Despite Benefits, Natural Gardening Is Under Attack

10-01-1998 // Michael Lipske

I ran into somebody who was kind of the neighborhood bully" is how Mary Cour Burrows explains her battle last year to grow wildflowers in her yard. The Germantown, Tennessee, homeowner describes her property, which is certified as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ site by the National Wildlife Federation, as "a little oasis" for birds and butterflies among the crew-cut lawns maintained by her neighbors. But her wildflower meadow and beds of herbs and vegetables did not sit well with one neighbor who, Burrows believes, stirred up a posse of local lawn conformists.

One neighbor claimed that the termites in her house had marched over from Burrows´ garden. Another neighbor could not stand looking at Burrows´ wild blue phlox. "They thought the phlox were weeds," says Burrows. "They claimed I was decreasing their property values."

Fortunately for Burrows, city zoning authorities sided with her in the tempest, granting her a variance for her controversial garden. "It was basically a difference of opinion in what was a flower and what´s a weed," said Germantown´s planning chief.

A disgruntled neighbor was also the bane of Elise H. Cooper, creator of an NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat in Bluefield, West Virginia. Cooper´s property includes about 100 mature trees. When limbs fall from those trees, she tosses them onto a large stick pile that is a haven for wildlife. "It´s a magnificent thing," Cooper says of her deadwood mountain.

Apparently, it was too magnificent for a neighbor whose complaint to city officials led to an order to clean up the pile. But later after the mayor and city manager visited the retired school teacher´s property, local officials gave their blessing to her wildlife garden, and the stickpile still stands today.

The experience of these two homeowners suggests there is good news for natural landscapers these days. Increasingly, U.S. communities are recognizing the benefits of landscaping in which gardeners cultivate native plants to attract wildlife without relying on pesticides and other chemicals, and many local governments are modifying their so-called "weed ordinances." Traditionally, such laws have stipulated that a homeowner´s grasses be kept trimmed below a prescribed height, or they have banned certain plants altogether--even some plants that are native to the region.

"There has been a shift in attitude in some parts of the country about the benefits of natural gardening, but many communities are still enforcing out-of-date ordinances," says Heather Carskaddan, manager of NWF´s Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ program, which provides letters of support for beleaguered citizens.

NWF receives calls every month from people who are threatened with legal action because they are landscaping for wildlife or letting native vegetation grow tall. "When I called NWF, I was reassured that I wasn´t crazy for trying to restore native tall trees to my yard," says Bethesda, Maryland, resident Nancy Wallace. "I learned that I was doing the right thing and that gave me the will to keep negotiating with the county, which claims I am violating a local ordinance."

Last year, Oberlin College instructor Stephen Douglas was also the victim of a local code, when the wildflower plantings at his home were mowed by a city crew while he was out of town. "He was understandably upset," says Bret Rappaport, a Chicago attorney who has defended natural landscapers in court and who is president of Wild Ones Natural Landscapers, Ltd., a nonprofit group that spreads the word on native-plant gardening. But Rappaport says some city weed inspectors are beginning to understand that a wild yard is not necessarily a neglected yard. An Aurora, Illinois, resident whose prairie garden was mowed by city workers in 1997 received an official apology and payment for her destroyed plants.

In Montgomery, Alabama, meanwhile, homeowner Georgette Norman is fighting to keep city mowers out of her yard. Last June, a municipal court convicted her of violating a local ordinance by having plants "of no value" growing taller than 12 inches on her property. The plants in question were all grown from heirloom vegetable seeds that date back to the 1800s. "We were told by the inspector that a weed is anything they say it is," says Norman, who at this writing is appealing her case. "If you can´t grow plants taller than 12 inches, I can´t help but think that every homeowner in the city is violating the law."

Asked why communities need weed ordinances, Mike Gricus, building commissioner of the Chicago suburb of Bloomingdale, responds: "You have surrounding property owners who are concerned about the value of their property." Gricus recently drafted a new weed ordinance that reduces the legal height for grass from 15 to 10 inches. However, the ordinance makes an exception for natural landscapers who submit site plans and plant lists to the appropriate Bloomingdale authorities.

No one wants to live next to a neglected lot choking with ragweed and poison ivy. But does well-planned natural landscaping threaten neighborhood property values?

At new housing developments around the country where native plantings are touted as amenities, "the properties closest to the natural areas or that include natural areas often sell for the highest prices," says Robert Grese, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan´s School of Natural Resources and Environment. "The assumption that because someone has a meadow as opposed to a lawn is going to decrease your neighbor´s property value is not often well proved."

While defending the right of native-plant lovers to sow prairie grasses and meadow flowers, Bret Rappaport urges natural gardeners not to intentionally aggravate neighbors and officials. "Don´t be an arrogant natural landscaper," he advises. "Remember that you are a pioneer who is trying to win converts, not a martyr who is willing to go down in a flood of litigation and neighborhood disgust."

The attorney notes that it helps to tell neighbors about your gardening plans. That´s exactly what Grese did not long ago, when he wanted to conduct a controlled burn of his front-yard prairie in Ann Arbor, Michigan (to simulate the effect of natural fire). After first talking to the city fire marshall, he invited every person on his block to a fire party. And when Grese decided not to burn his yard again the following spring, neighbors complained he was depriving them of one of their favorite events.

"The weed wars´ were born of ignorance, not of malice," says Rappaport. As more gardeners try natural landscaping, he argues, old-fashioned weed ordinances will continue to lose their bite. "On an objective, scientific, economic, ecological, hydrological or any other logical´ basis, it´s simply the right thing to do."

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