Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Getting to Know Your Neighbor’s Garden

By Ron Sullivan
Friday June 01, 2007

It’s summer—a month from St. John’s Eve, but no longer quite the juvescence of the year—and time to take a deep breath. If you’re more organized than I am, as most humans are, you’ve got almost everything in the ground and watered and fertilized, at least sufficiently for the time being, and things are hinting at bearing fruit.  

Time to go for a stroll and look at other people’s gardens. 

The flush of official garden tours is past. But the roses are still blooming, and shade plants are spreading their foliage; tropicals are just getting on with it, blooming and greening in the brief beats of heat we’ve enjoyed this past month.  

Regular brisk strolls around the neighborhood are good for your health and for your observational skills too. Leave the iPod at home and tune your ears into the sounds that you can filter through the din of human cities.  

Chez nous, the robins are having a competitive year. There’s one couple nesting in the mutilated plum tree next to our backyard, which will keep the carwash folks in pocket change for a few months. When we water out back, they’ll come down to the wet spots, each taking a turn, to see what sort of tasty invertebrates might have come up from the sudden mud for air.  

Rival robins have been rockin’ just a few doors to the east, and just across the intersecting street to the west. Some evenings the boyos all come out to the streetside utility lines and stage song duels.  

A lately-insomniac neighbor tells me that our yardbird, at least, has been inspired to bursts of song at 4 a.m. some nights.  

That sad little whine from overhead is the call note of the local lesser goldfinch. His song is much sweeter, and he and his honey seem to be nesting in the Japanese maple next door. Such dialogues I’ve been hearing from that canopy!  

The crows are headquartered on the block just southeast of us, and they carry on at intervals all day. One thing I’ve learned from this family is that they use the same word for “raven” as for “hawk”—a nasal flat “caah”—when they see and chase one through the neighborhood. Listen for that note and look up to see what fancy predator is in transit. 

Meanwhile, the human neighbors’ gardens put on the visual part of the show. The guy on the corner has a hedge of white roses that smell better than white roses tend to, and his Brugmansia has a sweet scent too. Now I find myself sniffing as I go, like a dog. Think how this block must “look” to dogs! 

It’s enlightening to see how perennials fare here over a few years; what gets overgrown; who keeps their poor shrubs trimmed into poodleballs.  

Sometimes I even get to meet the people who garden my local favorites. We’ve swapped histories, tips, and cuttings. I’m not terribly social usually, but gardens (and birds!) bring out the gladhander in me. 

Where did you get that gorgeous iris? 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.