Guest Rants, Real Gardens

When a Garden Needs a Lawyer

Here's a guest rant from Michelle Clay/The Clueless Gardeners

Parkway_before_after_20100715

In July, against their wishes, the city of Bartlett,
Illinois mowed down Donald and Benia Zouras’s garden.  And Don and Benia have to pay for it.

I’ve sifted through their record of what happened,
and I’ve read the relevant parts of their town’s laws.  The research has left me confused.  The fact that I’m not a lawyer doesn’t
help.

Some background: Don and Benia have worked for years to make
their suburban yard into a wildlife habitat.  Their yard was one of three that I profiled back in March
here at Garden Rant as risky but noble gardening causes.   At the time, Don seemed confident
that his two brushes with disapproving neighbors and heavy-handed local laws
were the end of his troubles. 

The Zouras’s made an effort through signs to let their
neighbors know what was up with the yard. 
But despite having their website posted on a sign by the sidewalk, they
received almost no feedback until after the mowing took place.  Anonymous neighbors then called his
yard an eyesore, an overgrown mess. 
“At least with a forclosed home someone is mowing the lawn.” said one
person.”  Said another, “You need
to realize there is other houses around you and it just doesn't blend in; it's
simply ugly and unorganized. Keep that stuff in your backyard.”

These comments were, thankfully, outnumbered by sympathetic
feedback.

To be clear, it wasn’t their entire yard that got mowed; it
was the strip between sidewalk and road where the utilities are buried.  But here is the odd part: the town
cited a part of the law that applies to creating obstructions (visual or
otherwise) to pedestrian or vehicular traffic.  The Zouras’s hell-strip garden may not have been the
aesthetic ideal of suburbia, but they live on a straight road, away from
intersections.  Their plants could
hardly be blocking the view of drivers. 
Furthermore, judging by the photos, the plants did not flop significantly
into the sidewalk.  Was the
bureaucrat who cited that part of the law just inept?  Or was that particular snippet of the town code drawn out of
a hat as an excuse to enforce the aesthetics of some neighbor who had his
panties in a bunch?

The letter
they received from the town also mentions that it is unlawful to plant anything
“in any public street or parkway” without approval of the Public Works
Director.   This, I think, is
the only part of the town’s complaint that holds water.   The Zouras’s did not apply for a
permit to plant where the street’s power lines are buried, and therefore the
town trumps.  Never mind that Don
attempted to get some clarity from town on the letter’s strange wording, and
was answered with one-line variants of “we already sent you a letter that says
you violated the town’s code.”

Oddly, there was another part of the law which the town didn’t
use against the Zouras’s yard, but could have: the Nuisance Laws.   These laws state that “Any such
weeds as jimson, burdock, ragweed, thistle. . .” (perhaps the authors of this
law were unaware that Pitcher’s thistle, Cirsium pitcher, is listed as a
federally threatened plant)  “. .
.cockleburr, or other weeds of like kind. . .”  (Mead’s milkweed, Asclepias meadi, is likewise
endangered)  “. . .found growing in
any lot or tract of land. . .” 
(even parkland?)  “. . . in
the village are hereby declared to be a nuisance, and it shall be unlawful to
permit any such weeds to grow or remain. . .”   (This is a joke, right?  I can understand making weed illegal, but weeds?)

This bit is somewhat of a tangent, but I can‘t resist
repeating it here: “It shall be unlawful for anyone to permit weeds, grass or
plants, other than trees, bushes, flowers or other ornamental plants to grow to
a height exceeding eight inches. . .” 

Just let that one sink in a bit.  A Bartlett resident could be fined for growing
tomatoes.  Or for owning an ugly
shade tree.  Perhaps the town didn’t
cite this section of the law because the law is too ridiculous to hold up in
court.

For the safety of workers, and to protect the underground
cables and pipes from damage, it is reasonable for a town to demand permits for
what gardeners plant on their utility strips.  But would the town have turned a blind eye on Don’s yard for
a few more years if the neighbors had found it to be visually appealing?  Did the town go clumsily looking for an
excuse to mow his yard in order to appease the offended sensibilities of a few
suburban conformists?

If there's a lawyer in the house, I would love to hear an opinion.

Photo used with permission from Don Zouras.

Posted by on September 8, 2010 at 5:00 am, in the category Guest Rants, Real Gardens.
Comments are off for this post

57 Responses to “When a Garden Needs a Lawyer”

  1. Lisa says:

    Oh my heart goes out to these folks, it’s sad the city pulled the “we don’t like your taste” card, because it wasn’t really for the reasons they listed, it was probably because the city got sick and tired of listening to the loudest whiney butt. I could be mistaken, but it appears from the first picture two that at least some of it is in flower, so that means there are right and wrong flowers too? I hope they can get over the shock, if they can’t I hope they sue that smug city.

