How can we respect our neighbours in the garden in a way that is also affirming for cultural and neurodiversity?

One of the values I strongly believe in is embracing diversity. Perhaps this comes from growing up under a totalitarian regime that wanted everyone to look the same and live in identically furnished homes. And generally not to stand out. Or maybe because of my own sense of not fitting in. Either way, cultural conformity often makes me feel uneasy. This is because it conceals the real person behind the mask. At worst, it frees individuals from thinking and taking responsibility for their own actions.

Front yard gardening is certainly not such a serious matter, but the burden of expectations can still crush individuality or put unnecessary pressure on people who are already stretched to their limits. That is why I felt compelled to add a balancing voice in response to an article on gardening etiquette that appeared in a major gardening portal a few weeks ago. While I agree with most of the points made, I would like to challenge the set of stereotypical rules from the opening paragraph of that article:

“What do the basic tenets of neighborliness require? Keep your yard tidy […]. Mow your grass (if you have any), rake the leaves, and try not to leave stuff like bikes, toys, and garden tools littering the lawn. A good rule of thumb is to consider how you’d like your neighbor’s yard to look, and then apply it to your own. Oh, your standards aren’t that high? Then try imagining yourself as a discriminating person with a penchant for orderliness and good taste.”

What’s wrong with it? Almost everything. Let me unpick.

What does make good taste?

The laws of nature

Aesthetic taste has two main components. One is a set of universal principles derived from the laws of physics and the workings of biological systems. They govern our perception of proportions, matching colours, patterns and so on. Certain combinations look and ‘feel’ good and harmonious because they follow these natural laws.

In contrast, other combinations, which are very far from the natural order, often don’t. As we all live on one planet within one universe with one set of physical laws, these underlying principles are universal for us all. For example, we are likely to find folk art from any time and place attractive. This is because folk artists were immersed in the natural world and created art that resonated with natural patterns and proportions.

The laws of culture

The second component is cultural. Anything can be created. What looks good and what doesn’t, which behaviour is accepted and which isn’t, is the result of social agreement, not universal principles. These distinctions glue groups together because they differentiate between ‘us’ (our tribe) and ‘them’ (not our tribe).

The shape of trousers, the width of a tie, the shape of a collar, white socks with black shoes (while white cuffs seems O.K.), a hydrangea near the patio, colour of the year, garden gnomes, lion-tail bonsai in the middle of crushed stone dessert of a front garden… The cultural component is very strong and sits on top of the universal design laws. To the extent that it can obscure them and become ridiculous. And usually goes unquestioned unless you are an outsider. Or a rebel.

Is a manicured lawn a pinacle of good taste?

Given that the article was written for an American audience, I will only mention – and not dwell on it – that the lawn in North America is a remnant of a not-so-proud colonial past. It is a European import, alien and unsympathetic to the indigenous American vegetation, people, and climate. Paradoxically, in Britain, where this tradition was imported from, the rules for front gardens are now far more relaxed than in suburban America.

In my own European heritage, a lawn may be an approximation of a wide landscape of fields and meadows (man-made!). It used to be a playground of the aristocracy. Is that what we want to identify with? Lawns were also a way of providing a sense of security by controlling and reducing nature close to home. Is this what serves us best today?

The neatly mown lawn has become a default, unquestioned landscaping solution that is cheap to install but not as green as many think. What’s more, unless it is consciously used as a design element, a lawn is very rarely genuinely beautiful. Is really a tidy lawn an epitome of aesthetic aspirations of a modern human?

Tidiness is not a moral qualifier but the effect of brain type

Just as neatness and taste are two separate dimensions, so are tidiness and virtue. I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist, thus I don’t know where the equation of ‘neat’ with ‘good’ comes from. But I suspect its roots are not particularly inclusive and have something to do with feudal relationships.

Some people notice clutter and naturally desire visual order. This happens when the brain takes in all the information around it, rather than focusing on just the relevant things.

Clutter tends to be very noticeable because it breaks the patterns the brain expects. Misplaced things—like brightly coloured toys on a green lawn—just cry out for attention. Hence people whose attention is not naturally very selective can easily become overstimulated and annoyed by clutter. Likewise, they may also be annoyed by a dazzling floral display. At the other end of the perceptual gradient, people with very selective attention may not notice at all the things that drive another person crazy.

Therefore, the degree to which someone desires visual order is an individual expression of their neurotype. It is neither a badge of honour nor a moral (dis)qualifier.

Is mowing the lawn often really a sign of neighborliness?

In our part of the world, there is a very strong emphasis on visual aspects of design at the expense of other senses, such as sound or smell.

