Ministry of Controversy

Are you now or have you ever been—a gardening outlaw?

Ever since The Orchid Thief, we’ve grown used to looking to Florida for interesting plant crime. The association was reinforced in a recent Palm Beach Post story about nursery owner Carl Reddish, who got himself into trouble when he reported the theft of six palm trees from his backyard operation—which also happens to be illegal.

In addition to the irony of his bringing about his own comeuppance, there are other issues here. Reddish had been running his nursery for at least thirty years in a residential neighborhood, and honestly didn’t see why he should have to abide by the same code restrictions governing businesses as other local nurseries. It was his livelihood, and nobody else needed to mind. The plants—citrus, palms, bougainvillea—don’t sound too interesting considering it’s Florida; I’d much rather pay a visit to the dashing John Laroche of The Orchid Thief.

We have our own mini-controversy about illicit plant sales in Buffalo during Garden Walk. One of the best gardeners on the walk, who maintains two large ponds, grows elephant ear and canna in his basement, and has great success with Japanese anenome and acanthus, is considering taking his garden off because the committee governing the walk objects to his selling his extra plants. (“Feed my habit,” he calls it.) There’s a rule about keeping the walk “pure,” but in this case I think they should look the other way.

There have been more serious clashes between the law and gardeners in Western New York. During the early 80s, an English grad student living in Kenmore (a suburb of Buffalo), refused to mow his lawn for years. It was covered with three dozen varieties of wildflowers, many of which he had planted—and he did, in fact, weed and till the space. This guy received death threats, gunshots were fired at the house, and snakes were placed in the yard—all by his neighbors. He was fined by the village for violating an ordinance, which he fought, semi-successfully, in court. Eventually, neighbors mowed the lawn illegally while he was on vacation. He lives in the Appalachian mountains now. His dissertation was to be on Thoreau. I don’t know if he finished it.

And last summer, several articles in the Buffalo News reported on the ongoing strife between a man who had a stand of sunflowers near his mailbox and his neighbors, who claimed the plants obstructed their view of street traffic when pulling in and out of their driveways. Sunflowers are annuals here, so nature eventually resolved the dilemma.

I think my all-time favorite happened last year, when a neighborhood activist was arrested for mowing an absentee landlord’s easeway (strip between street and sidewalk). This was also Garden Walk-related—the mowing was part of a community-wide clean-up before the event. The landlord objected to these efforts; it drew unwelcome attention to his dilapidated properties. The fine point of law: who exactly does have authority over the maintenance of an easeway, which technically is owned by the city?

In urban neighborhoods here, gardening is often seen as a civic task, a way to make a community look attractive to possible homeowners and unattractive to criminal elements. In suburban neighborhoods, there is often subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressure to conform to the standard of a neatly-mowed lawn and a pleasant if unremarkable domestic landscape.

Gardening can make a bigger statement—and cause a greater controversy—than we might imagine. I’m sure many of you can recall similar incidents of garden-related crimes, misdemeanors, or scandals in your necks of the woods. I sort of like the dark side of gardening—makes me feel less like a character in a Barbara Pym novel.

Posted by on May 2, 2007 at 5:17 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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17 responses to “Are you now or have you ever been—a gardening outlaw?”

  1. David in VT says:

    We have a neighbor (two doors down) that does not believe in mowing his lawn. The front yard is filled with tall weeds, box elder seedlings, plastic bags and other garbage that becomes trapped in undergrowth.

    There’s no law in Burlington, VT, that says lawns must be mowed.

    Part of me says that the front yard should be cleaned up, but part of me recoils at the fact that I even care. To me, there’s nothing worse than a neighborhood with lawn after lawn — all perfectly green.

  2. Fun post! I don’t think my neighbors consider me an outlaw because of my gardening habits–just irritating and crazy. I’m constantly blocking the sidewalk with my wheelbarrow in order to work on my front beds and my hell strip.