  2. Tibs says:

    “I am a bureaucrat and I’m okay”, sung to the tune of Monty Python’s “I am a lumberjack”. And yup, the mayor got tired of hearing Whiney Butt and told the bureaucrats to take care of it. Or else.

    The homeowners could go around town and take pictures of other places that don’t meet the above cited codes, (or any city codes for that matter, there are lots of silly rules on the books. For a fun time, read your city’s codes!) and start their own whiney butt campagn about uneven enforcement. But that would just make the poor grunt of a bureaucrat suffer.

  3. Kathleen says:

    In my next life, I’m living in the country far away from busybody neighbors who have nothing better to do than monitor who is planting what where. This sort of thing happens all over.

  4. That is a huge hellstrip. Eight inches? That is a shocker. If they really did get a lot of sympathy from some folks in their comment box, and if they really are committed to change this, why not try to fight that ordinance with a petition? A height increase to 12 or 14 inches will surely not interefere with traffic. And I’m sure they could find people in violation of this to take to the city council and say, “if you aren’t going to uniformly enforce the law, then change it.” I don’t think they will have much luck changing the nuisance law, though.

  5. Kate says:

    This reminded me of a story of a gardener Douglas Counter from Ontario who challenged the city by taking his case for preserving his natural boulevard garden to court and won! His story was featured in an episode of Recreating Eden. http://www.recreatingeden.com/index.php?pid=8&season=01&episode=6p

  6. Thanks for that link, Kate!

  7. dcs says:

    Being a curmudgeon, my first thought is to say “Oh visibility is the problem, is it? Well, I’ll show you a hell strip.” Then I’d go get a string trimmer, hang a length of chain from the shaft as a guide that puts the head exactly 7″ from the ground. I’d leave the existing plants, maybe plant some native grass between them. Once per week (documenting date and time) I’d go out and “mow” those plants to within an inch of the “legal” height.

    Compared to the pre-mowssacre plantings, it would look awful.
    But it would leave no excuse for them to mow it, complying perfectly with the letter of the law. I probably wouldn’t do it, but I’d be tempted.

  8. Gloria says:

    I never plant in the hell strip for this reason, no courage to fight city hall.
    Don and Benia have put a lot of work and money into that garden, it is a shame they have lost that section. I hope they have not lost heart with this defeat. A wildlife garden is of benefit to the community in ways that are being recognized slowly.
    Michele, have you seen that Amelanchier has recieved notice from Buffalo NY that both the front and back will be mowed in 7 days. No time to fight. No previous notice. He was on a garden tour this summer and got noticed by someone.He is really worried.

  9. Laura Bell says:

    Wow. Way to go Bartlett IL. That’s certainly more attractive (btw, what’s the html tag to denote “dripping sarcasm” ?).

    If the idea is to protect the underground pipes & cables, why are shallow-rooted plants like grasses & annual flowers being cut down, but not the trees ? Seems to me if anything is going to cause problems with the underground utilities, it’s the deeper, much more troublesome roots of a growing tree. Should work need to be done on that part of the hell strip, it would certainly be easier to remove & replace the smaller plants & stepping stones there than the tree. Yet it meets code ? Where’s the logic in that ?

  10. Abby says:

    This is why I keep my “meadow” in a back yard surrounded by arborvitae and viburnum. Here in FW, the city won’t cite you unless someone complains, so it seems step one is to get your neighbors on your side, or try to reach a compromise with them. This town is not very progressive, but at least they exempt rain gardens from the weed ordinance.

  11. Oh nooooooo, not Amelanchier, too! His garden had such promise! Gloria, do you know if he has any sort of web presence? I would love to get some attention focused his way. Ack, just ack.

    Laura, that’s a really good point about the tree roots. I’m laughing now because I’m crying inside.

  12. CellBioProf says:

    I urge everyone who want to plant or expand their ecological garden to change the local weed laws BEFORE they plant. I sent letters to my 3 township supervisors last December (before a meeting to examine the weed ordinance) suggesting wording to protect such gardens. In the letter, I noted several of the benefits to local communities of such a planting. I also read part of my letter at the township supervisors meeting. They passed my amendment unanimously, without discussion. Now I plant happily in the front yard (and keep an eye on the activities of the township planning commission in case they decide to revisit the ordinance).

  13. Jessika says:

    My thoughts? (and yes, these do come with a legal degree, but please no hating) Most of these laws were put into place so that they could deal with complaints. I highly suspect that if no one had ever whined about his yard, then no action would have been taken. But, because the rules were in place, they could be leaned on (however justifiably or unjustifiably) to mow. Laws pertaining to hell strips are pretty darn confusing and varied. You’re obligated to take care of the area, but in certain parameters and with certain limitations. And if you do something ANYONE doesn’t like, you stand a chance of your hard work being bulldozed.