Oh, how I wish my neighbours would mow less. How I wish the sounds of spring were bees and birds, not lawnmowers. How I wish that on late summer afternoons I could relax outside in the garden, or concentrate on work without a need for earplugs. I suppose if everyone extended their mowing intervals, there would be a bit more peaceful quiet time to enjoy. So beauty is in the eye, or rather ear, of the beholder.

Highly sensitive people—those who are particularly susceptible to sensory overstimulation—make up at least 20 % of the population. So statistically speaking, at least one in five of your neighbours would appreciate it if you designed your garden so that it didn’t require regular mowing. Not to mention leaf blowing.

Robotic lawnmowers kill small animals

Robotic lawnmowers, which may sound like a good alternative, are not safe for wildlife. Researchers have shown that some robotic mowers can run over hedgehogs and other small animals, despite manufacturers’ claims of safety. And the fact that you may not see the carnage is because an injured animal will hide out of sight. So until there is a transparent certification process to test their true safety for wildlife, robotic lawnmowers are a game of Russian roulette for small inhabitants of our gardens.

Is a tidy lawn the best expression of taste and respect for neighbours?

My take on neighbourly kindness

To be clear, my own preference is very much with order. Yet, you will almost certainly catch me with various ‘work-in-progress’ artefacts in our garden. Moreover, seasonal cycles are an inevitable feature of a cultivated, plant-rich garden. Not all of them are breathtakingly beautiful.

Sure, I’d prefer my neighbours hadn’t placed their children’s plastic playhouse in goudy colours right on my line of sight. But my act of neighbourly kindness is not to impose my standards on someone else’s private space. Instead, I make sure that my own garden is designed in a way to keep my attention within its boundaries. An empty lawn is an invitation to notice every single misplaced thing.

Relaxing standards creates more inclusive neighbourhoods

I am not oblivious to the fact that we share visually our private spaces with others. Cultural rules are a way of ensuring harmony and peaceful coexistence. However, I firmly believe that culture should also embrace diversity, individual perceptions, desires and challenges.

For example, cleaning up children’s toys every day for someone with ADHD can be as big a task as climbing Mount Everest. You don’t see burnout, depression, autism—you name it—or just trivial overload on the outside. We never know what battle someone fights.

So I express my kindness by relaxing my expectations and not putting my own preferences on someone else’s to-do list. And I hope for reciprocity.

Don’t beat yourself up for not fulfilling strict rules

Needless to say that if you are one of the conscientious people who would like to have a spotless garden—also for your neighbours—but you just cannot get yourself to do everything it requires, the least helpful strategy is to increase your shame and guilt. Beating yourself up neither helps you nor your neighbours.

Diversity-affirming garden etiquette

I think we really need more reflection about the extent of private freedom as well as limits imposed by requirements for public harmony within gardens. We need a compromise that is practical and not tainted by moral judgements. Here are very specific questions to ask:

  • What can we do for others to make them feel good?
  • What can we refrain from doing for others?
  • What do we need for ourselves?
  • Does ‘others’ include non-human species?

Reflection is necessary because the solutions are far from black and white. Asking whether it is appropriate for one part of society to impose its set of values (aesthetic and philosophical alike) on the rest is as good as asking whether it is OK for my neighbour to throw parties with loud music and barbecue fumes every other day all summer long.

I may be biased, but I am inclined to say no to both. I do, however, see a place for parties inasmuch as I see the need for nice and tidy. I admit I am no saint—being open minded to different views requires a conscious effort. The real challenge is to find where to draw a line to be most accommodating to everyone—including ourselves. In any case, it certainly does not mean a vast expanse of spotless lawn everywhere.

How can you embrace diversity-affirming garden etiquette?

It might be counterintuitive, but I suggest you to start with learning more about yourself. I invite you to explore your set point for order and aesthetics and ask yourself this question: Is this what I really like, or am I just following the rules because I haven’t considered alternatives?

There is no right or wrong answer. Whatever you discover is just information. You do not have to do anything differently. But you may. You have a choice that comes from awareness. And as you ask yourself that question over and over again, you may also notice that your perception changes and that the set point is not fixed.

To be fair, I would agree with the rest of the tips in the article that sparked my rant. In particular, the last point about ‘keeping communication open’ is worth a mention. However, communication is only helpful (possible?) when we are ready to understand and accept the breadth of different sensitivities. Oddly, the more I am curious about my own reactions without labelling them as good or bad, the more I am receptive to others.

I wish that one day I could walk around the neighbourhood and see a wide variety of gardens. Some wild and overgrown, some neat and tidy with mown grass and topiary. Yes, it would not look uniform. It could even be a bit messy. But it would also be much more interesting. Above all, it would be a living expression of human diversity, infused with understanding, curiosity and less judgement. As a bonus, these gardens would create a variety of habitats for all kinds of wildlife.