistakes most gardeners are making.

Comments

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    I love this. I want a country lot in the city! Ours isn’t big enough for a totally self-sustainable garden, nor do we have enough sun for it (shade is nice for kids to play in and for us to hang out, though) but I still eke out as many vegetables and herbs as I can in what we’ve got. It’s certainly a work in progress, too. Every year I vow to do better and then another tree goes kaput and we’re left with a pile of mulch and weeds gone amuck.

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    Cheers. To. This. Instead of saying “we’ve only been here a year!” I tell myself “We’ve only been here 3 years!” I’m on a five year plan. Our neighbors can GET OVER IT 🙂

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    Love your thoughts. I love your yard and your house, I find it refreshingly minimalist. My husband is an arborist as well (Bodega Bay, CA).

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      Darris – You’re so lucky to live in CA (minus the drought). I would love to try gardening there some time. I lived in San Francisco for two years, but I wasn’t a gardener then!

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    Barbara Meier

    I have to smile and chuckle. I live in the country but feel pressure to groom my HUGE yard/acreage like a city yard. How did us country folks end up in a high end neighborhood? Easy, we were the first ones here and thought we would remain remote. Things built up around us. We built a nice house in the country and now we have a nice house in a high end neighborhood. The reason we are feeling the need to “meet the city yard standard” is because we want to sell our acreage and downsize. Now it has to be manicured and “perfect”. SIGH!!!

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    I like it very much. You are a purple cow in your neighborhood (Seth Godin) I would have to say though, if you would like to be more aesthetically appealing for your neighbor’s (first and then you)….I might suggest you paint the stakes…they are a distraction visually and actually take away from the actual beauty of nature. Either the brown of the mulch or perhaps the green of the grass or the tree/shrub?:) against your house under your window, or off-white…play around with paint! Have fun. I am not a gardener or a dirt person, but I love the results and your website may be teaching me to get over myself.

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    Great article! We have a small city lot in Waukesha with veggie gardens, chickens and a kid-built tree fort where our 3 kids love to play. It isn’t the typical city yard, but we love it (and it draws kids from all over the neighborhood to play). Our neighbor’s young granddaughter calls our house “the farm” and loves to visit her grandparents so she can come over and play. Besides the benefit of growing food in a small space, I love how our yard has sparked conversations, and thus deeper connections, with our neighbors. It’s not just about growing food–it’s about growing a community!

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      Erin- I agree, we’ve met many of our neighbors directly due to our front yard gardens. So many people stop by to say how much they love what we’re doing. It’s been a great way to meet people in our new neighborhood.

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    I really like the term “working yard”. I live in suburban Madison in the land of manicured lawns. Our yard has a strawbale garden, a raised bed garden made from scrap wood, a compost bin made from recycled pallets and some other pleasing-to-me-but-maybe-not-so-much-to-the-neighborhood association additions. So far, no one has complained. I just hope my neighbors see the beauty of turning construction backfill soil into something productive.

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    We have lived in a big (2000sq.ft.), old (1880’s) rambling home in the middle of a city in the Fox Valley for 17 years. Our 1/3-acre lot has evolved over the years, from a mostly-grass yard that took almost 2 hours to mow, to what I guess you are calling a “country lot”, where mowing takes a quick 45 minutes now. We have developed a large flower and herb garden, a shady “bird bed” planted with trees and shrubs that attract migrating birds, and our vegetable garden, which we extended again this season (with some tips from your presentation at the Garden Expo — thanks!). However, we also have a big pile of brush, two big piles of wood waiting to be chopped and split and used in our firepit, and 4-5 xeroscaped beds lining our lot that are last in line to get weeded and maintained once spring comes. I love, love, LOVE our urban paradise, where we have raised two wonderful boys and spent countless days and evenings rejuvenating from the stresses of daily life. I love sitting with my family as the sun sets, eating our dinners outdoors (which almost always includes many contributions from our garden), reveling in our yard and gardens and enjoying our flickering fire, hidden away from the busy street just 15 yards away. Once a Mom from our neighborhood school was looking for a wagon wheel for a school production and she asked me if we might have one in our brush pile … ha! “No, we have brush, which we use for mulch, kindling, and wildlife habitat, but no wagon wheels,” I said, and just smiled. There will always be neighbors that check when you mow your yard, or plant their petunias and geraniums in perfect rows, but I think you have to just consider our neighborhoods and communities as one big garden, and our country lots as a wild, natural corner of that big garden, where nature and wildlife are allowed to be free. I, for one, wouldn ‘t have it any other way.

