Guest Rant by Michelle Clay, one of the The Clueless Gardeners
Amy Stewart’s recent rant on the lawn police has me seeing red at un-neighborly neighbors and idiotic laws. This isn’t the first time an Orange County
resident has been harassed over an unusual yard. In
2008, after thousands of dollars invested in native plants, and years of work
on his lawn-turned-wildlife-refuge, Joel Robinson of Orange County ran into trouble
with neighbors and was threatened by the city with jail time.
Don of Native Suburbia asked for advice on his website after
disgruntled neighbors reported his yard to the town. When I asked him about the experience, he
downplayed the whole thing, saying there were only two incidents in five years
- but that’s two incidents more than I would ever like to have.
Jason Spangler, whose wild Texas yard can be seen in links here,
documents his battle
with home-owners association and city.
He persevered through bureaucratic baloney, and ultimately, the features
he added to his garden took it from
being a source of neighborhood strife to winning “yard of the month” from his
Such folks are doing
something admirable and socially risky: they are devoting their entire yards to
conservation purposes. Either these
folks do not have the necessary artistic eye to meet the aesthetic demands of
the neighbors, or they prefer the look of untamed nature. Either way, they have ventured so far out of
the visual norm that they have become targets.
In each case, an offended neighbor has called in the local government. And in each case, the local laws have been
revealed to have gray areas that are
dangerously open to interpretation by cranky government desk-jockeys.
This makes me worry: I am in
the process of converting lawn into native plant beds and swaths of
meadow. My “lawn” is a mess of weeds,
and the formerly meatball-shaped shrubs have grown shaggy. My yard is clearly the oddball on the
street. Are my neighbors going to come
after me, next?
These are the guidelines that I
follow which I hope will protect me:
Know the relevant local laws. It also helps to get to know, in advance,
the actual people in your local government who would be in charge of laying
down the law, should you break it. Talk
to them in advance of making any unusual yard alterations, such as turning a
swimming pool into a pond, or (as I did) building a path into wetland.
Be on good terms with the neighbors. Talk to them.
Invite them in for a yard tour. Host
your street’s yearly block party. Get
the neighborhood kids involved in the yard.
Ask if you can have your neighbor’s yard wastes for compost. Post signs explaining what you are
doing. Distribute fliers if you have to. Be a part of the community.
As far as
possible, make the yard aesthetically
pleasing. Include a formal garden
area. Put some sort of framework such as
a fence that signals that the wildness is deliberate and under your control. Add paths or other features that are inviting
to human visitors. Offer apologies if
the yard is in some sort of messy in-between state. Make your yard a glorious gem rather than “that
guy’s house”. Aim to make your wild
garden such a beautiful example that it will inspire your neighbors to do the
The more that rule two is
followed, the less is needed of number three, and vice versa, but number one is
a given. Don’t do like I did, and find
out after the fact that constructing a path into wetland is illegal!
This is all terribly unfair, of
course. The people with the grass carpet
and meatball bushes don’t have to defend their choices when their yards are
left in a soul-sucking state of dullness.
They aren’t fined or mocked by the neighbors for failing to include
“aesthetics” or “ecology”. Their
mistakes don’t lead people to the asinine assumption that native plants are
inherently messy or ugly or unsuited to the suburban garden. The brave few who risk having ugly yards get
to be the neighborhood scapegoats, and get to bear the burden of defending
every unusual yard-choice they make. But
I tell you what: I would take a Native Suburbia or an Orange County rebel as a
neighbor any day of the week.