A garden is more than a garden. This realization came in 2006 when I began removing grass from the shared easement property behind my fence on Batavia Road in Warrenville where I decided to plant a new garden. Since my back fence faces a very public street, bike route, and biking path, I thought I might cheer a few people up if I put a garden around the back entry gate. Little did I know that this garden installation would inspire a transformation in my life of such magnitude that it would touch people around the globe.
When I contacted the City of Warrenville to ask if I could plant on city easement property, the individuals I spoke to had never heard the question before. They were surprised, but the answer was “yes,” as long as I did not plant a tree or a large bush that the city would have to maintain.
One day while removing the sod in the easement area, I was surprised when I looked up to see a little man standing in front of the garden staring at the progress. Without even a hello, he said, “Hey! You can’t plant anything here!”
Raising an eyebrow and putting my hands on my hips, I smiled and said, “Why not?”
“Well, it’s just crazy to do it –- ’cause no one has done it before and the city won’t let ya! Besides, you can’t see this from your house, so why build it?”
With that statement, I realized why this exercise in sweat equity was really important to me, and replied, “This is not for me; it is for the community.” Returning to my task, I put my back into it, and so began my journey.
That first year, by the time I had finished planting the small area around my back gate, I began to experience something amazing. Neighbors I had never met before came out to speak with me whenever I was laboring in the garden. They smiled, hugged me, asked about my life and my family – complete strangers. Soon, the garden-behind-the-fence became a personal refuge of sorts. When I needed it, I knew I could always go behind-the-fence and get hugs and acceptance. Although I had been living a greener lifestyle and gardening for my health for years, the discovery of touching community was one of the most powerful things that ever happened to me. With the garden’s community inspiration pushing me, I began writing a book.
That winter, away from the garden, I struggled with my health. A stressful sales/marketing job had me gone before dawn and back after dark every day. When my boss asked me to work more hours, I walked off the job, fearing that if I stayed, it would kill me. That spring, I down-sized into a new career making far less money, began to expand the behind-the-fence garden, and continued writing the book.
The public response to the garden was more than amazing. Sweet neighbors left me gifts and “love letters” telling me stories of their lives and thanking me. I fell in love with these people and became addicted to my behind-the-fence passion. I had little money, so asked every friend I knew if they could donate plants from their gardens to enable me to expand.
In the process of building this particular garden, I learned about proven studies which show that landscaping and beautifying your community reduces crime, increases health, and builds community. Without a doubt, this garden had turned into a “community garden” which gave joy to others and improved my neighborhood.
By 2008, I had expanded the garden to over 200 feet and stretched it behind my next door neighbors’ fence line. It was, for me, a herculean accomplishment; a triumph over all the naysayers. I knew all the dogs in the neighborhood personally, waved at every car that passed, met hundreds of people – who hugged me sloppily whenever we saw each other – and that year I also published my first book, Gardening Nude. My health had improved 100 percent, my outlook on life had changed, and I had never been happier.Writing a newspaper column on gardening and greening began several years before I ever envisioned this behind-the-fence community garden. Because of my garden, however, I was inspired to do amazing things I never ever imagined – which went far beyond a newspaper column. Right now I make a living by touring and keynote speaking on green living, and just returned from spending two weeks in Ireland where I spoke on how doing good for others by gardening can change a community for the positive.
This year I also traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with a television crew to discuss the world’s sustainable practices. My message is that green living is healthier, and that a garden is more than a garden; it is about improving health or building community or feeding the hungry – not simply about plants.
My websites and blogs receive thousands of views every week, and I have followers in dozens of countries. Currently, with hundreds of thousands of views on social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blogs – my little Warrenville garden is being seen by the world in ways I never could have imagined just a few years ago.
Because I built this garden for my community, I learned that it is possible for one person to make a difference both in an immediate community and globally.
Reduce crime, feed the hungry, improve health, and build community: all possible for you to do in your neighborhood like I did. Get out today and build your own garden for your neighborhood. Put on your old shoes, start drafting a landscape plan and begin to make a difference for your neighbors and for your life today.
Remember that building a garden for your community is not about the plants; it is about making a difference for the world.
**This post was originally published in the Village Chronicles Newspaper, but is being published on myblog to show readers how one person can and has made a difference with a garden.