Can a Garden Contest Teach and Inspire?

Townhouse gardens in my co-op community.
Townhouse gardens in my co-op community.

We bash Homeowners Associations regularly for their crazy, backward-looking rules against growing edibles, eliminating lawn, growing wilder-looking plants (horrors!) and more. But what if a condo or coop association used their collective power and authority to improve the yards under their jurisdiction? Could get radical!

The 1,600-townhouse cooperative community I live in will be rewriting our plant-related rules and recommendations over the winter, but much more fun is designing next year’s Garden Contest – with cash prizes of up to $100 – to be launched in the spring and judged in the fall. Earlier this year we held contests for best kitchen and bathroom renovations and collected photos and info about the winners on our website, but much more interesting to me and presumably you guys is the chance to decide what we want to reward and encourage more of in our gardens, and doing it in a fun way.

So far, these are the factors we’re thinking of assign points for, 1-5 points for each category, with points awarded by up to 10 judges, then added up.  Feedback, please!  How would YOU judge a garden?

Here are the categories, with examples :

  • Biodiversity/provision for wildlife (water source, plants – especially but not limited to natives – that provide for pollinators and birds, thick hedges or groups of shrubs for cover, etc).
  • Sustainability – ability to be maintained with minimal inputs of water or fertilizer, and preferably no use of pesticides or power tools.  On-site composting. 
  • Retention of stormwater and erosion prevention (deep-rooted plants, permeable pavers, good soil coverage, rain gardens, etc). 
  • Beauty.
  • Growing edibles.
  • Four-season interest (evergreens, berries, flowering throughout growing season, man-made structures and seating, etc). 
  • Usability by humans (seating, shade, play areas, privacy, etc).
  • Mix of openness and enclosure.  (This factor is our hardest to pin down.)  Historically, the dominant and distinctive feature of our landscape is its openness on both the front and back sides, and maintaining this openness is a stated goal of our Board of Directors.  Points will be given for creating privacy and enclosures while maintaining some degree of openness on all sides.

More than one prize?

Our previous contests have awarded 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes but for gardens, we’re considering prizes for the best in each category, or Best Established and Best New Garden. Then in subsequent years we could have Most Improved, or simply not allow past winners to enter again.

The goal is to engage as many people as possible. Thanks to our weirdly open front and back yards, neighbors can follow these gardens on all sides (in most cases), all within walking distance.

The contest has lots in common with the Less Lawn Garden Tour I organized last year, but hopefully it’ll do lots more teaching, as well as happen every year (while being less work than the tour to organize).


  1. Love this! You’ve hit 3 of my 5 principles of Ecosystem Gardening (wildlife habitat, water conservation/stormwater management, and sustainability). I would so love to see ALL HOAs use these principles. Seems like most HOAs get stuck in rules about perfectly manicured lawns and we then miss the opportunity to contribute to the health of the surrounding natural ecosystems.

    • I would love to also see some emphasis on adding more native plants into the mix because that brings so many benefits to butterflies, butterflies, native pollinators, and other wildlife. Upping the percentage of native plants can be achieved without sacrificing our favorite garden gems 🙂

  2. How about an award for a garden that keeps the historic perspective? But with natives non invasives low water or whatever is the current buzz.

  3. You’ve already convinced me, without even trying, to move to Greenbelt. If you manage to get this accomplished “… no use of pesticides or power tools. On-site composting….” that will seal the deal.” ‘Tis the season of awakening on a sunny Saturday to the sound of leaf blowers. Grrrrrrrrr.

  4. Oh, what a wonderful idea! I second the idea to have multiple prizes for multiple categories. Some for newbies and others for experienced gardeners. Also, instead of banning previous winners, simply specify that they have to “compete” in a different category. This encourages them to try different things as well. The amazing rose gardener wins “Best flower garden” award one year might try to add more native plants to win the “New naturalist garden” the next. Money is good, but if you do gift certificates to local garden centers (some can be partially donated) or a traveling trophy that goes from one winner to another each year with past winners inscribed on it, (bragging rights without the permanent clutter) you might be able to have more categories to compete in.

  5. Great idea!
    If I were new to gardening, I would feel intimidated by all the broad categories, and prefer to try something smaller and more specific. Maybe “best composting system”, or “best water feature” or “best garden art” and so on. Also, I’ve always enjoyed “People’s Choice” categories in contests, where people get to vote on their favorites, which is something quite different from the judged categories.

  6. Love this contest, and these different category ideas are all great. I’m going to push for a content like this for my neighborhood now. We have some real gardening pros in my neighborhood, so I won’t count on winning but a contest to further beautify the neighborhood is a win in itself. Thanks for the idea!

Comments are closed.