Ever since I spent a year in England as a college student, I dreamed that one day I'd have a garden in the front of my house. I didn't know much about gardens then, but I knew I loved stopping to smell the roses tumbling over the low stone walls and wooden fences that defined the small yards of the row houses in the working-class London neighborhood where I lived. My daily treks to and from the bus stop and the train station were brightened by blue delphiniums and pink hollyhocks and white clematis - although I couldn't have told you their names then for all the clotted cream in Devonshire.
It took almost two decades for me to have a home of my own, and a little longer still to have a garden. Lost in the lush green lawns of suburbia, I grew timid. But a neighbor roused me. "Plant corn," she said. And so my dream took root - my husband and I ripped up most of the front lawn and planted the flower and vegetable garden that has been our joy and challenge ever since.
I've been pondering what the front yards of suburbia say about us as they roll in manicured and chemically maintained monotony from front doors to curbs and sidewalks. Don't we realize yet that the chemicals keeping the green, green grass of home so green are not "green" at all? That they do in bees and butterflies and run off into our fragile waterways and compromise natural ecosystems. I vote for a change. And in this season that is ending all too quickly, I had the chance to see one taking place in the front yards of people searching for another way. Not just in our suburbs but also in a place where planting space is at a premium.
I tagged along when plaques were awarded to the winners of the Asharoken Garden Club's annual street garden recognition program. And I was a judge for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's "Greenest Block in Brooklyn" contest.
The suburbanites chiseled into their lawns with island beds of trees and shrubs and borders of black-eyed Susans and impatiens, with roses on fences and ornamental grasses along driveways and hostas around mailboxes.
The city gardeners softened the concrete jungle with pots of elephant ears and caladiums and succulents and vines. They turned tiny front yards into attractive landscapes. And they transformed weedy, often trash-strewn tree beds along city sidewalks into mulched mini-gardens.
The Asharoken program was started eight years ago by Joan Hauser, who tends a floriferous yard of her own. She was inspired by her neighbors Ann and Marty Ciesinski, who live on "the strip" - as Asharoken Avenue, the two-lane road along the Sound that leads into the incorporated village, is known. When they moved in 13 years ago, it was, in Marty's words, "nothing. We couldn't stand it, so I put in a scalloped vinyl picket fence - I'm in the fence business - and then, we started to play with flowers." Now, pink roses, purple clematis, Casa Blanca lilies and blue salvia win plaques virtually every year and make passersby slow down - well, there's also the 30 mph speed limit the village police are famous for enforcing.
In the beginning, the program was confined to Asharoken Avenue, and everyone got a plaque. But like gardens, the program grew. This year, 53 homeowners in Asharoken, Eatons Neck and Northport participated, and 31 gardens were recognized.
I didn't get a chance to see every garden, but I joined Jane and two garden club compatriots - Judy Orobona and Judy Ross - when they hammered hand-painted signs into winning beds and borders. One of the prize gardens grew on a steep slope that was a blank canvas in front of a new Victorian with a big porch when Ralph and Lynn Scancarelli moved in seven years ago. Now the house overlooking Northport Bay has a welcome mat of arborvitae and hostas and grasses and ferns - not to mention a 40-foot-long stream and waterfall.
"I'm in the garden at 6 in the morning," Ralph, an interior designer, told me when I caught up with him by phone. "It's nice for the village when people plant their gardens for everyone to see. We love sitting on the porch and watching people walk by eating ice cream and admiring the garden."
Brooklyn's "Greenest Block" contest - managed by GreenBridge, the community environmental horticulture program of Brooklyn Botanic Garden - is a far larger event, as might be expected of that big-city borough. More than 200 blocks participated in the 14th annual contest, and awards were given in categories such as best street tree beds, greenest storefront and best window box.
The winning block was 8th Street in Park Slope, between Prospect Park West and 8th Avenue. It's a block of homeowners and renters, of single-family and two-family houses as well as multi-unit buildings. Residents organized "Mulch and Wine Night" to raise money for supplies and a plant sale dubbed "Stoopendous." They created design plans for the baskets of petunias and zinnias that hang from the gas-lamp-style street- lights. They installed spigots so they could water their own gardens - and their neighbors' gardens, too.
"People of all ages, all backgrounds live here, and this brought everyone out into the street talking about plants," said Jane Becker, a retired teacher and co-president of the block association's greening committee. "Our block doesn't have in-ground gardens; it's mostly concrete, so technically we may not be the greenest block. But we made up for it with containers and window boxes. We focused on the street tree beds - kids cleaned them out and removed rocks with rakes and spades, we recycled Belgian blocks by donating them to a hospital's garden therapy program. The even-numbered side of the street, where I live, is shady, and the odd-numbered side is sunny. We educated residents about what plants to put where - lantana and verbena and roses on the sunny side, astilbes and coleus and begonias on the shady side. We nurtured community spirit as well as plants."
Jane always dreamed of living in a house with window boxes. Now the two-family limestone house she and her husband, Arnie, own is festooned with faux wrought-iron containers brimming with fuchsias and sweet potato vines and a tapestry of coleuses. Her neighbors were inspired, and now window boxes at eye level decorate iron security grates along the block - as well as the fences of the apartment buildings across the street, where they do double duty as camouflage for garbage cans.
Eighth Street was not a block my group of judges reviewed in the multi-round competition. But I'm happy that one of "my blocks" - East 25th Street between Clarendon Road and Avenue D in East Flatbush - tied for second place. The gardens were acts of love, and the people were as beautiful as the plants. Like William Lloyd Andries, a poet and retired Episcopalian priest from Guyana who carries two big potted crotons inside every night to protect them from the vandals who stole containers of coleus last year. "The gardens you see here are filled with hope," he told me.
Our front yards are the faces we turn to the world. Not just for ourselves but for the passersby on the streets where we live.