Illegal Weeds

June 3, 1994, was an ideal day for a home garden tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the weather was beautiful and the plants were in full bloom. That day, some 800 people visited Evelyn Conners's garden -- one of eight on the itinerary -- a lush naturalistic landscape including mullein pinks, a variety of poppies and a mass of three-foot-high native purple coneflowers.

A city employee also visited the garden that day, but not to appreciate the flowers; he had a citation bearing Conners's name. It charged the 82-year-old widow with violating the city's weed ordinances. An anonymous neighbor had phoned in a complaint about Conners's front yard, calling her wildflowers "weeds," and demanded that they be mowed down.

Conners started making a few phone calls of her own. The first was to a friend and fellow gardener at the Tulsa World. By the next day, her plight was on the front page of newspapers all over the country. The Associated Press had picked up her story, TV stations sent out crews to interview her and she received a flood of encouraging letters from well-wishers, including schoolchildren who mailed her drawings of wildflowers. Soon afterward, the city of Tulsa apologized and withdrew the complaint.

While this case is charming and perhaps inspiring (a TV movie is planned), the sad fact is that, from coast to coast, homeowners who choose to deviate from the conventional landscape -- well-trimmed lawns, clipped box hedges and annuals lined up neatly in rows -- run the risk of being cited and fined by their communities.

Take the case of Myrdene Anderson, of West Lafayette, Indiana. A professor of anthropology at Purdue University, Anderson is also a natural gardener. Her neighbors are not and were infuriated by her prairie grass and wildflower landscape. In 1988, a petition was filed with 68 signatures asking the city to make her mow it all down to what they considered an acceptable height. Anderson is still fighting the citation, but with a penalty of $500 for every day she refuses to mow, she is now looking at a fine of more than $1 million!

Bret Rappaport, a Chicago attorney who specializes in fighting weed laws, believes that educating people about the benefits of natural landscapes will go a long way toward ending discriminatory weed laws.

Rappaport makes it clear that he is not against the concept of weed ordinances. "Some people," he says, "just don't care how their yards look. They let things get out of hand and their yards look trashy, which hurts the neighborhood. Weed ordinances help control that sort of run-amok landscape."

What he is against, Rappaport explains, is when these ordinances are used as weapons against neighbors who do not conform to the standard, "acceptable" look. "We grant our neighbors the right to have shaved lawns or colored gravel, tacky concrete statuary and Astroturf on the front porch," says Rappaport. "It's only fair that we also grant homeowners the right to have natural landscapes, which are far more beneficial."

Instead of overthrowing weed laws, Rappaport proposes, such ordinances should be rewritten so that they take into account both the community's aesthetic concerns and an individual's right of self-expression.

One approach that is being adopted is the "setback" ordinance, which allows homeowners to grow natural areas as long as there's a low border, such as grass or a low-growing ground cover, around it.

That concept has worked for Walter and Nancy Stewart of Potomac, Maryland. Their natural landscape was once called "disgraceful" by a neighbor who stuck a warning note in their mailbox. Cited by the city, they prepared for their day in court. "When the city saw our witness list -- people from the Audubon Society and other leading environmentalists -- and when our story was told on Good Morning America, they backed off," Walter Stewart recalls. "Not only that, but they revised the ordinance to allow for a setback." Today, the Stewarts report that a number of their neighbors are trying natural areas on their own properties.

Perhaps we're coming full circle. As Rappaport notes, "We do not live apart from nature. We are a part of nature."

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