  14. Sarah Jane says:

    It’s unfortunate for these gardeners, and this is the reality of the way land use and planning law is enforced in the US. I work in a planning department in California, and our code enforcement works on a complaints-only basis. So, basically, if you’re not bothering your neighbors, we’re not bothering you. About anything. Ever.

    The example CellBioProf cites is ideal. I think most local politicians will respond quickly and favorably to a direct and reasonable request for an ordinance amendment. Once there’s been a to-do with the neighborhood, and you’ve got people on “the other side” of your reqest, things get more difficult.

    And it’s not about logic or unequal enforcement, it’s about squeaky wheels getting the grease. We all need to go forth and be squeaky wheels in the name of positive change to local laws and ordinances before conflicts arise. I know I’d welcome that in my work, and sure my counterparts in other places would as well.

  15. Thank you very much for the info CellBipProf, Jessika, and Sarah!

  16. Gloria says:

    Check this out.

    Nature On Trial, fighting for freedom of chioce in landscaping.
    Court Decision
    The decision is available in two forms:

    http://northcountrynotes.org/jason-rohrer/natureOnTrial/seedBlogs.php?action=display_post&post_id=jcr13_1150214324_0&show_author=0&show_date=0

  17. I think the problem with the neighbors who forced this move is that we have loved the lawn for two hundred years and can’t rid ourselves of its importance in the home landscape. The seed and nursery industries of the 19th century sold us the English garden, with its beloved lawn. And so we have cultivated the green cover outside the home, and along the sidewalk, for a long time.

  18. Thanks so much for the link, Gloria1 That’s some fascinating reading.

    Thomas, the American lawn actually originated around 1915, when the combination of reel lawnmower, garden hose, subsidised water, and encouragement from the USDA, the US Golf Association, and the American Garden Club made it possible for middle-class Americans to emulate the upper-class of England. I wrote an article on it for my local paper, if you are interested: http://thecluelessgardeners.blogspot.com/2010/07/why-grow-lawn.html

  19. Patrick says:

    Just for the sake of taking the other side, I think the before pic of the hellstrip looks weedy and unkemp. If you are going to garden a hell strip, make it look beautiful. Wildlife are attracked to any garden and it doesn’t have to look like an abandoned field, which seems to be the problem with this hellstrip and what I can see past the walk into the front yard. My whole front yard is gardened away, except for the Hell strip, and the paths which are still grass. Do my neighbors like looking at the back of the shrubs forming a border right across the front of my yard? Many would probably say they don’t. But I keep the lawn cut on the strip and weed the edges along the side walk so its at least tidy. You need to be reasonable, or move to the country where every untended piece of land looks like that. The pics of this garden make their yard look awefull. I probably wouldn’t like it either…

  20. That is what one could expect from those progeny of the original Mayflower, fellows, traveling the Atlantic to start a CHURCH!

    Or those who bleep common daily utterances from movies and television.

    The ones who substituted
    blind and deaf, the N word
    and so forth… A total arbitrary set of rules imposed as if written in stone.,

  21. I don’t know the local ordinances for gardening in my Hell Strip but I do it anyway. I just do it with the knowledge that the city could arbitrarily mow it down and replace it with grass – nothing valuable or wimpy gets planted there (let them TRY to eradicate the mint, just let them TRY).

    Of course I have the advantage that several other houses along my block also have plants in their Hell Strips so it’s not likely anyone would complain and if they did they would be seriously shunned by the gardeners in the neighborhood (who outnumber the non-gardeners by a significant amount).

  22. Patrick, it is incorrect that every garden attracts wildlife. Consider a generic suburban combo of daylilies, foundation plantings, dyed mulch, and sod grass. There is nothing in such a yard that would attract hummingbirds, for instance. Or snakes. Or monarch butterflies.

    Wildlife requires specific food, specific shelter, and clean water. Without all of these these things, a visit from, say, a hummingbird will be a rare event.

  23. anne says:

    With regard to wildlife attraction, I would also add that using certain chemicals that are often used in a more formal “neat” garden would keep certain insects (including some butterflies) and other wildlife out of a garden, disrupting the chain of life there.

    Of course, some wildlife you might not want to attract (rodents, ticks and mosquitoes, for example), and growth that those animals can hide and move around in might not be so great. This issue didn’t seem to be part of the discussion with these folks’ yard though, interestingly; the aesthetics seemed to be more important, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a pest problem there.

    Myself? I would just get a cat to keep rodents at bay, and hope the toads, frogs, lizards and birds would take care of the ticks and mosquitoes!

