GOOD NEIGHBOR GARDENING

by Joelle Steele

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Gardening is America's number one pastime. Everyone wants to have a nice yard with a lush green lawn bordered with healthy, colorful, blooming plants. Gardening is a lot of hard work. It is also work that is repetitive, with many tasks that must be performed regularly to ensure the health of your garden. But there is a huge payoff in the end: the joy of knowing your hard work was turned into the beautiful living things that now flourish in your outdoor environment.

Since most Americans who live in residential neighborhoods have relatively small yards, what you do in your little yard can easily affect your neighbor's yard, and vice versa. And you are both ultimately responsible for taking care of your own yards in such a way that you do not create problems for each other in the process. In order to get along with your neighbors, it helps to have a few gardening guidelines that will allow you both to have great yards that make for great neighbors and a fantastic looking neighborhood. And that's what Good Neighbor Gardening is all about!

I love to garden and I look forward to the day when my little plants and seedlings are grown up! And when I look around my front, back, and side yard, I see my neighbors in the various shrubs and vines and flowering plants that frame my little house. Because I couldn't have done it without them, good neighbors all!

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COMMUNICATION

One of the primary causes of problems between neighbors is a lack of communication. This happens most often when you have never met a neighbor or something has happened that has caused you to avoid a neighbor or them to avoid you. It could be the dog that barks incessantly or the loud blower that the "mow, blow, and go" guy uses every Tuesday at 7 a.m. Whatever it is, you need to get to know your neighbor and resolve your problems before they escalate.

The days of rural living are gone in many parts of America, and when you live so close to someone else, it pays to be at peace with them. We already have enough stress in our lives, and when you come home, you want it to be a safe haven where you can relax in peace and quiet. So if you've got a dog who barks for two hours straight every morning, think about how that might be affecting your neighbors. Think about how it's affecting you. And think about how unhappy the poor dog must be if he feels he must bark like that to get his needs met.

When I first moved into my house four years ago, I immediately exchanged phone numbers with several of my neighbors. Most of them came by and introduced themselves, and I also walked around and introduced myself to them. Most of them had been in the neighborhood for quite a few years and they were most helpful in answering my questions about a variety of concerns I had. In the process, we discussed our yards, and I found that many of them shared my interest in gardening. Since then, I have come to consider my neighbors as friends, and I love where I live more because of them than anything else.

When you decide to make changes in your yard that you even think might affect your neighbor's landscape in some way, discuss it with them. See what they think about your idea and how they think it will look or impact on their yard. Discuss maintenance issues with them, particularly if you are planting a tree or a vine that will ultimately cross the property line to some extent, whether it does so with its foliage or just with the shadow it casts.

FENCES

Robert Frost built his poem, "Mending Wall," around the phrase "good fences make good neighbors." And how true! A well-constructed fence will ensure your mutual privacy and hopefully prevent you from having to see and hear much of what goes on next door.

Fences come in so many styles and sizes that someone with more knowledge about their construction could probably write a book about fences — and they probably have done so. So I'll just say that when you decide to erect a new fence, always contact your neighbor first to discuss your plans. Just because you want a brand new fence does not mean that your neighbor can afford the expense or that they aren't perfectly happy with the old fence. Just because you want one with a lattice top doesn't mean they do too. Maybe it won't match the style of their house as well as it does yours. The same is true with painting fences. If you paint your side of the fence, some may drip through to the other side, leaving a mess for your neighbor to clean up. Talk to them first and let them know that YOU will clean up any mess that occurs as a result of your painting.

The longest of the four ancient fences surrounding my back yard blew down two years ago. My neighbor and I had already discussed repairing the fence the coming spring, but now we had a much bigger mess on our hands as we discovered the true condition of the fence. It had to be replaced. We got estimates, discussed them, picked one, and had the fence replaced, splitting the cost in half. I wanted to extend the fence an additional 25 feet for more privacy along the side of my house, so I paid additional for that and I also paid to have two locking gates installed. But my neighbor was concerned about the additional footage and how it would look next to her house, so we agreed that some vines over the fence would need to be planted to soften it on her side, and we actually dug up some starts of jasmine from her back yard and planted them in mine, and they are now growing over the top of the fence.

I also share a very old and rickety 20 foot length of fence with another neighbor, and since I can't really afford to replace it at the moment, I have instead opted to plant bamboo in front of it to camouflage it. I also share an old 50 foot fence that is covered with an extremely fast-growing and invasive vine that is nothing but a huge maintenance problem for me. The fence was actually leaning from the weight of the vines, so I paid to have three of the posts reinforced to hold it in place. That neighbor does not seem to be overly interested in good neighbor gardening practices. But, since I don't want to be in conflict with this neighbor, I make a concession and just chop away at his vine three or four times a year, filling up several trash cans each time.

