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In Praise of “That Guy’s Yard”

Guest Rant by Michelle Clay, one of the The Clueless Gardeners

Guestnative_suburbia_flowers
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
homeowner’s association.

 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:

1.      
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.

2.      
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.

3.      
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
same.

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.

Posted by on March 13, 2010 at 3:48 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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21 Responses to “In Praise of “That Guy’s Yard””

  1. I have found that simply sharing with the neighbors helps keep them happy also. I always grow a few extra veggie plants as well as annual flowers for each of the neighbors. Rule 2 above is really the key, not that I have a crazy yard, but it is pretty “unconventional” as far as gardening goes…..

  2. Kory Steele says:

    I hadn’t considered the potential problems from neighbors being displeased with a landscaped yard. Luckily I have heard zero complaints. Although I am in a nice, middle-class, typical subdivision, I have found that my neighbors just aren’t interested in being, well, neighborly. Only one of my neighbors welcomed me when I moved in, all others I had to approach. I take this as a sign of apathy and perhaps I won’t have problems. Nevertheless, I sprung the $30 for a sign when I got my yard certified as wildlife habitat by NWF. I’ve thought about erecting other signs like “All Plants are Virginia Native”, and this “rant’ may push me more towards that.

  3. Tara Dillard says:

    Because I have no grass in a typical subdivision I’ve ‘chosen’ sustainable? What a bore labels are.

    Over a decade ago I replaced lawn with flowering shrubs, trees, groundcovers.

    I wanted less maintenance, less expense & a greater fix for my landscape design addiciton. A potent trinity.

    Twice, so far, men with guns have showed up. Why? Neighbors complained to code enforcement, without any words to me.

    Both times, the gun toting, police told me I had a pretty garden. Apologizing for knocking on my door but it was protocol after a complaint.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  4. Laura Munoz says:

    I worry about this A LOT. My area of Austin was not part of the city until some 30+ years ago. Our ‘hood has no sidewalks/curbs & lot sizes range from 2/3 to 4 acres. It has a very country feel, and we have people who DRIVE to our neighborhood to take their walks. Until last year, we even had some horses (grandfathered in). Ten years ago I planted several natives in the 12 ft easement outside my fence. However, last year my neighbor behind me and I were turned into code enforcement because someone didn’t like the easement.

    Just last week, I saw the code enforcement truck in our neighborhood and freaked out. Were they after me? What did I do wrong now?…Yes, the grass is long in the backyard but that’s because I put out TONS of wildflowers seeds in the fall and they are coming up…Worry!!!!

    I know all of my immediate neighbors so I doubt they are the ones who complain.

  5. Bob says:

    I’m still amazed that somehow we have created a situation where planting an alien weed grass is the “enforced norm”, and filling a yard (or keeping a yard) full of native wildflowers may lead to arrest!

    The obsession with “mowing” and “neatness” (as defined by others) seems at best an expensive fetish, and at worst, an excuse to force others to conform.

    Somehow… some people… have decided that the method of determining the worth of others is based on the perfection of their lawns! It wouldn’t be so bad if those “perfect lawn” folks hadn’t decided that YOU have to do the same so that THEIR yard can have a “perfect setting”!

    Shouldn’t one have to get a permit to plant Kentucky Bluegrass? It certainly makes more sense to license the introducing of aliens plants than license planting what already grows nearby!

    It just seems that the whole attitude is backwards!

    Anyway… I’ve had no trouble here (Urbana,Ill). Local native plant sales are always good, and my yard is pretty popular around here! A local retirement home made me their “spring fieldtrip” last year.

    There’s a little lawn (for preservation of an endangered species…bluegrass is getting rare in this yard:), and small woods, meadows, wetland, vegetables… I try to cram a lot into an acre!

    Still working on it…

  6. Ray Eckhart says:

    Here’s a relevant Penn State Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet: Neighborly Natural Landscaping: Creating Natural Environments in Residential Areas . It can be a useful tool if you’re faced with having to educate zoning officers.

  7. Gloria says:

    We tend to stay in a house a good long time so finding a neighborhood that is more relaxed than the average housing development in suburbia is first priority. Lots of large trees, a few double lots. A few fences that hide entire properties instead of one long thread of turf and an excessive garden or two all make the neighborhood more appealing.

    I applaud those fighting the system to accept change in the face of mounting evidence that there are many ways to steward a property that will benefit the community.

  8. Wow! I am impressed that in 2010, 2 years after the real estate bubble burst, ANY local government or homeowner association (HOA) anywhere in America has the $ to spend on code enforcement! Clearly there are no schools being closed, library hours down, county agents or 4H cut, right? I thought local govt’s had their hands full controlling mosquito larvae in abandoned swimming pools at foreclosures.

    And on a larger scale, try being a farmer/gardener when new-to-the-country neighbors move in next door…just ask me about the neighbors (from the suburbs of a state West of NYC where gravel mulch is the height of aesthetics) next door to our farm who sent planning & zoning officials searching for any way in which horticulture and floriculture are not covered under agricultural use or in our conservation easement. The trespass onto our property with the telephoto lens trained on my floral design team (all women) was particularly unsettling. The great irony was that the head of Planning/Zoning commission is also a neighbor farmer who had built our equipment shed/barn for the previous owners for – you guessed it! processing cut flowers, herbs and veg for sale. SIGH.

