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Beautiful citizen gardens make RVA happier, safer – why not celebrate them?

RICHMOND, Va. -- To paraphrase a friend with a very green thumb, it's harder to be a criminal in a city that's pretty.

Police officials often talk about how broken windows and vacant buildings lure criminals.

Beautiful gardens and landscaping does the opposite. It brings out the good in people.

All around Richmond there are people who not only design and maintain sweet yard gardens, they take over medians and right-of-ways, beautifying them with plantings, making them grow flowers or vegetables to share.

They do it because they know they're also growing their neighborhoods, transforming them, shifting the feng shui to a healthier, safer mood.

"Probably this bed, maybe about 20 years," Michelle Banalett said when I asked her how long her garden has grown in the divided median in 3900 block of Fauquier Avenue in a nice northwest section of Richmond.

"It started out as a tomato and marigold patch and just kind of grew from there," she said.

How come she came out and took over some city property? Is she a something of a renegade?

"Little bit," she said. "The city actually dug the beds here originally . . .  But then they didn't come back and maintain them. So they became weedy beds. So we just decided, five or six of us, to clean them out and try to grow things in them."

Neighbor Barry Long is among the team. "We saw the opportunity and decided if we got more sun here our tomatoes and peppers would be better out in the street than in the backyard."

Imagine them out there digging, planting and weeding, their garden hoses stretched off and on across the street - for years.

"People with kids come and show how a tomato grows," said Guylaine Desrosiers. "And we've got herbs, we've got eggplant, we've got peppers . . . We've met a lot of neighbors we didn't know."

Maybe that's part of why this block has such a different vibe.

Kids play - gasp! - In the streets, sometimes with their parents. You can see children playing ball, riding bikes and pedaling scooters. It's almost like it’s 1950 again.

Dog walkers linger, as do young parents with strollers.

"We've got some active folks around this block these days," Long said. "And the kids love it out here."

Banalett said the feedback is powerful. "Perfect strangers come by and really just stop and say, 'thanks a lot for doing this,' (or) 'I enjoy watching it and seeing it!'"

And, she added, "It's great to give away vegetables."

How cool is that, to be able to see and feel the fruits and vegetables of your labors?

"We are proud of it," Desrosiers said with her French-Canadian accent. "And people are expecting it so you know we have to keep it clean and the weeds off!"

They should get an award, dangit!

Friends, there's a town called Whitehall, Montana, and every month in the growing season they give this thing called the "golden spade" to a resident or family that stands out for their gardening or beautification efforts.

It doesn't go to people in the garden club or on the tour, but everyday people just hoeing and growing their best.

That golden spade stands brightly in their yard for the whole month, inspiring others to get their green thumbs busy.

The town of Kilmarnock on Virginia's Northern Neck does the same thing, except they have a banner.

Garden club members weigh the use of native plants and how much work the resident does, explained Genny Chase with the 20-member Kilmarnock Garden Club.

No, she said, they haven't given one award to club members.

Now in its third year, their beautification challenge had fostered "a little competition . . . There's more gardening," she said.

How cool is that?

Why can't we do that in Richmond so more of the city looks and feels like that block of Fauquier Avenue?

After all, it's harder to be ugly in a city that's pretty.