Tending their garden in a Swarthmore neighbor's yard

Rob and Clair Oaks (left) own the property; Carrie Wiles and Andrew Bunting tend the vegetable garden. "They wouldn't have to do anything," says Bunting, "just provide the space and reap the harvest." Now, they also have chickens.
Rob and Clair Oaks (left) own the property; Carrie Wiles and Andrew Bunting tend the vegetable garden. "They wouldn't have to do anything," says Bunting, "just provide the space and reap the harvest." Now, they also have chickens. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: June 27, 2012

When devoted gardeners run out space in their backyards, they often tear up the old plantings to make room for the new.

But Andrew Bunting, a horticulturist with a magazine-worthy ornamental garden behind his ivy-covered stone cottage in Swarthmore, had a different idea.

In January, he asked neighbors Clair and Rob Oaks, with whom he had a cordial but not close relationship, if he could use a section of their backyard for a vegetable garden that they would share. He would design, install, and cultivate the plot, and even pay them $100 a month in rent.

"They wouldn't have to do anything. Just provide the space and reap the harvest," said Bunting, 48, a curator at Scott Arboretum, who also owns a landscape business.

Not knowing the Oakses too well, he wasn't sure how they would react to his proposed kudzu-like invasion of their property. After all, it meant relinquishing a bit of their privacy, as well as a part of their yard. Bunting and his girlfriend, Carrie Wiles, 32, would be in the garden almost daily, tending to the plants or enjoying summertime meals with friends on a big wooden table that he had commissioned.

The Oakses didn't hesitate.

"This is a dream come true," said Clair Oaks, 53, a painter and musician, during an evening stroll through the newly laid-out 40-by-100-foot plot. "This is exactly what I would have done if I had the resources."

Her husband, 52, a software analyst who majored in agricultural engineering at Cornell University, liked the idea "of breaking down barriers."

They wouldn't hear about charging rent.

Now, the neighbors share Vassar Farm, named after their leafy street, which sits hidden at the back of the Oakses' quarter-acre property. They call it their secret garden because it is accessible only by two gates, blue for the Oakses and red for Bunting and Wiles. The red one has three peepholes at different levels so anyone from a toddler to adult can peek in.

Sharing and gardening have always gone well together. Not surprising in the crunchy-granola, left-leaning locales of Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., shared gardens are becoming as common as free-range, heritage-breed, woodland-raised chickens and faded Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers.

Volunteers in the hometown of the University of California collected the names of 300 Berkeley residents who either had a yard to share or had an interest in gardening someone else's lawn. A matchmaking site in Portland called Yardsharing.org was created by a local gardener after he read that 1,100 people were on waiting lists for plots at community gardens.

Despite being from the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphians are more inclined to agree with the proverb that good fences made good neighbors.

"In California, they're kind of hippie types, communal, socialists. It's different here," said Patricia Schreiber of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Except, perhaps, in the area's own Berkeley-near-the-Delaware, Swarthmore - home to the ultraliberal Quaker-founded college of the same name, food co-ops, and its own antiwar station on Internet radio.

The Vassar Farm neighbors know the arrangement wouldn't work for everyone. And both sides say they enjoy their privacy as much as the next person.

But each couple sensed that they could work well with the other, though they hardly knew each other. In about a dozen years of living next to each other, they had had dinner together just once.

Now, they say, they are good friends.

"I felt like these are people we could do this with," said Clair Oaks, a former yoga teacher, whose long, gray-streaked hair and natural good looks are as organic as the vegetables in the garden. She and her husband occasionally pull a weed or thin radishes.

By offering to do all the work himself, Bunting said, he felt he would eliminate any points of contention.

"I'm kind of a control freak. I like to garden my way," he said, "so if nobody else is gardening, so be it."

Once both couples realized they didn't plan to move, they didn't foresee any other problems.

The Oakses have lived in their two-story stucco house for 15 years. They have a son, 20, who lives with them, as well as one who is 30 and on his own.

Bunting moved into the 1950s stone cottage a few years later and immediately tore up the backyard. The result is a magical spot with stone paths, hidden benches, and a plethora of plants and trees and little surprises, like the purple-and-yellow bell-shaped clematis peeking out of an evergreen.

It was Wiles who first suggested asking the Oakses about putting a chicken coop in their backyard. So the garden, naturally, has a coop with nine chickens, whose eggs will be shared by the couples.

Now Bunting is thinking of getting rabbits - "Not for the meat, but because they're cute and make great manure," he said - and maybe bees.

While a crew from his company, Fine Garden Creations, dug the garden and laid out the crushed-gravel pathways, Bunting and Wiles planted the heirloom vegetables, fruit trees, berry plants, pots of herbs, and a hedge that will one day grow to form a natural barrier so the garden really will be secret.

They also helped the Oakses landscape around an old concrete slab that used to be a garage in the middle of the yard. Now it's a beautiful outdoor living space, with tables and chairs and three orange umbrellas. Inspired to spruce up the rest of the property, Clair Oaks and her son put in a bluestone patio at her back door.

The couples have already begun harvesting on a first-come, first-served basis. When there is too much produce for the two families, they will take turns inviting friends to pick what they want.

Most evenings will find Bunting and Wiles with a glass of wine or a beer, weeding, staking beans, or feeding extra greens to the two goats that live in the property behind them.

The Oakses "joyfully join in when we can," but if not, there's plenty to share. Even with the goats.

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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