  24. Patrick says:

    If you put the pictures of this yard under magnification, it looks like a weedy eye sore. The owners are lucky that the city didn’t mow further than that. In my town they charge the property owner $75.00 an hour to cut yards that look like that. I can’t see anything redeeming about this yard. Perhaps you could include a compelling photo aray to make your position more pallitable, And spare us the condemnation of your billigerant attitude that makes everyone that doesn’t agree with your opinion out to be the enemy. Weed laws threaten everyones gardens. But if your garden looks like an abandoned field, like this one appears to be, then you are asking for trouble. I wouldn’t turn the law on my neighbor, but I wouldn’t support this sloppy attempt to put nature back into the conscienceness of the town I live in. And for the record, all you need to do to attract Hummers is to put up a feeder with some sugar water…

  25. Gloria says:

    It is everyone’s right to not support a garden of this nature. But it should be our right to grow a garden of this nature.
    Once a commenter said that another commenter and I sounded defensive about native plant /habitat gardening.With this kind of action how would we not be?

  26. Jason Sorens says:

    Jason/Amelanchier here, mentioned by Gloria & Michelle above. Just today I got notices of violation from the town. The funny thing is that, with the possible exception of one shrub next to our driveway, the garden is in clear compliance with the ordinances. More info here:
    http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/in-which-the-town-comes-for-my-garden/

  27. Patrick says:

    Jason, instead of cutting them, why don’t you beat the town officals at their own game and move the offending plants to a place in your yard where these shrubs won’t be problematic. You can have all the plants that you want to grow just rearrange your plants a bit and comply. Unless you really want them to cut them down. Redesign your front yard so it will work. You can do this…

  28. Cleetus Van Damme says:

    I have a front yard thats quite similar to the one in the pictures. The city owns the property up to 3 feet from the first step. The owners of that home could easily verify if that is the same case by examining the deed to the property.

  29. Laura Munoz says:

    Wow, I can empathize with these folks. Something similar happened to me and the neighbor behind me two years ago.

    Interestingly, our code enforcer also used “visual obstruction” as the reason we needed to clean the area up. However, there is no sidewalk, and this area has been maintained in the same manner for the last ten years. (We live in a very country-like setting with the smallest lot being 2/3rds acre and there are no sidewalks anywhere.) The area also did not obstruct anyone’s sight for driving as it is located in the middle of the street.

    Our best guess was a realtor wanted the area to look prestine so potential buyers for a house down the street wouldn’t take offense.

  30. Bob says:

    If your garden looks like an abandoned field (prairie?), then it’s a rich and beautiful place!

    It’s certainly better than a border-to-border, mowed-to-death, alien weed grass lawn!

    Oh well…ignorance is overwhelming in some folks.

    I have also pointed out in the past that some “weed laws” would have allowed a city to cut all native trees down… As a group, those “weed law” folks don’t seem too bright.

    We’ll just put Bartlett on the list of towns run by ignorant fools, and stay away… Glad I live in Urbana! :)

  31. SJ says:

    I live in Cicero and got cited for the same thing five years ago after having had said garden in for six years – it was mostly prairie plants. Basically, I discovered from a sympathetic officer that the nasty old people were complaining about it at neighborhood watch when they’re supposed to worrying about crime. They are very uptight here but the code enforcement officers were willing to work with me and we were working on a compromise. One of them even said he really dug it. The problem was the town lawyer and the head of public works (who was later fired for other reasons shortly thereafter) who said that they required lawn only. The judge saw no reason to enforce having grass he just said I’m to keep it at 10 inches or under and have an 18 inch setback (in my case leveled in flagstone set in paver base) for people to exit their cars safely and nothing hanging over the sidewalk. Since then, I’ve cheated a bit and let a few things get up to two feet here and there but I make sure it’s well taken care of so no one bothers me. I make it a point to ensure neighbors see me deadheading the flowers, pruning back growth on a weekly basis.

    Before they mowed they had to issue a ticket and then you have the option of contesting in court which I did. I went armed with a diagram and a plant list and dollar amount. I also told the judge I was more then willing to compromise – cut things back, remove certain species and replace with shorter ones to meet compliance. It really made the head of public works look like a jerk.

    Bartlett is one of those western suburbs where people have a very narrow mindset – since I live near the city it’s a bit more bohemian. It can be done but I think that I would level in the path a bit more so it makes better sense and put in lower plants – there are prairie plants that will meet code height requirement like Nodding Onion, Wild Petunia, Prairie Sundrops, Wine Cups – these can be nicely mixed with different creeping sedums, creeping jenny that require very little water to make a lovely tapestry.

  32. Kathy says:

    I could not live where someone could tell me what I could or could not grow in my yard. I consider anything that I have to keep up, my yard. I hope that they will not have too many problems with this and I hope that they do not have to pay any money for their cause. If, you do not like the rules, you have the right to fight them or move.

