Community Engagement – Gardening in the Front Yard

My black Lab, Hallie, owned our back yard. She would dig. She would run deep grooves into the grass. Garden after garden fell to Hallie’s exploits.

Finally, I dug up a plot next to the driveway. And I planted my vegetables in the front yard.

That was twenty years ago – two houses ago, a marriage and another dog ago. And still, my garden is in the front yard.

Tomatoes and okra and basil and zucchini in the summer; lettuce and carrots and peas and broccoli in the desert winter. All in the front yard.

Why the front yard? Because my garden makes friends.

Since moving into my current home, my front yard garden has introduced me to neighbors from many blocks away. Some ask gardening questions. Some put my house on their morning walk route, to see what’s new. And some bring gifts.

That’s how I met Earl. My doorbell rang one morning, and there stood a sweet, elderly man holding a plastic baggie filled with sunflower seeds. “My wife used to love driving by your house. She always wanted to see what was new. I lost her last month.” He handed me the bag of seeds. “These are from her sunflowers.”

And every year, from then on, I have planted a wall of sunflowers, swirling along the front sidewalk, in honor of Earl’s love for his wife. And of course those giant flowers bring more new friends.

So why am I telling you this?

Because planting your garden in the front yard is precisely what Community Engagement is all about.

Community Engagement forms real, honest, engaged relationships between members of the community and your organization’s mission and vision.

Community Engagement is not marketing or fundraising or volunteer recruitment, but it will certainly accomplish those things. It will also help you build the most effective programs possible. It will help you further every single one of your goals. And it will help you with the biggest goal of all – building an engaged community (the same goal as my front yard garden).

But here’s the real secret – and it is what separates Community Engagement from Marketing and all those other “just for show” efforts: For engagement to work, it has to be honest; it has to be real.

If my front yard were merely a well-manicured, just-for-show row of hedges, no one would stop. No one would introduce themselves. No one would make my house a special part of their day.

My neighbors stroll by because my garden is honest, authentic. In the morning, they find me working. At dinner time, they find us harvesting. There are butterflies and ladybugs, and finches all over the sunflowers. My neighbors don’t just see the final product; they also see the sweat, the compost, the pruning, the digging. I do not have to tell my neighbors I want to engage them; my garden shows them.

And when they walk by with a friend, pointing out this or that, they do so with pride, as if some part of my garden is also theirs. Because, in part, it is.

So how about your organization? Are you gardening in the front yard? Are you sharing the inner workings of what it takes to do your work, so the world can become engaged with that work? Are you being as open and inviting as you can be? Can your community connect so deeply and easily with your work, that they feel as if it is their work, too?

Or do you feel those inner workings are meant for the back yard, only showing the world a perfectly manicured lawn and hedge? The difference is more than just metaphor. The difference is the degree to which the community feels a part of everything your organization does.

The more your community feels they are a part of your work – the more they can point with pride, as if your work is their own as well – the more effective your mission will be, in every single way.

To learn the “how to’s” of community engagement, follow the link to 11 Ways to Engage Your Community by Gardening in the Front Yard

The Community Engagement Action Kit is a step-by-step guide to creating a Community Engagement Plan. If you don’t already have the kit, get it here.

(Photo credit: My garden’s abundance, and Earl’s Sunflowers)

9 thoughts on “Community Engagement – Gardening in the Front Yard”

  1. Hildy –

    You’re always thought-provoking! but this one especially made me stop and think (and prompted me to write!) about this different way of looking at how our organizations can reorient their thinking to more actively engage with their communities. Many do some of this almost systematically -for example by sending spokespeople traveling and out to speak in the community – but few think about how lots of smalll actions, that naturally introduce parts of themselves into the wider community, can make such a difference. It comes down to a change in mindset (like so many things!?)…are we comfortable quietly gardening out back (and just inviting those we choose to come visit us)? or do want to do more gardening out front (encouraging many we do not yet know to come and start a dialogue with us)?! Thanks for sharing this story!

    Bonnie Koenig

  2. I am laughing, Bonnie, because my thought upon reading your comments was, “Bonnie is always so thoughtful about things!” Imagine the fun of our doing a presentation together one of these days!

    We are in California right now, doing workshops with (of all ironies) the various local and regional Fire Safe Councils. And the theme in every one of these sessions, generated by the participants themselves, has repeatedly come back to a need for more engaged communities. Your thoughts, combined with theirs, has led me to pen a few more posts on the subject, including the 11 Ways to “do” such engagement (coming up soon!).

    It does indeed require that we think differently. But as the Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we create the world.” HG

  3. Thank you, Hildy! I am new to this site and this immediately caught my eye. As an avid gardener (with a front garden, no less!) who is constantly being engaged in conversation with passers-by, I have come to appreciate the raw honesty of our interactions and the transparency of the relationships that are formed. The totally volunteer organization that I run is indeed modeled after that type of relationship-building practice- honesty and transparency. We are able to maintain our organizational practice because we are small and very mission-driven. I sometimes shudder to think of the challenges to this philosophy of practice if we were to become larger and more bureaucratic. We’d have to move the garden to the back and plant hedges in the front!
    Thank you for your insights and I look forward to visiting this site for inspiration and fellowship.

  4. Hey Hildy!

    I’ve enjoyed your tweets and this is a great piece! We are working on similar projects. My social network is built around the idea of yard sharing. My hope s that neighbors and friends will get together in yard sharing groups to share wisdom and resources and to revive our neighborhoods together. Anyone from anywhere can start a yard share, and we’re her to help you folks do that!

  5. Hildy, I love your blog post. I have a front yard garden and was talking to Bonnie about the community building aspect of having a front yard garden. She sent me the link to your blog. What a great note. Thanks. If you don’t mind, I’m going to pass it along to some our community gardeners. Anna


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