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      Irene- Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful reflections! On a whole I think our neighbors enjoy our yard. I like the idea that ours happens to be that wild corner. I’m going to keep that little tidbit for the future.

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    You know, I have mixed feelings on this…On one hand I believe that is is good and wonderful to use our yards as gardens! On the other, this was a ‘regular’ city neighborhood when you moved there. I am bemused when people move next to an airport and then complain about airport noise, or move to the country and complain that the farm tractors leave mud on the road. So have you moved to a city neighborhood and have expectations that the neighbors would NOT be bothered by a front yard with wire fences, etc.?

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      Laurie- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We’ve actually met a ton of complimentary neighbors and people stop at least once or twice a week when we’re outside to meet us and say hi. We’re not the only front yard garden on the street and our neighborhood is definitely not “regular” – it’s on the east side of Madison 😉 We were conscious of what kind of neighborhood we picked knowing our visions for our house/yard.

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    I think it’s natural for people to be curious when you are growing interesting things around your house. I live in a very urban portion of Philly with not much greenery. I got a free tree from the city a few years ago put into a dirt patch cut out of the sidewalk in front of my house. All my neighbors ask me about how the tree is doing, what kind of fence I’m putting in, etc. Last year I planted sunflowers in the little patch of dirt around the tree and it was the talk of the street! I think that neighbors love having some flourishing life around to talk about and look at. It makes the neighborhood feel more like a community.

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    I am a master gardener and adore what you are doing. However, I am a real estate expert and a homeowner also. In saying that, I think you do need to consider your curb appeal in your overall design to maintain property values (and friendships) in the area. Although wire fencing is necessary, can it eventually be screened by weaving wood sticks between the metal posts? or something more attractive? Also being a good neighbor means making sure your wood piles and compost piles are properly maintained so they aren’t attracting unwanted critters. I do believe more neighbors will appreciate your gardens then be offended by them so you shouldn’t worry too much. A nice jar of freshly canned salsa may help people overlook the temporary messes!

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    I live down the street from you and think your garden and yard look fantastic. You’ve transformed the lot and it is clear you love your space and gardening.

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      Thanks, Emme. That’s the feedback we’ve gotten from the neighborhood so far. We’ve loved living here this past year. Thanks for reading!

  • […] The last post about what my neighbors think of my yard sparked a lot of comments on the blog. Read what people had to say and join in the conversation here. […]

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    Katie albaugh

    I feel that things are swinging your way…toward real life over impressions, the artisan appreciation of authentic participation instead of living vicariously through others’ lives. Bravo! We are home-gardener- wannabes who just bought some property near Madison. I hope we can learn enough about northern gardening to have a wee bit of success;)

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      I love your thoughts, Katie! Gardening truly is about creating something with your own two hands, it doesn’t get any more authentic than that. Gardening in Wisconsin is wonderful, the only hard part is the long winter! Thanks for stopping by.

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    Daryle Thomas

    Hi Megan,
    It took me a moment to realize the size of your lot. As an Extension Master Gardener with UVM, I love to grow crops in micro plots. I have my annual cucumber garden of 4 plants just now setting their first true leaves. It’s July 28th. I should have 40 full-sized cucumbers by the killing frosts of later September here in Vermont. My garden plot is 22 1/2 inches by 22 1/2 inches. I am looking for “homestead” property to grow old on (I turn 64 tomorrow). Anything over ten acres is a good starting point, but I’ll still grow micro plots just for the fun of it. Ten or more acres means there are no neighbors to complain about anything. Those that do will be shown the “I have a Ruger and a John Deere back hoe” sign. (Just kidding!)

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      Thanks for sharing, Daryle! Our lot is 13,000 square feet. It stresses me out thinking about having anything bigger. I’m a city girl through and through!

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    Lori McCormick

    I love the fact that you are growing a beautiful etible garden. I think you could make the garden more attractive by adding “natural framework” to the space. I think a border of lavender, rosemary, or boxwood would define the space beautifully. Also, the creation of parteres within your garden with defined borders would also serve to define the natural beauty of your yard.

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      Thanks for the suggestions, Lori! I appreciate you taking the time of offer some input. It’s definitely a work in progress! We bought the house from a lady in her 90’s so there’s been a ton of work to do inside and out. My dream is to have a cute little fence around my garden with an arbor for an entrance and maybe even some brick paths. There’s always next year, that’s the great thing about gardening.

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    I’m from India.your garden is simply awesome,i started terrace gardening few years ago,now I’m having 30-35 pots in my terrace.
    Impressed with yours.