  33. Cleetus Van Damme says:

    Look, I’m all in favour of people growing beautiful gardens but you have show a little respect for your community. What they most want is a respectable neighbourhood that is clean and trimmed.

    I can already hear the howls.

    And whats wrong with keeping your gardening fetishes in the backyard? You might think your wonderful garden is a real trophy, something to hold up in your neighbours faces, but they dont want it. You didn’t ask them and they never gave you permission.

    Would you want the person living next to play Guns & Roses in their front yard every single day at maximum volume?

    Of course you wouldn’t.

    Keep it in the backyard where YOU can appreciate its beauty to its fullest.

  34. Gardening in zone 8 says:

    Not to sound negative here either but the prairie field in the front yard may not be the way to go only because as a former county bumpkin tall grasses and such plus a water supply be it hose or pond will attract wildlife but it may not be what you want to attract. Snakes and ticks and if other people must walk through it and say a snake does pop out it could make you drop your groceries.

  35. Don Zouras says:

    While the letter I received from the town does mention that it is unlawful to plant anything “in any public street or parkway” without permission, the actual ordinance that they cited specifically states that it only applies to trees or shrubs. I only planted forbs and grasses, so once again the ordinance cited is not applicable. BUT, I did actually talk to the Bartlett Public works department about my plans; both in person and via email. I was not told that I could not plant, but only warned that it is a lot of work and I should not harm the existing tree. I was willing to accept that feedback and so I proceeded.

  36. Don Zouras says:

    The Bartlett definitions of weeds do not apply to my garden. Every plant in the contested area is an Illinois native. I carefully weed out anything else.

    The height restrictions also do not apply because of the commonly observed garden exception. No one questions whether a patch of day lilies or tulips is greater than 8″ high because they are purposely planted. My entire yard is purposely planted and therefore it is a garden and not an unkempt lawn.

  37. Don Zouras says:

    I don’t expect my neighbors to ask me for approval of their poor landscaping choices nor will I ask them.

    Restricting my garden to locations where my neighbors cannot see it is both impossible and ridiculous. I am morally opposed to maintaining non-native ornamental plants and I will not have them in my yard.

  38. Don Zouras says:

    The picture posted by the author goes well with the story she told, but if you want to see more pictures of Native Suburbia then just go to my web site:
    http://www.icode6.net/native_suburbia

  39. The law states, “it is unlawful to plant anything “in any public street or parkway” without approval of the Public Works Director.” which is very common. It is not difficult to go through proper channels – - develop a plant list, set up a meeting with a decision maker, provide photos of what you want to achieve & start slow and in this case – low! If they had mostly ground covers and a few perennials just happened to pop out… well, you get the idea.

    They did break their towns law.

  40. Rain says:

    Where does the property line end on this house? Has anyone asked that? This looks like it was put on the other side of the sidewalk, which, in some cities, is not considered part of their property. I dunno.

  41. Thank you for the clarification, Don!

  42. i have worked SUCCESSFULLY in helping overturn “weed laws” (which really do have a place in society, but should NOT be applied to deliberately-planted’ i.e. naturalistic design gardens… there is, after all, a fine line between Solidago ‘Peter Pan’ (a cultivar of a native goldenrod (read: “weed”) and Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro…

    the weed laws CAN be successfully defeated, case-by-case, if the city works in an exception clause (like they do with McDonald’s landscapes, right on the street).

    the garden must 1) show intent (design, signage, etc.), and 2) maintain it as a flower bed (keep real weeds out).

    this CAN be done, legally. takes some effort, and a lot of pressure.

    felder
    felderrushing.net

  43. Becky says:

    I am glad that I am not in the middle of this. There is going to be no winner. I hate that any plants were cut down. Every plant is needed.

  44. Bob says:

    And a final thought: if folks want to control what others plant in the towns (because it’s in a town, not in the “country”)…

    …then, logically, should we not also ban all lawn grass, bright lights, and typical “plastic” nursery plants in the “country” that are so contrary to what “should” grow in the country…? No more bright lights offending dark starry skies; no more roaring lawn mowers where flowers should grow…

    Hmmm…

    Makes sense:)

  45. I am a lawyer and a former resident of Bartlett, IL. These ordinances are not at all unusual, and are permissible as nuisance regulations. I must point out that the parkway, even if “owned” by the homeowner, at least has an easement in favor of the municipality, so any planting there is done at your own risk. Enforcement of these nuisance regulations is very hit and miss. In the town in which I currently live, there are ordinances prohibiting weeds, but every year the municipality’s crews mulch buckthorn trees.
    The Zourases are the victims of the squeaky wheel neighbor, who just doesn’t get it. The answer is to outweigh the squeaky neighbor with a lot of squeaks from sympathetic neighbors for amendments to the ordinances as suggested by Felder Rushing. The way it was handled is just appalling. In most cases, the homeowner is given notice to mow “the weeds.” Here, it sounds like a case of nepotism or a special relationship between the complainer and the powers that be in Bartlett. Can’t say I’m surprised. As I said, I used to live there.

