Crazy Neighbourhood Garden Lady

Submitted by Hildy Gottlieb on April 29, 2013 - 1:10pm
How a garden can bring a neighbourhood together

 Today I became my neighborhood’s crazy garden lady.

Yes, this has been coming for quite some time. There’s the front yard vegie garden, surrounded by a pony wall of wine bottles. And the empty soda bottles on spikes for irrigation (I tell those who ask that that is actually where Pepsi bottles come from – they grow in the ground upside down). The old push-lawn-mower as decoration under the huge Rhuslancia tree that overhangs the sidewalk with just enough headroom for an average-sized man to pass under unscathed.

And yes, occasionally there is a construction paper homage tacked to the mangled sunflower stalk that remains when someone thinks it will be far easier to surreptitiously break off one of those magnificent beasts than it really is. (Helpful hint to those of you who are considering stealing your neighbor’s flowers: Please, people – bring clippers!) In an odd blend of mourning for my own loss while celebrating how happy that flower is likely making that person, yes, I confess, I have in the past used my kindergarten skills to draw a smiley-faced sunflower head on yellow construction paper, pinning it to the very spot where its very-much-alive predecessor had stood.

And I guess when it comes down to it, the sunflower wall itself, planted in honor of Earl – a neighbor whose wife loved my yard, whose devil’s claw birds inspired my own art, and whose presence I miss since he passed last year.

And ok, while I’m confessing – yes there are the occasional times when I put my old green recycling crate out on the sidewalk with a sign for whatever my garden happens to need at the moment – including those wine and soda bottles. When sunflower season is over, I load bins with the dried seed heads, and post a sign asking my neighbors to take one and plant those seeds (which they do, and I watch those progeny grow, secretly hoping that one will actually grow a construction paper head). 

                              Bucket of Sunflower Heads

For the past few weeks that sign has asked for pine needles. With our dry alkaline soil, pine needle mulch does double duty – adding acid to the soil while keeping the moisture in. As always happens, several of my neighbors filled the bin, asking if I needed more because they know in a few weeks, there will be more to rake in their yards. Pine needles are truly the gift that keeps on giving.

My neighbor Gary, who lives down the street, even stopped me on my evening walk last week, to tell me that he had spotted “enough pine needles to fill your whole yard!” several neighborhoods over, on his own nightly walk.

Truth be told, my neighbors are the reason for my front yard garden. My garden gives people a reason to stop and chit chat as they walk by. It has led to friendships I cherish, and has led to my being so well fed by the amazing Mexican cook that is my neighbor Cathy – her kids knocking on my door with plates of tacos and calabacitas in the summer, in thanks for whatever garden abundance I have left wrapped by their door (as well as the things I grow mostly for Cathy, but I don’t tell her that. Like the cilantro that I do love, but really, how much cilantro can one white woman eat? Cathy, on the other hand, feeds an ever-growing brood of extended family and seems always to be running to the store for more cilantro. Or at least she used to…).

All that faded in my mind today, as I took a deep breath to hold my pride way down in my toes where it could do no harm, and headed down the street, green wheelbarrow and rake in tow, to rake my neighbor Karen’s yard. Because Karen lives next door to a pine tree.

                         Under the tree

Early this morning when she was out walking her greyhounds, I mustered up my nerve and asked if I could rake her yard – a peculiar sounding request. Thankfully, having seen my bin and sign, Karen was not taken aback.

Still it felt like I had crossed some unspoken line of crazy when I pulled out the wheelbarrow and rake, and a broom to clean up after myself, and headed down my long street to Karen’s house. I could have done it early in the morning, before anyone was awake, but no, that’s my reading and writing time. It was now, in the middle of the day, or never.

I toddled down the sidewalk, my beat-up green wheelbarrow bouncing along (an oddity in and of itself – a 30 year old inheritance from Dimitri’s mom’s garden). The broom and rake clanged against the metal wheelbarrow at every bump. No, there was no going quietly into this good moment. Bright sun, metal clanging as if I were dragging tin cans behind me with a sign that said, “Crazy lady, please help.”

Fortunately, the street was empty. I filled up that first load quickly, heading back home to dump it in the garden. I realized I’d save a trip if I added the recycling bin – the one with the sign – to the load. I could fill up the wheelbarrow, then fill up the bin to weigh down the needles in the wheelbarrow, and schlep it all home in one haul.

                         Soda bottle irrigation

And it was then, on my way home – a green recycling bin filled to overflowing with pine needles, sides covered with bright orange signs with bold black letters screaming “Pine Needles Wanted,” balanced gingerly on top of my green wheelbarrow, itself overflowing with pine needles, all while juggling a rake and a broom and walking the full city block home – it was then that I encountered neighbor after neighbor.

“I think I have officially tipped into the land of neighborhood crazy lady,” I told Gary as I passed him, thinking of his tip about the yard-ful of needles almost a mile away. He smiled and nodded. “I’ve told the kids to pay no attention when they visit, so as not to encourage you.”

“Good advice!” I told him, and we laughed as I walked past.

Cathy’s husband Bob was working on his truck in their driveway as my itinerant pine needle parade moved past. He looked up, sincerely happy for me. “Oh you found some!” I had no idea how many people had been watching that bin with the sign, wondering if it would be filled.

                            Old lawn mower

Which made me sigh to wonder how many people were also quietly watching as today I officially crossed over into the land of the neighborhood crazy lady. And then to wonder how many people were quietly rooting for the crazy garden lady to succeed…

Because here’s what I learned today. In order to have a neighborhood crazy lady, you first need to have a neighborhood.


And I am feeling immensely blessed that my own neighborhood feeds my garden, feeds my stomach, and feeds my spirit in every single way.

Wine bottle border


I loved your post, Hildy, and your photos! What is the last photo of? I think they are buried glass bottles. Do they have a purpose besides beautifully reflecting the sun?

What a great idea to put a box on the curb with a sign. Or ask neighbours with pine trees for their rakings.


Nina: They are indeed buried


They are indeed buried wine bottles. The story of how I created the border around my front yard is here - a gardening guru in Chicago loved the story so much, she posted it on her blog

The purpose is simply a border. And yes, to reflect the light!


Front Yard Gardens

Hi Hildy, thank you for sharing your story.  I wish there were more front yard gardens, I think they go a long way to builkding community.  FIrstly they are far more interesting then simple yards.  Secondly they bring you out into your front yard more as you work your garden.  And finally third they encourage others to come help.  Along with the front porch I hope to see more front gardens popping up as we return to an age of neighbourhood community :)

Thanks, Derek! HG

Thanks, Derek!



Hi Hildy,

Thanks for sharing your gardening experiences with us- what a beautiful image. I especially love that your neighbours are your motivation for having a unique and abundant garden. It gives them something to talk about; sparks some curiosity. It also nurtures them- provides food and allows you to build deeper relationships with them. The pictures are also beautiful- thanks so much for sharing!

Thanks, Rachel! HG

Thanks, Rachel!