TREES

Almost everyone wants trees in their yard. They provide shade and a haven for birds and other wildlife that keep your garden healthy and sheltered from the elements. But trees don't understand the concept of property lines. They grow where they grow and their canopies can spread considerably. This may be all right for you, but what about your neighbor? Do some careful thinking about the kind of tree you want to install in your yard and its anticipated location. A tree can create desirable shade for you but may shut out the light from a planting bed that requires full sun in your neighbor's yard. A deciduous tree may shed its leaves every year onto your neighbor's patio or driveway or other high use area. Maybe your neighbor does not want to be forced to rake leaves off their lawn every year. And some trees do more than lose their leaves, they may have messy petals and berries that drop as well.

Let's not forget about trees that mask views. You might want to plant a tree that will block your view of an unsightly old garage that's nearby. To do that you may need a fast-growing tree that gets very tall with a large canopy and is green year round. It may look terrific in your yard, but it may block the light from entering your neighbor's kitchen windows, and that may make for a very cold kitchen come winter. If the tree you plant has far-reaching roots, and you plant it next to the fence, it may damage the fence or intrude on your neighbor's plantings, or both!

Whatever you do, always keep your trees trimmed and make sure that any branches that overhang your neighbor's yard are trimmed as well, or else give your neighbor permission to trim back any overhanging foliage as needed. And if you're the one trimming someone else's tree that overhangs your yard, only do so if you know what you're doing. Don't do a hack job on someone else's tree. Ask them to do it or to help you do it. If that doesn't work, try hiring someone and sharing the expense.

VINES

Vines can be one of the biggest headaches you can share with a neighbor. They grow over and under and through fences unless they are well-maintained. But sometimes a neighbor plants something that is a very poor choice and then they also do not maintain it properly, if at all.

I have vines growing on my back yard fences in six places, two of which are glacier ivy, a plant that should never be grown on any fence, as it does widespread damage to the wood within a very short time by growing into every little space it can and attaching itself to the wood, then expanding the diameter of its branches so that the fence wood splits. It is hard to remove, and sometimes in removing it you can damage a fence further. I strongly advise against glacier ivy and passion flower, which is very beautiful but is also extremely invasive and can be a major maintenance issue, as it is for me since my neighbor does not maintain his passion flower vines at all.

I also have wisteria, clematis, and jasmine vines on my fences. The wisteria is a little messy for about a week each year, but other than that, my neighbor does an excellent job of keeping it on the fence and out of the slats where it might do damage, and I trim off any branches that get overly long and begin to mingle with my privets. The clematis is fairly lightweight and is not as dense or messy as the passion flower, so my neighbor and I just try to keep it from going anywhere that we don't want it to go. The jasmine is growing from my side of the fence, and I check it periodically to make sure it isn't damaging the fence and that it isn't growing out of control on my neighbor's side.

WEEDS and PESTS

I hate to weed; it is murder on my already overworked back. But more than anything, I hate weeding when it is mainly necessary because of neighbors who do not control their own weeds, which then spread to my yard. If you aren't capable of doing your own weeding, hire someone to do it. If you can't afford to do that, perhaps you should consider installing gravel or rock over a barrier to eliminate the unsightly weed patch that will ultimately ensue without regular removal. When you live in a house, the yard is part of it, and if you aren't going to maintain it by weeding, perhaps you should think about living in an apartment or condominium and sparing your neighbors the agony of excessive weeding. One unweeded yard can spread more weeds over the space of a block. Ditto for an open field.

And what is a weed anyway? As the saying goes, it is any plant that is unwanted, but we are all familiar with what constitutes weeds in our part of the world. In my yard, there are weeds and then there are grasses. The grasses are worse than the weeds, and they are harder to control. If left unpulled or not dug up entirely, they grow deep root systems and become heavy mats of grass that are impossible to remove.

Pests also need to be controlled, pretty much as do the weeds. And like weeds, I am most annoyed when I have to keep diligently spraying or hand-removing pests from my plants simply because my neighbor doesn't control the pests in his yard. That includes insects as well as gophers.

JUNKYARDS

Your neighborhood is like an extension of your house. You want yours to fit in with the surroundings. And one badly neglected house can be a blot on an entire neighborhood. The worst looking yard on my old street was finally cleaned up about a year before I moved away. They removed the old cars and boats from the driveway, replaced the fence that was half fallen down, and replaced all the dead plants in the front yard. Mind you, they didn't do anything fancy; they simply cleaned up the place. In my current neighborhood, there are some eyesores, including the house next door. I had to put up a small fence to keep their garbage out of my yard and to prevent me from having to look at it. Hard to believe that in such a nice neighborhood a neighbor can live like a pig, but it happens.

A FRIENDLY HAND

When I first moved to my old neighborhood back in 2000, I was amazed at how helpful and friendly my new neighbors were. One even came over with her son and helped unload the truck. Another brought me a rose bush. Yet another gave me some bulbs. Over the years, I helped several of my neighbors take care of their yards and they helped me with mine, either by helping me trim something that was too big a job for me to do by myself, or by giving me cuttings and seeds. And I have helped them in much the same way, and also by watering for some of them when they were out of town. Having great neighbors makes a big difference!

This article last updated: 12/28/2014.