  46. Patricia Harkness says:

    I am with you Anne and Michelle. This garden, at closer observation, looks like an overgrowth of weeds. I would not want that next door to me either. In fact, I have a cottage garden that grows right out to the sidewalk with a grass strip on the other side to the street. I have very little grass in my front yard, but there are not weeds and straggly flowers parading as wildflowers all over the front yard either. The only weeds I have are loaned to me by my neighbor that does not care for her garden (loaded with weeds) that reseed themselves in my garden…however, I would not turn her in as I try to be a good neighbor; but, I do grit my teeth every time I walk by her house and every time she weeds, I try to compliment her on how good things look…and Patrick, it may be their right to grow a garden of this nature; but, I don’t want your weeds in the garden of my nature!!

  47. Mimi says:

    Gah, that’s hideous. I wouldn’t have complained, but the house looks abandoned and overgrown. No amount of plant tags will change that.

  48. Mimi says:

    I’ve been thinking about why I dislike this more than the “gnome/statuary garden.” I mean, in sheer horribleness, the gnome garden wins hands down. But the gnome garden LOOKS cared for. It looks like someone spent a great deal of time and effort making something perfectly hideous. And I can live with that.

    This garden doesn’t. The “hellstrip” was the worst, but even the rest of the garden looks like an unplanned mess.

    And that’s the difference between a garden, a wild space, and an overgrown lot. A home garden isn’t ever going to look like a wild space–because it isn’t. It’s connected to a house and the people who live there. The aesthetic appeal of wild places can be strong, but it’s not because of this wildflower or that native shrub. It’s the whole, and a front yard doesn’t have space for that whole, nor is it appropriate to the setting. What happens with a yard is that it become the third thing–an overgrown lot.

    There are plenty of native militants who make perfectly lovely gardens. But in each garden is the element of planning, scale–of attractiveness. However lovingly tended, this looks like a mess of weeds. A garden isn’t a garden when it looks a good deal like an abandoned house. And all the plant tags in the world won’t change that.

    I’ve seen the same result with non-native plants, in “English cottage” gardens gone to hell. If there isn’t an element of intentionality and a certain appearance of grooming maintained, it doesn’t come across as a garden. That lot, I’d worry about ticks, rattlesnakes, and hantavirus when crossing. And I’m not a neat-nick gardener at all, nor do I dislike wildlife.

    It’s gardens like this that make people wary of “wildlife gardens.” And not just this one–I’ve seen plenty on GardenWeb that are as bad or worse. If you really must end up with this kind of look, do keep it in the back yard. And when your “wildlife” (such as a nest of wood rats…) comes bursting into the neighbor’s yard when you walk through your meadow, don’t be surprised if they still call it in.

    I’d ignore the yard, but if I had a rodent problem in my house I couldn’t eradicate because of a neighbor’s meadow or if I started getting ticks, I’d call it in, myself.

    I’ve lived in mostly semi-wild neighborhoods, too. Even though most people only tended a part of their lot actively, they never ended up looking like that. The parts near the house stay neater, and the others, though wild, don’t have an overwhelmingly weedy effect.

  49. Mimi says:

    Bob–

    Bright lights at night were banned one place I lived.

    It was lovely for seeing the night sky, but it made the roads a lot more dangerous. Kids didn’t play outside near sunset. And fewer neighbors really knew each other.

  50. Gloria says:

    A garden like this does not attract more rodents than your cottage garden. Many plants mostly covering the soil makes for cover be it zinnias or goldenrod. It is not rare to see plant life in most Chicago gardens but I can tell you there is a bigger rodent problem in abandoned buildings and industrial areas with very little plant life.
    Food garbage and dog crap(so say the Chicago Park District workers) feed rodents, so clean it up and then cover the trash can to lower populations.
    You should no more be afaid to walk through a native plant garden than a meadow or a wood while hiking.

  51. Don Zouras says:

    For those of you that believe you can accurately determine what my yard looks like from that single picture taken from far away, I would caution you to rethink your position. It is very difficult to see any kind of details from a picture like that. The purpose of the picture was to show the difference before and after the mowing. It is a whole different experience to be up close to the plants and see the flowers and leaves. Being a foot away from a butterfly as it sips nectar or as a bee works its way around a pollen laden flower is more interesting than any picture can capture.