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      Thanks for stopping by, Mazher! I would love to see your garden in India. What kinds of things are you growing?

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    karin Groth

    hello, love your yard and your ideas. I live in stewart B.C. canada and have two lots , lots of berries, flowers and veggies. I am getting rid of most of my grass and the neighbours are fine with that. it all looks very attractive, but casual. Keep up the inspiring work. Everybody should be doing that and getting rid of most of their lawns, can’t eat grass! Karin

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      Thanks for stopping by, Karin! I love B.C., my husband and I visited there two springs ago. We’d love to go back someday. Your two lots sound wonderful. I agree – less grass is awesome!

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    Megan your garden is your personal inner creativity and happiness. As long as you aren’t breaking any laws and not interfering with your neighbors’ privacy and livelihood, enjoy every moment that you spend toiling with the dirt and manures. It makes no difference on the size of a lot as long as you devote the time to make it do what you wish from it. I find tranquillity and solitude when I am in my garden like no place else in my house. I love tinkering in my garage but, the garden rejuvenates me when I see mother nature doing its thing. Making a beautiful flower or a tomato plant grow from a simple seed.Don’t worry about your wood that needs chopping. It5 will be chopped when you’ll need to keep warm. The porch repairs, they will take the place of the garden chores once autumn rolls around They will get accomplished in due time and you’ll revel at the results and maybe even throw a party and invite the neighbors to share a few celebratory libations. Keep on digging and harvesting, Ben

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      Thanks so much for your thoughtful words, Ben. I also get so much joy from my garden. It really does feed me on such a deep level. It sounds like your garden does that for you, too. Aren’t we lucky that we found such a life-giving hobby!

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    Loved your thoughts on front yard gardening and other projects. I plan to do the same next season. In my back yard I practice permaculture. I care not what the neighbors think. I believe they should get with the program and stop maintaining lawns. They should do some research. They would find out how resource-destroying lawns are.

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      I agree with the lawn thing, LaVonne. I live in a city of lakes and a lot of people fertilize their lawns and it runs off into the water. How exciting that you’re starting a front yard garden. Keep me posted!

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    Elizabeth Cox

    I think it’s absolutely awesome what yall are doing with YOUR property…..doesnt matter what others think or say!! Youre growing food and making Mother Earth happy too!! Go for it!!!

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    I so hear what you are saying about your lot being in the city but its usefulness as a country lot. I was always embarrassed by undone projects, messy garden changes, etc., but now I love that we are always a work in progress. It produces food for our family, chickens and dogs. So who cares if we don’t have the perfect flower garden and house like the rest of the city…not me!! I love your honesty and all the wonderful ideas your newsletters are providing in my gardening. Thank you!

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      Obviously, we’re on the same page, Pam! i like your attitude. We chose a neighborhood where we knew it would be okay to have a somewhat messy yard, so that helps!

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    Bridget Kubes

    That type of yard is very common in the city of Seattle. People use their front and back yards. Most lots are small compared to big California lots. I visiting a friend in Missouri and there is no way their neighborhood would support that kind of gardening. That’s why I wouldn’t buy a house in those kinds of communities ?

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    I think it looks great! I am in a suburb of st louis. I am trying to go native plants . I had to email my cul de sac neighbors to tell them what I’m doing in advance because its a non manicured look. I want less grass so we don’t have to use water to grow it and then mow it (bad for environment)
    My front yard looks different from everyone else but I have butterflies and birds. And a lower water bill. Go against the grain and live your life!

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    Tell Archie Bunker and Ms FancyPants “Thank you very much!” and carry on….I think your front yard garden looks great. Who wants a lawn anyway? I’m pretty sure that you can’t eat a lawn. And it’s all one color. There’s a good reason for that old saying: Like watching grass grow. It’s BORING!

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    Janet S Hatcher

    I love your yard the way you have created it. It is actually kind of the way some garden magazines are leaning – More grass is not in vogue.My husband and I live on 5 acres in Southern Sawyer county, northernwestern Wisconsin. Our garden is in the center of the 5 acres and 1 mile from our small village. So no problems of neighbors not approving. Props to you both for following your passion. Off topic-we unfortunately are inundated with ATV traffic and it is not going to go away. ?

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    Devon Henry

    I know what your talking about about. I’m slowly getting rid of most of my lawn in my front yard, replacing it with edible perennials and flowers. This type of yard is very different from the rest of the neighborhood front yards which are the standard green lawn.

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