    The Barbara Pym reference made me laugh. I’ve only dipped my toe into her–a novel called “An Unsuitable Attachment”–and boy, was that enough prissiness for one lifetime. Give me the truculent Kingsley Amis any day.

  3. Claire Splan says:

    It is interesting the things that get under people’s skin about other people’s gardens and gardening habits, and it goes well beyond the issue of lawns and mowings and such. A friend had a neighbor complain about his tree dropping leaves on her yard, and I’ve heard others complain about a neighbor’s bamboo that was sending runners all over the neighborhood. I guess these will always be the frustrations of urban gardening.

    But please, back off of Barbara Pym. The woman was brilliant.

  4. Gotta Garden says:

    First, I hope the committee does turn the other way regarding the neighbor and the garden walk. So what? A lot of people would be thrilled to buy a plant they admire in a garden…besides, isn’t he opening up his garden for free (not counting all his labor and costs to get it ready)?? People are so silly, sometimes.

    Another neighborhood (not mine, thankfully), has very strict ordinancess about what you can and can’t plant in your yards…a committee has to approve it (can you imagine?? And, what exactly is their lump sum total knowledge of plants, I just wonder…). Another thankfully, my former neighbor moved there (hurray) who once called my garden a mess…I suppose it might have been from all the stuff his dog left in it…

    I remember visiting several nurseries in the Seattle-ish area that were basically hobbies run amuck…wouldn’t bother me to live near them. Good fences make good neighbors!! Lol!

  5. Have I ever been a garden out law ?
    Well I did live in Mendocino County ( cannabis country ) for 6 years and was a gainfully employed horticultural consultant, gardener and farmer the entire time.
    You get to meet a lot of different people in that area when they find out you have an educated backround in horticulture.
    : ~ )

  6. firefly says:

    I don’t have any neighbor’s garden horror stories to tell, mainly because there are so few gardens in this neighborhood. I might be at the center of one, though, by planting shrub roses to divide our front yard from our neighbor’s.

    We try to be tolerant of kid noise in summer — about 20 kids ranging in ages from 4 to 16, all concentrated in an area of about a dozen houses, who fervently believe you just can’t have a good time outdoors without shrieking at the top of your lungs — but we draw the line at having our lawn taken for granted as a shortcut and/or play area.

    I’m not about to go out there shaking a broom, so the roses are an attempt to creatively stem the flow of traffic 2 feet away from the living room windows in July.

    With luck, it’ll work out beautifully — the rosebushes will make a nice dense hedge, the neighbors will love the flowers, and the kids will use the sidewalk.

    As for Eliz’s neighbor who sells stuff to “feed his habit,” he might want to think twice about what he’s propagating. If any of that stuff is patented, he could be breaking the law — a law which I believe is slanted way over to corporate pocketbooks — but nevertheless, a lot of nursery plant tags say “propagation prohibited.”

  7. molly says:

    A thought-provoking post that brings to mind Virginia Postrel’s, “The Substance of Style.” Described on the back flap as a “portrait of the democritization of taste,” it explores, among other things, legislated (read: legally restricted) design, one of those things to which folks in my transitional Brooklyn neighbhorhood like to think we’re immune.

    I hope a greener NYC (see the mayor’s PLANYC 2030) will not be, paradoxically, an NYC less tolerant of the type of wacky, inspired and sometimes joyfully unsuccessful streetside gardening that has been enjoying a renaissance in my neighborhood of late!

  8. susan harris says:

    Great discussion, everybody.
    In my neighborhood we’ve had a midnight renegade pruner, going around mercifully hacking back any plant that extends over sidewalks. And I have really mixed feelings about this because he’s right – people are terribly negligent about allowing their plants to endanger their neighbors’ eyes and exposed skin. But he’s brutal in his pruning, so I’m no fan.
    What i’ve done is send lists of addresses of neighbors with plants that endanger walkers to our town’s code enforcement folks, which results in their getting a polite little notice telling them to remove the danger. I wish more neighbors were similarly ballsy so I wouldn’t be the only one risking the ire of the whole town. I know my secret is safe with you guys, though.