    And if you are afraid of wildlife, then there is nothing that can be done to save convince you, because your fears are baseless. I live in the house. I walk in the yard EVERY day. I have not been attacked by anything.

  52. Don Zouras says:

    The argument that something has to look like it was a lot of work in order to be beautiful is the result of marketing gone awry.

    The commercials tell us that we have to buy things and do things to create beauty. Whether it be makeup, hair dye, designer clothes OR lawn ornaments, fertilizer, and exotic plants, you must buy something to create beauty.

    Once you realize how you have been manipulated, it will seem silly to continue.

  53. Mimi says:

    Don, I went to your website to see ALL the pictures of your yard. I stand by my statement. It looks unkempt. (By the way, half my current land is ACTUAL undisturbed old-growth forest. It looks beautiful because it’s the REAL THING.)

    Clearly, you protesters are all cityfolk. It would be the height of foolishness in every place I’ve lived to go blundering about heavy undergrowth. I’ve met rattlesnakes and copperheads a good number of times. That’s fine for out in the woods. I can be careful. I can keep my kids nearby. It is NOT fine for a city lot, when I may be walking down the sidewalk after dark.

    An overgown cottage garden would, indeed, have the same danger as well as the same “weedy” effect. I noted above that it isn’t the plants that make it “weedy” but the result.

    Here’s REAL nature:

    I exercised extreme care in the rural yard at my previous house to make sure all rocks were flat against or buried in soil, so there might not be the slightest place for a rattlesnake to hide out. I found and relocated friendly snakes under my deck, hoping to discourage less desirable tenets, and I kept the vents in the crawlspace in good repair. (Rats would chew through them to live underneath otherwise, if given half a chance.) I kept the wildflower garden restricted to a narrow strip and kept the undergrowth to a minimum elsewhere–due to fire risk as much as that of wildlife. Nevertheless, I had a neighbor who was an idiot who decided he wanted a great big Kentucky bluegrass yard and so scraped all his rocks into a big pile. My three-year-old was nearly bitten by a six-foot rattler that set up shop there. I put chickenwire up over the fence between our properties, to keep the poisonous snakes in with HIS kids and not mine.

    While these kinds of problems may be less common in Indiana, there are still risks, from Lyme disease to poisonous snakes. Right around a house is not the place for unbroken cover of that sort anywhere. In your location, it has the added problem of ludicrousness. It is as insensitive to the neighborhood as a barnyard or a silo.

    No, a garden doesn’t have to look like “a lot of work.” It needs to look not neglected or abandoned. You’re arguing with someone who had a yard that was 80% a “wild garden” at her last house–a natural forest with quite artificial paths through it. Every year, I cut down tons of small trees, playing the role that fire would normally play in a normal forest of that type. Other than that, I disposed of big fallen branches after major storms in a way that didn’t invite in critters that didn’t belong in my yard and then it alone. It looked good because it looked cared for, and that care paid off when everyone else lost their pinyons to the bark beetles and all mine survived because they were spaced well enough to not get drought-stressed. At that house, I had one long garden bed, the front 3′ of which was entirely tended but that was totally wild by 10′ back. All I did there was clean it up about twice a year. And it worked–together with the neighborhood and the land.

    The problem is that you are making up a desperate need that doesn’t really exist. There are very good reasons for not inviting wildlife indiscriminately up to the house (and if I didn’t like the neighbor’s rock pile, I didn’t like their fruit trees any better, which brought bears breaking by fences to get into their yards!). I lived in a neighborhood that had multiple varieties of poisonous snake, bobcats, chicken-stealing mountain lions, plague-carrying rodents (think I’m kidding? a kid my son’s age DIED of plague while I lived there), mice with hanta virus, deer carrying ticks with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, coyotes that attacked pets and children, and, oh yeah, black bears, which are always an unpleasant surprise to face when you step out of the door with a baby in your arms.

    That’s what making a refuge for wildlife REALLY means. Anything less is making motions for feel-good reasons. When you have to have an electric fence to keep the coyotes from eating your small dogs, as some neighbors did, or when you had to give up any cat that slipped out in the night as probably eaten, as other did, or if realize that you HAVE to have large dogs to keep away things that want to munch on your children…then you also realize that some parts of nature are better kept at a safe distance.

    If this yard has no rats, no mice, and few snakes, possibly poisonous, then it isn’t what it pretends to be. It isn’t a “meadow habitat” at all. It’s just pretentious posturing.

    If it does have those things, then its a neighborhood hazard.

    Permaculture? I’m for it. Minimal use of mowers, pesticides, etc? Knock yourself out. But you don’t really want a REAL wildlife oasis near your house. You want selected bits of wildlife, the harmless, pretty bits–and that’s just fine, because that’s what I want, too. And it’s what I had, both at my previous house and at this one.

