I bought my house two years ago and worried about meeting my neighbors. Basically, I lacked the traditional ice-breakers that dissolve personal-space bubbles and inspire conversation; I had no baby to disarm strangers with a gooey smile, and no puppy to lumber over and say hello with happy licks. It would be up to me to figure out how to connect with these intimate strangers—the people who can see into my brightly-lit kitchen during twilight hours, who know what time I race to work each morning, and who witness the number of packages left at the door by the mailman.

I wanted to know my neighbors because I wanted to feel like I had people on my team. During my first year in the house, a low-grade anxiety thrummed at the base of my skull after some hooligan chucked a rock through my bedroom window, just to see the glass shatter. The incident put me on edge; I didn’t like leaving the house empty, and felt nervous there alone at times, too. Having people to check in with and check in on felt really important. I didn’t want to live in fear, and knowing my neighbors seemed the only way to work through the negative emotions.

 

Photo of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and beets.

Photo: Summer Hess

 

Like many north Spokane neighborhoods, mine is a mish mash of demographics. Some houses have been restored, with clean porches and manicured lawns. Others have suffered decades of neglect. Foreclosed on and vacant for two years, my house was somewhere in between. It needed a lot of work, but it had good bones. The overgrown side yard was a prime example of this. The southwest-facing patch of weeds and rocky soils had potential and, with a little money and a lot of sweat, would be enough space for a garden bigger than the footprint of my house.

During my first year working the garden, I felt a little bit crazy and on display. Some folks had a handful of vegetables growing in raised beds or on their back patios, but no one else had turned over their entire yard and raked it into 50-foot beds. I planted everything from lettuce and tomatoes to kohlrabi and okra, along with tons of flowers to attract bees and ladybugs. I completely gave up all other home-improvement projects and dedicated every scrap of spare time into weeding, arranging irrigation, solving pest problems, and putting up the harvest.

Now I’m gearing up for the second season of my ridiculously-large urban garden. While eating local and fresh is a bonus, it’s not the primary benefit. I love that my garden pulls me outside most afternoons in the spring and summer, even if the weather is rainy or hot. It gives me an intimate relationship with one tiny speck of the earth. It makes me familiar with the patterns of my neighborhood, from the mom who runs three days a week with her toddler bouncing along in the jogging stroller, to the Israeli grandmother who picks our grape leaves and returns with dolmas in the spring.

But the very best part of the garden is that it offers everyone—myself, the neighbors, and the passersby—something beautiful to look at. When a weedy side yard is worked into an abundant landscape, it gives us something to root for and cheer on together—we all want to see it thrive. Ultimately, it gave me exactly what I was hoping for: an excuse to have tiny, meaningful exchanges on a regular basis with my new neighbors. //

 

Local Gardening Resources

  • Spokane Community Gardens Facebook page has information about upcoming community garden tours, which are a great way to get ideas and inspiration and meet people in your neighborhood who are growing food.
  • WSU Extension offers many classes and resources for food production in the Northwest, along with master gardener clinic hours to answer a wide variety of horticulture questions.
  • Spokane Conservation District has educational offerings for new and seasoned gardeners and puts on an annual plant and tree sale.
  • On May 12, Garden Expo Spokane will host a huge assortment of plants for sale, along with gardening-related exhibitors, demonstrations, food, and activities held at Spokane Community College from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • The Friends of Manito Spring Plant Sale is June 9 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Also check out the organization’s valuable workshops and presentations. //

 

Summer Hess climbs, swims, and runs trails across the Northwest. She is the managing editor of Out There Outdoors.

 

Feature photo: Mid-season side yard // Summer Hess

Originally published in the May 2018 print edition of Out There Outdoors under the title “Growing Into a New Neighborhood.”