Trailer Park Gardening


For some, trailers are a blight on our mountains. When I was a city planner, I attended copious meetings to eradicate trailers, or at least clean them up with underpinning and decks. Often it was my job to go to visit the trailer and recommend (read require) that the owner move it to a less-offensive site or make it a “permanent dwelling” by installing underpinning. There’s something about the transitory aspect of a trailer that’s unsettling to some. They’re not concerned about pipes freezing — it seems to be purely aesthetic. Or, perhaps they fear gypsies?

I don’t know why some folks dislike them, but here’s what I do know about trailers: They’re often permanent dwellings. An obvious sign? When the owners plant gardens.

I’m not talking elaborate, Biltmore-esque lay-outs here. For many trailers, a pot of begonias sits besides the steps. Alberta Spruces seem popular, clustered around the foundation, and peonies and butterfly bushes are a certainty.

One of my favorite single-wide trailers has two gorgeous crepe myrtles that bloom full of deep red bloomsd. In my rounds of trailer parks and trailers, I’ve also seen golden chain trees, scarlet oaks, sugar maples, hibiscus in so many colors, Japanese maples and large vegetable gardens

It’s been almost 20 years since I worked as a planner. It’s been almost 20 years since the hostility toward trailers brought them to my notice and I began a hobby of photographing their gardens. My pictures were my silent acknowledgement of their right to be considered a home, just as the 5,000-square-foot rock foundation house across the street had the right to call itself a home.

I am asked a lot, “What is your favorite garden?” My answer is always the same — and always unexpected — “I love trailer-park gardens.”

Out of all the gardens I see, I appreciate them the most, because to my eyes, they come with the most care. These are simple gardens designed to bring beauty to a small place called home, a word that connotes permanence.

But permanent is not necessarily good anymore, is it? Permanent and carbon footprints go together. So perhaps my favorite garden homes are coming into their own?

My friend, Robin Smith, an environmental scientist, wrote this to me:
“Manufactured housing is actually one of the more ‘green’ options out there, based on the amount of raw materials required to achieve each square foot of living space. No matter how much reclaimed barn wood and bamboo flooring you install, a brand-new, 5,000-square-foot house is not green, unless there are 10 people living there.

Even then, building new is problematic; increased energy efficiency in the house’s operation must be measured against the energy and environmental impact of obtaining and manufacturing new materials and delivering them to the job site. This is not to say that we shouldn’t build “green”, just that there is a whole lot more to the equation than most people realize.”

It’s a simple concept. To Smith’s way of thinking, trailers have about as much space as any of us need in order to live. A single-wide is roughly 700-800 square feet, and a double-wide is, well, double that.

One of my favorite trailer gardens is currently thriving. I drive by it every day. Right now, the peonies are pink and white and stunning, and the rhododendrons are red and glorious. I am looking forward to the butterfly bushes, phlox, liles of a thousand sorts and colors, iris and dahlias I know are to come. I literally have the place memorized. The trailer, that non-permanent dwelling, is long gone. Nothing was ever put in its place.

The elderly couple who lived there all their married life died, and all that remains of their home is its lovely garden. The carbon footprint has vanished — recycled by the family elsewhere — but the flowers and trees remain.

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