  9. Carol M says:

    Houston has few zoning laws, so neighborhood associations step into the breach and have a huge amount of power. (There was a story a few years ago about an elderly widow — who had never handled finances before — failing to pay the $400 association fee 2 years running and having her fully paid for house foreclosed. Scary.) Well, in my boyfriend’s neighborhood, one man loves to garden and has a beautiful yard. Big, well kept garden beds give the otherwise boring suburban street wow factor. But the neighborhood association began worrying that he was too good a gardener, and when he moved or passed away (he looks like a very healthy late 60s, early 70s guy to me), the new owner wouldn’t be able to maintain all the flower beds. Gak! Last I heard, he’d successfully fought back. At least I saw him happily grooming his 2-foot tall sombrero topiaries on my last visit.

  10. eliz says:

    In my neighborhood, we’re more worried about violators of preservation codes–you have to show plans and do everything according to the character of the house, and I’m all for it. No one seems to care about wild gardening, though my neighbor comes over and pulls out my ground cover when she thinks it will invade her space. And uses every type of white plastic fencing known to man.

    Firefly, I hear you about the roses–some people around plant “mean plants” to keep out late night neighborhood bar denizens.

    Fear not, Claire, I love Barbara Pym–she isn’t that prissy when you get to know her; in fact, she’s rather wicked.

  11. Oh yeah, the HOAs in Houston are off the hook. I’m so glad to have moved to the “inner city” where HOAs were never formed and zoning laws are non-existant. What’s ironic to me is that all that hoo-ha is based on wanting to protect property values, but our value went up maybe 5% in the 3 years we lived in the burbs under the iron fist of the HOA, but has gone up 25% in the city where my neighbor could paint his house pink with orange polka dots and I wouldn’t have an ounce of recourse. This only adds fuel to the fire of my obnoxiously anti-suburbia beliefs. 😀

  12. Anonymous says:

    While it was nothing on the scale of Michele’s Mendocino friends, when I was half my age I used to grow a couple of low-potency ditchweed plants in the back of the garden behind the corn where I thought it was pretty discrete. (It was for medicinal use only — asthma.)

    We had a party and one of our friends brought her new boyfriend — the state trooper. He made a couple of comments about how interesting our garden looked from the road. It was a gentle hint that I wasn’t being as discrete as I thought I’d been. The plants came out the next day and I haven’t grown any since.

    I’ll also admit to having dug up a pinky-finger sized piece of Sanguisorba (bloodroot) from a 1,000 square foot patch along an old fenceline back in the woods while I was out trout fishing. I don’t think it was missed and their are a couple of fine patches at two different houses that I’ve lived in since that day. Funny thing was, I was more paranoid hauling that bloodroot out of the woods than I was about the ditchweed.

  13. layanee says:

    So much for ‘The land of the free’…

  14. eliz says:

    It’s the web–god knows who sees this stuff.

    Otherwise …

  15. Messy Tongan tree trimmers, Ironwood trees on the property line, machetes and girdle, lets just say there is a story in there some where. Like I said before when someone went down this road in a puff of smoke, I ain’t copin to nothin.

  16. bev says:

    Today I toured the garden of a public botanical garden employee (e.g. horticulturist). She had a beautiful front yard with zero grass. When I asked her whether there was a rule in her neighborhood about having grass in the front yard, she said no – but her contingency plan in case one was passed, was to plant corn – a member of the grass family. I am going to remember that one for future use!!

  17. Diana Joubert says:

    Half our yard is too shady for grass so it’s native azaleas and ferns. Or as the lady across the street commented – this must be what comes up when you fail to mow. lol

    Is it concern about property values or just a need to have everyone follow those unwritten rules? What if someone broke ranks and actually enjoyed life?

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