Want to get to know your neighbors? Start a crazy-stupid, summer-long, front-yard project

September 22 2014 | mswolfgang
Photos by Chris Wolfgang
Photos by Chris Wolfgang

This past summer, the fellow and I embarked on a rather monumental DIY project. Over the course of 12 weekends, we transformed our weed-infested front yard into a landscaped, welcoming entrance to our home.

We had no fucking clue what we were doing. I still have no idea how we did it, but thank the stars for YouTube instructional videos.

In addition to a nice-looking lil front yard (and a racer-back tan that's never going to go away), we also got an unforeseen benefit: WE KNOW WHO OUR NEIGHBORS ARE NOW.

It didn't start off particularly well…

The calm before the storm

Over the first couple weekends, we ripped into our yard with a skidloader. We went from a pretty unremarkable piece of property to holy-hell-what-is-going-on-over-there. Our neighbors would pause on their walks to gawk. Exchange a few worried looks. And ask, "So… have you done this kind of thing before?"

As the weeks progressed, people would make a habit of stopping and commenting. "Looks like a lot of work." "You guys are crazy." "I would never do that." "Why aren't you paying someone to do this?"

Theres nowhere to move dirt on old city streets

One gentleman fell into a routine of walking his dogs past our place to stand at the edge of our drive, watch, and shake his head before moving on. It was not uncommon to see neighbors pull up a chair with a beer on their front porches. We were the coming attraction for our entire block.

When one is ankle deep in mud and wondering if you'll ever not spend a weekend moving dirt and rock, morale is low.

Jer had to take me to the side once after I muttered too loudly, "The NEXT person who says 'you've got a lot of work ahead of you…'"

Blunted shovels mean hard work has happened

Tempted as I was, I'm so grateful I never snapped. We refrained from carrying out (too many) loud disagreements in our front yard when the other just wasn't fucking getting what was going on dammit. And slowly, our interactions with our neighbors changed.

When you're out in your front yard from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every weekend, you notice the life patterns of the people who live around you.

A real estate agent who lived up the street would pause on his way home to yell out encouragement.

A man whose wife has difficulty leaving the house would tell us how they loved to watch the progress from their window.

A med student would shout, "Looking good!" as he would jog past.

Another guy offered us some cold beer one day.

A lady would stop to say, "You guys are amazing!" every time she drove by.

A super shy stay-at-home dad started to drop by occasionally for a chat.

Do you KNOW how hard it is to level a row of block

One very awful day, I was sitting on our front steps, dripping with sweat and defeat. A young man walked up to our mud-filled driveway and said, "Need any help today?"

In stunned silence, we handed him a shovel.

Turns out, he was the son of the guy who would shake his head at us every day. Turns out he was a sous chef, bored on his day off. Turns out he worked alongside us for four hours until we called it quits for the day. Turns out he got blisters.

So fucking close

A few weeks ago, Jer and I looked at each other and said, "Was that it? Are we done? OMG we're done!" Over a fancy dinner that night, we talked about all the people who heaped encouragement on us all summer long. How the comments went from, "Do you even know what you're getting into?" to "This looks beautiful, guys!"

One of us mentioned it might be cool to thank everyone on the block for encouraging us through a very long, very public, very frustrating project.

So we bought some cheap, kiddie invitations at Target. Stuffed them in 20 mailboxes in the dead of night. And told people to show up at our house in two weeks if they wanted to check out our final project up close.

Guys. It was awesome. An incredibly cool reason to throw a house party, an awesome opportunity to cook for a lot of people, the perfect time to concoct a new playlist. We learned names. We found out who's lived here for four decades. We discovered that the middle-aged mom next door plays a mean game of Magic: The Gathering. (WHUT. I KNOW RIGHT?)

When I walk out my front door these days, I see a new vegetable garden in my front yard. I see the lilac I transplanted from my family's farm. And then I see Bill hanging out on his front porch up the street, and I see Ann walking her beagle, and I watch Harrison drive off to work.

I don't recommend getting in over your head with a DIY project just to get to know the people you live next to, but damn. It's a pretty cool bonus.

That sod though

  1. Yes! We had the same thing happen. Our house had been rented out before, and in a neighborhood of people who had lived there for decades, they never really felt the need to get to know the renters. Since my husband and I were another young couple, they figured we were just renting, too, and nobody ever bothered to talk to us.

    Until the weekend we rented the jackhammer. Turns out, renting a jackhammer is a great way to get to know the neighbors, and not in a 'Hey kids, keep it down!' kind of way, either. Just like the authors we found people came over to get to know us and see what was going on (removing most of the concrete in our front yard and putting cardboard and mulch over the lawn to compost it into native plant food), and also I think the fact that we were ripping into the front yard sent a pretty clear signal that we were planning to stick around for a while.