    A book helps guide newbie Green Acres types in Virginia to be cautious about bringing their suburbanite ‘standards’ with them: Welcome to the Country, by Frank Levering. http://www.ballyshannonfund.com/wttcbook.html

  9. Hi everyone! I see that Kory has chimed in. I learned about his yard too late to include it in my rant. He has great photos of it here: http://picasaweb.google.com/ixzamnu/OurYard?feat=email#

    As my husband pointed out when he read my rant, we don’t have any major worries that our neighbors are going to call in the lawn police on us, because we go out of our way to be the fun yard that all of their kids can freely explore. And as Gentle Gardener mentioned, I think the local government has its hands full of more pressing issues now. Thankfully, most of the run-ins I listed in my rant happened a few years back.

    That said, I suspect some homeowners are now a lot more sensitive to yards that look foreclosed and abandoned, so it may be kinder and safer to use extra care when converting lawn into meadow.

    Tara, going grassless may not necessarily be sustainable, nor do I believe I implied as much. I’m glad the police liked your yard!

    Bob, are there photos of your yard online somewhere? I would love to see it!

    Ray, thank you for sharing that Penn State Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet!

    Thanks everyone for your fantastic comments!

  10. Amy Stewart says:

    “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.”

    Brilliant.

  11. Ray Eckhart says:

    You’re welcome, Michelle. That publication is number 10 in a 16 part series of wildlife publications that your readership can reference here (locate ‘wildlife’ in the link – the publications are listed alphabetically):

    http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/linkchecker.asp

    Your state Land Grant University Cooperative Extension office probably also has similar information, tailored to your local conditions. Check them out.

  12. carbetbag_garden says:

    I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people who don’t do their research before moving into a town or neighborhood with landscape restrictions. Before you buy property, you should always find out what the regulations are for changes to the house and to the landscape.

    Many cities have their ordinances posted on Municode (http://municode.com/Library/Library.aspx). Read through your municipal code before you start making changes.

    If you buy a place and then they try to pass a new ordinance that you don’t like–fight it.

  13. Matt says:

    I think you can go a decent way towards making a meadow yard look “neat” by edging/putting a thin formal strip of border plants or rocks along the sidewalk and around the mailbox. If the edges are clearly well manicured it’ll make the rest of the yard look more intentional.

  14. Bob, thank you! What beautiful flowers!

    Thanks Amy. :)

    Matt, putting a border of some sort around meadow seems like the best way to do it. It’s the same with art: even finger-painting can look fantastic when it’s put in a frame.

    Carpetbag, I would agree with you about learning the laws before buying, except for two things. One is that not everyone knows they’ll turn into a gardener before they buy property. (That’s me!) The other is that the laws surrounding what you can and cannot do with property are often hard to find, non-intuitive, and hard to decipher. As an example, several properties on my street back up to wetland. Each one of us has unintentionally repeatedly violated the laws that protect those wetlands, myself included, through such actions as fertilizing lawn, clearing brush, cutting down trees, and (in my case) building a path into the wetland.

    If you are interested, I documented my blunder here: http://thecluelessgardeners.blogspot.com/2009/06/environmental-outlaw-turns-herself-in.html and here: http://thecluelessgardeners.blogspot.com/2009/06/relieved-and-sad.html

  15. Town Mouse says:

    Well, I expect this too might change. I talked to a guy from Australia and he said during the drought people were allowed to handwater with a bucket for 1 hour a day, and only one person each day (so you didn’t fill multiple buckets).

    If we started planting what our climate supports, a lot of silliness would fall by the wayside.

  16. chuck b. says:

    “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.”

    Good point!

  17. The trackback url appears to be broken for this post/blog… which is unfortunate, because the trackback system is a much less tactless way to have a conversation in cyberspace. That said, I wrote a response over at my blog, musing on these rules and adding some my own. Nice post. Let’s continue the discussion.

    “It was bound to be a topic of discussion at some point considering the quantity of wilderness I’m inviting people to invite into their yards. And Michelle Clay raised the issue during a recent guest rant on the Garden Rant blog. What do you do when your neighbors start complaining about the forest in front of your house? Or when they get the law involved?…”

    Read more: http://goingbackwardmovingforward.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-to-do-when-your-yard-is-illegal.html

  18. Old Kim says:

    I was burning trashy proven winner paper boxes because they waste my pure space. Expensive waste. Glamorous trash.
    I should have gone to jail burning the waste. The biggest plant brokers userp plastic.

  19. Sarah Jane says:

    In some areas, the native/drought tolerant/un-manicured yards are getting the support of the local ordinances. In the jurisdiction where I work (in Local Government, next to the Code Enforcement staff), many areas are on watering restrictions and any new development is required to include at least 2/3 of the landscaping as “low-water need” so lawns are limited.

    In terms of doing code enforcement,and I think this is the case in most places, at least in CA, there’s only an investigation when a complaint is recieved, and if the complaint is valid (as in, we actually have a rule on the books that is being broken), we bill the violator. So get this: if you’ve unwittingly broken an ordinance of ours, you get to pay for your neighbor complaining, to the tune of, like, $150 an hour for the investigators time.

    Rather than having to do so much work to ensure our beautiful, natural yards aren’t the target of uptight neighbors, let’s get together and change these rules, and make those meatball shrubs the ones that need to be “grandfathered in”!! I know you’d get a lot of support from local government beaurocrats, who would rather spend their time on more important things like street trees and unsafe housing.

    As a gardener and a land use professional, it seems to me like now is a good time to go for it!

  20. Linda Perry says:

    The problem I have with a neighbor is that they insist on spraying that green swath to kill everything but grass right beside my organic veg garden even on windy days if they so choose and I have no “rights” to call the authorities on them.Haven’t spoken to them for years because of this so I wonder what they would do if I did that “scruffy” meadow thing.Quite a thought!

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