Neighbors Work Together on the Suburban Frontier

Reader Contribution by Jan Spencer
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This quarter acre suburban property has been under transformation for fifteen years. The site is flat, good soil, great solar access, Northwest Mediterranean Climate. The house is mid ’50’s. A suburban neighborhood. The intention from the start has been a permaculture make over of house and landscape – home economics – to take care of more needs closer to home.

For this blog, I would like to describe a very productive collaboration with my neighbor who shares the west fence line. This neighborly cooperation story is a segue to a broader look at neighbors working together.

Eight large old growth laurel shrubs bisected 40 feet of property line on the west side of my property.

The laurel hedge before removal. 2010

One day about five years ago, I was walking to the back yard between the hedge and west side of my house and my neighbor called out. He was only ten feet away, but the hedge was so thick, he was unseen. Bill called out, “Jan, what do you think of this hedge. Do you think it should go? ” I said it gets bigger every year, even after pruning it and I have had those kinds of thoughts but didn’t know where to begin.

Bill suggested we take it out.

Within 15 minutes we had his old Chevy suburban with chain from the trailer hitch and wrapped around the first shrub, ready to take it out, a bit like a tooth on a string to a door knob.

The laurel hedge is gone. You can see my next door neighbor’s house. 2011

We broke a couple chains and were continually amazed at how those shrubs were determined to stay where they were. Nonetheless, out they came over a period of a couple days. Another neighbor with a Bobcat dug out what was left. Bill and I had some manufactured compost brought in and the site looked a lot different.

We didn’t leave it that way. I took out another 25 feet of ornamental hedge on my side of the property line. With a couple work parties, my side was clear of cut down shrugs. Bill offered to buy the wood if I built the new fence and replaced the old. The collaboration was a good one.

A work party removes the cut up hedge.

Removing the hedge was a big project. The trunks were eight inches in diameter. Bill even cut up the larger pieces for firewood. Between us, we had the tools to take out the laurel for a great collaboration. We both benefited. It would not have happened without cooperation.

Over the past five years, my side has become a food tunnel. Two by sixes, about eight feet off the ground run from the fence posts, every eight feet to the fascia of the house. I then ran wire through the 2 by 6s, lengthwise. The 2 by 6s and wire became supports and guidance for shaping the shrubs and trees planted along my side of the property line. I now have a food tunnel. Even the mulberry is woven into a flat canopy, fixing last year’s new branches to the wires.

Food tunnel. It’s really nice!  2014

I don’t want tall plants along the fence line so the wires and 2 by 6s provide the form to train the – grapes, black berries and mulberry tree. It looks great, its all edible and shades the sunny west side of my house from the west sun. Bill’s newly available space was narrower than mine. He planted several plum trees and has shaped those to be two dimensional along his side of the fence.

Neighbors working together can open up a great deal of new turf on the suburban frontier. People have different skills, different tools, different capacities that can compliment what others have to offer so everyone benefits.

My neighbor to the east and I shared the expense of taking out several un wanted small trees and shrubs along our property line. He also rebuilt the fence along the east side, we shared the cost of materials.

There are several other neighborly collaborations nearby. One permaculture property attracted a like minded second family to buy the property next door. Their shared fence is down and there is a lot of interaction between families. A third like minded friend bought a property along the second’s fence line. That shared fence is down. The third property owner uses part of the second’s for a small plant nursery.

A block away. Neighbors team up to host out of town visitors for a site tour and dinner. The visitors had never seen this kind of suburbia before. They were attending the Neighborhoods USA Conference hosted by Eugene. May, 2014

Another friend of the first property bought an acre lot several years ago, 3 blocks down the street. This purchase was a planned collaboration from the beginning. The one acre was badly neglected. Blackberries occupied most of the back half acre back yard.

By this time, we had developed a neighborhood mutual assistance network of people interested in permaculture so we had cohesion for work parties. It took several years, but the black berries have been removed and are now replaced by a beautiful garden that sees a lot of collaborative attention.

That underused, under appreciated half acre back yard has become a favorite place for neighborhood events like potlucks and workshops. Several structures have been built on the property and there is a start of an eco village.

A few blocks away. Eco Bike tour visits where the blackberry tangle has been replaced by beautiful garden and new structures. 2014

Its great to transform a single property. There are more assets to work with with than most people realize, until they take a closer look.

But its even better when neighbors begin to make common cause. Life becomes much more interesting when new opportunities present themselves for even more creativity, community building and taking care of more needs closer to home. There is a whole new realm beyond do it yourself. Do it with friends and neighbors.

Future blogs will go deeper into the realm of community building and touch on topics such as block planning, allies and assets, civic culture, front yard gardens and place making, green culture and economics.

If you have a good story about transforming your property and neighborhood, please tell me about it. Maybe we can use it in a blog.

You can see more photos of the laurel hedge project, scenes from the neighborhood and many other related photo galleries on my website, Suburban Permaculture.

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