  2. Ha, you took what we did to the next level. We redid half of our front yard and yeah, when you're out there for hours on end every Saturday and Sunday for months, you get to know people. As it started to come together (read: was more than just a giant dirt pit) people came over specifically to compliment how it was looking. We planted fruit trees and after we planted ours suddenly it seemed like half the neighborhood had fruit trees – some we knew about already but a bunch of people would have one in the backyard. Hooray for cross-pollination!

  3. I had a similar experience when I purchased my aunt and uncle's house from their estate. After 40+ years of a childless couple, my 18-month old daughter and I moved in and started tearing things up. Shook up the neighbors, but it was a lot of fun. She was going through an absolutely dog-crazy period and would RUN after every dog she saw, so our dog-heavy neighborhood got to know her very fast since I made her ask people what the dog's name was before she could approach!

    The first spring was epic. Bringing in the backhoe and tearing out 18+" of dirt from 1/3 of the yard to install a below-ground drain system covered with red stipple gravel (it wasn't a lawn, it was a swamp) told folks we were serious about staying! And the dog walkers finally started picking up the poop. 🙂

  4. I'm glad this worked out. I probably would've snapped at someone early on. It's never nice to tell someone working damn hard on something that they still have a lot of work ahead of them. Pretty sure they realise that. Anyway, your front yard/steps look awesome! I love the houses on your block, too. <3

  5. I am not a homeowner myself, but my parents home has been in a state of constant renovation since they moved in, way back in 1989. Nothing had been done to the house and it needed tons of work – from the yard all the way to the windows and plumbing. Needless to say the neighbors who had been there for many years longer were entertained by my folks' (the fact that there was a cloud of profanity hanging over the house most days due to my parents getting a bit frustrated with the work may have added to this) misadventures. But there house looks great now, and your own yard looks awesome now, too! 🙂

  6. This is so good! I've met a lot of our neighbors while sitting outside with my son and some chalk on the front steps. The adorable two-year-old makes a nice icebreaker.

    We have yet to make any big modifications to the front yard, but this makes me want to get started…

  7. When we moved to our second house, the neighborhood was a bit more upper middle class than we were used to. Thankfully, there was a huge rain storm about a week after we moved in. I don't know who started it (probably my sister) but someone got muddy and started slapping handprints on the garage door. Suddenly, every kid in on the block under 12 showed up at our house and got began adding to the mud painting. Out came the parents, and in one fell swoop we were introduced to the neighborhood. No one could say much since their kids were also covered in mud! There are pictures somewhere.

  8. Your new front yard looks awesome!! It's so cool to hear your story.

    I feel like I've been having a similar meet-the-neighbors experience from the other side. We got a dog last year and we take her for walks every day…who knew there was so much home renovation happening on our block! We've struck up several conversations with folks as we try to convince our puppy to please don't poop in the new landscaping.

  9. Can you share some of the resources you used for planning and executing this? And do you have full before-and-afters somewhere??? How long did the whole thing take?

    Incredible water feature! The whole thing looks fantastic.

  10. My next-door neighbor pretty much keeps to herself, but I've seen and spoken with her way more this summer, thanks to her epic outdoor-improvement projects that have her outside nearly every day. Working on the yard is always a great way for me to see and chat with my neighbors! Thanks for sharing your story. Your yard looks awesome.

  11. Looks great!

    We're experiencing something similar. About a year ago we bought a complete fixer-upper house. While we still have TONS of work to do, even a year later, it's great to be out getting the mail and have some stranger walking their dog say, "Your property looks so great!"

  12. I all kinds of love this. We currently live in a house that has the honor of being the "worst yard on the block." We actually considered trying to get on one of those makeover reality shows, but they required us to send in video clips from our neighbors, and well…I'm an introvert, painfully shy, and just was not up to the task. But I have all these ideas!

    My husband and I are also MAJOR planners – to the point that we will research and plan and think and ponder….and never pull the trigger on a project. We are also not very outdoorsy people. But I want a lovely yard!

    You are inspiring. Do you want to come meet my neighbors? 😉

  13. This is completely true & while I'm happy to say all my neighbors seem very nice to chat with, sometimes I wish I could just work in the yard without having to socialize…as a serious introvert, I get a lot of yardwork done at dusk and on rainy days. I'm working on creating more hedgerows and planting more trees to cut down on how inviting my yard is. So just offering a thought, if someone doesn't seem open to chatting while you're strolling by their house, don't assume they are rude or mean…they may just prefer a bit more privacy and a bit less surprise socialization.

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