For urban dwellers who would love to garden, but feel as though they don't have enough, time, skills, or space, a re-popularized and fun solution is the sidewalk garden. These gardens not only invite beauty into the local surroundings, but also create an urban sanctuary for environmental allies such as birds, bees, and butterflies. For pedestrians and passersby, a sidewalk garden also promotes a sense of community pride, and a natural respite from the harsh angles of the urban setting.
Found in urban sidewalks everywhere are overlooked squares of soil tangled with weeds, or patches of dirt that might easily be converted into a supportive micro-landscape. For San Francisco architect Jane Martin, sidewalk gardens were a smart response to the periodic flooding happening in her neighborhood because they lowered the amount of impermeable surface area frequently challenged by sewer drain overflow and heavy rain run-off. So Martin recently led the charge in her city to convert concrete driveways into flower beds.
But sidewalk gardens are not entirely new. Almost forgotten are the “yard gardens” that are a part of a long tradition for early 20th Century African-American families and communities. Zora Neale Hurston’s book, The Gilded Six-Bits describes the fictional character Missie May’s front yard as, “a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places." In this world, a sidewalk garden was a part of the melodic continuum of the front garden and a forum for individual expression.
Dianne Glave, co-editor of To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History, underscores how gardens were a public affair. She wrote, “African-Americans also displayed flowers for everyone’s viewing and pleasure, beckoning neighbors to take a closer look or visitors to chat in the yard’s fragrance and color.” Therefore yards were intentionally public as a critical way to support community.
So where to begin? Here is some inspiration:
1634 Jerrold Avenue (near 3rd Street, Bayview District, San Francisco, CA)
Even if you do not have a nearby plot of dirt, or are unable to bust up concrete, consider container gardening as an option:
What to plant? Natives for your area are a good bet for low maintenance and environmental friendliness. And if available in your area, vertical plant options like Jasmine, Bougainvillea, or Trumpet Vine are showy and smell terrific for economy spaces. Also don’t disregard edibles like strawberries, or herbs like lavender or rosemary as generous neighborhood treats!
Once your sidewalk begins to bloom, you’ll notice how your community and the many species that live there benefit -- including the homo sapiens!
What will you grow in your sidewalk garden?
Rue Mapp is the founder of Outdoor Afro, a community that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, fishing, gardening, skiing — and more! Outdoor Afro uses social media to create interest communities, events, and to partner with regional and national organizations that support diverse participation in the Great Outdoors.