    But it’s no more than that. There’s no reason for it to be so ugly. There’s no moral superiority in that. Put out a birdbath and make an actual garden out of the plants that the animals that should be near houses would like to eat. Then keep the rest to a height that won’t attract things that don’t mix well with people. And if you really do want REAL wildlife–you know where to find it. Out in the country. Where it belongs.

  54. Two Garden Kate says:

    The negative comments show a misunderstanding of native habitat gardens and why they are so necessary. People! We can’t survive on this planet if we kill off all the insects! For the long explanation please read Douglas Tallamy’s excellent book, Bringing Nature Home. And for the short explanation…. who do you think is going to pollinate your fruit trees? Your cucumber and squash vines? What will break down dead plant material, dead animals and feces? Insects are a vital part of life on earth and we need to provide homes for them.

    I’m sure that none of you who object to the aesthetics of native gardens would object to butterflies. However, butterflies do not hatch from their eggs fully formed. They go through complete metamorphosis: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa then adult butterfly. If there are no plants for the larva to eat, there will be no butterflies. Caterpillars eat very specific plants, not just any old plants. More importantly, if you mow or cut back a native habitat garden at a time when you have caterpillars and chrysalises they will all be destroyed along with many other insects and creatures that can’t get out of the way.

    Thank you for allowing me to state my opinion.

  55. Bob says:

    Absolutely read Tallamy’s book…

    I might also add that some people think that THEIR concept of beauty is universal…funny AND arrogant!

    Bright lights, by the way, can make for dangerous situations; remember the old “WKRP in Cincinnati” when they lose power and Les Nessman spends the whole episode shining the only flashlight in everyone’s eyes? I have fallen because I was blinded by my neighbors’ lights! They mount them on their houses and blast everyone around…rather than mount the lights near their boundaries and aim them back at themselves!

    WE go out into the back yard when it’s dark, and look at stars. Keep the lights shielded, low, and aimed at yourselves!

  56. Hi Mimi. Thanks for taking the time to write that. I really appreciate your perspective on the matter of hazards posed by wildlife gardens. I would like to point out a few things. Firstly, I’m not cityfolk. :) For reference, I live between suburbia and undeveloped wild land, and I, too, have a young child, so I am well aware of the hazards of wilderness and gardening.

    There is, actually, a desperate need to get wilderness back into developed lots. I don’t know the statistics off the top of my head, but they are cited in Tallamy’s book which the others here have mentioned. And those stats say that something like 95% or more of US land is no longer in its original wild state. What’s left isn’t enough to sustain our wildlife, and populations of native flora and fauna are crashing. What little wild space remains is not enough to maintain minimum populations.

    Coyote attacks are astoundingly rare. A child is far and away more likely to be attacked by a domestic dog. Statistics here: http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/coyote_attacks.html

    There is nothing contradictory (or “making motions for feel-good reasons”) about maintaining a wildlife garden that excludes or properly manages certain forms of wildlife, while encouraging others. In my yard, for instance, I aim to attract snakes, as poisonous snakes are quite rare here and non-poisonous varieties keep other pests in check. But I have to fight to keep the poison ivy, poison sumac, and tic habitat down to a level where it is safe for people to pass through the yard. Our local organic pick-your-own farm hurried to remove a hornet’s nest I discovered on my last trip, but this doesn’t contradict their goal of otherwise encouraging wildlife.

    The dangers of wildlife posed in one part of the country are not the dangers posed in another. A particularly urban lot even in bear country is unlikely to attract bears. Incidents of Lyme’s disease in Bartlett, IL are not non-existent, but they are low (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/lyme/distribution_density.htm) , and the biggest hazard would be posed to the gardeners of the yard, and not those who might incidentally touch a stalk of grass on the way down the sidewalk.

    Of course anyone who owns property has to abide by safety laws, particularly in settings where there are more people coming into contact with the property. Your previous town where the neighbor piled rocks likely had laws (albeit potentially as poorly-written Bartlett’s) that could have helped you. As has been pointed out in this discussion, such laws don’t come into play until someone complains to the town. You could have activated those laws. Just because such laws are badly written and tragically enforced elsewhere doesn’t make them entirely bad or entirely useless.

    It’s a shame that the issue of aesthetics triggers safety concerns, because the two don’t necessarily have anything to do with one-another.

    Thanks for the good discussion.

  57. anne says:

    Man, I’m so glad I live in the country, and don’t have to think too much about all of this, and can enjoy the wildlife (the good, the bad and the ugly)!
    I grew up in suburbia, where every front yard was manicured to within an inch of it’s life, and where no kid ever played; but I lived in the backyards, along with the racoons, frogs, lizards, birds, squirrels, bugs, snakes, toads, mice, cats, etc.

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