Who do yard ordinances punish?

As more and more people become aware of the many harms lawns cause to human health and to the environment, lawns remain common largely because of local laws – called ordinances – that make it difficult for property owners to plant anything else. Most of these laws were passed at a time when few people were interested in natural yards or other lawn alternatives, and thus plants more than a few inches tall were generally due to neglect, rather than being a deliberate choice. The laws, which were intended to ensure that properties were maintained in good condition, therefore used unmowed plants as a proxy for neglect, and banned any vegetation that was growing at its natural height.

But even in the times before the value of healthy, naturally-growing plants in residential yards was widely known, these ordinances didn’t work very well. Rather than catching and punishing property owners who were lazy or negligent, the rules disproportionately caught and punished those who were genuinely unable to mow their lawns. In 2001, the city of Palmdale, California, reviewed the likely impact of a proposed lawn ordinance, and concluded that 80% of those who would find themselves in immediate violation were either elderly or poor. (The city passed that ordinance anyway.)

Lawn ordinances also regularly catch and punish those who are most knowledgeable about how to establish a natural yard, and why natural yards are good choices for residential landscaping. In 1976, the lawn ordinance in New Berlin, Wisconsin, was thrown out after the city incorrectly accused a wildlife biologist of not mowing his lawn. (He was planting a prairie restoration.) In Philadelphia, a landscape architect who gets paid to install natural landscaping in city parks around the country was fined for having natural landscaping in her own yard. And a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, was threatened with three months of jail time for planting a front-yard vegetable garden to provide healthy, affordable food for her six children.

Articles published in law journals have argued that even if a yard is genuinely neglected, it is less harmful to public health and safety than an intensively-maintained lawn. While the current laws may have been passed with the best of intentions based on what was known at the time, we now have a different understanding of how we should manage our yards to take good care of our properties and our communities.

Who do yard ordinances punish?

What is “lazy gardening”?

For some time now, organizations that advocate for natural yards have been urging gardeners to not clean up their plantings in the fall. These organizations cite the many benefits of a “messy” yard: pollinators overwinter in stems that have died back, birds eat seedheads held above the snow, last year’s growth deters deer from trying to eat next spring’s new shoots, the lack of bare soil discourages weeds from sprouting, and so on.

Also for some time now, natural gardeners have been advised to hang up signs explaining these benefits, so their wild plantings are not mistaken for being the result of laziness or negligence. For a long time, natural gardeners have noticed that a simple sign can make the difference between neighbors complaining about what they perceive as an unmowed lawn, and neighbors understanding that that yard looks different on purpose.

Now, there has been an interesting development. Habitat Network, an initiative of The Nature Conservancy and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that advocates for wildlife-friendly yards, has asked homeowners to pledge to be “lazy gardeners“. The organization is inviting those who take the pledge to put up a window sticker declaring the property owner to be an “Official Lazy Gardener”.

Assuming that Habitat Network has not completely misread the situation, this suggests that most people are now aware that a messy yard is being mindfully managed for the health of wildlife and the planet, and has not simply been abandoned because the property owner cannot be bothered to mow their lawn. The campaign seems to indicate that nowadays, most people recognize a declaration of “lazy gardening” as a joke, and not as a literal explanation of why leaves are unraked, trees are unpruned, and plants are left standing over the winter.

This fall – and all year round – be a lazy gardener. You’ll be working smarter, not harder, enjoying more benefits from your yard with much less effort.

What is “lazy gardening”?

What is benign neglect?

Benign neglect is the recognition that not all things need intensive maintenance. Some things do just fine – do best, even – when left mostly to their own devices.

For example, no one is likely to accuse you of neglecting your child if you don’t bottle-feed, burp, and diaper your typically-developing 15-year-old. Teenagers still need help and guidance, but they can do most things for themselves, and they become more self-sufficient year by year – especially if allowed some independence and the opportunity to try things on their own.

A natural yard is like a teenager. With the exception of some highly-domesticated species, plants are wild creatures that are capable of taking care of all their own needs, especially when they are living in naturalistic communities. There is little a gardener can do that really helps a plant – they don’t particularly benefit from fertilizer, they don’t need pesticides when natural pest predators are able to live in the area, and they don’t require supplemental water if they’ve been sited in the right spot. In other words, in the context of a healthy natural yard, doing minimal yard work isn’t lack of maintenance. It’s benign neglect. The garden is doing just fine on its own. In fact, it is doing better than it would be if the gardener constantly interfered with the garden’s natural processes.

Sometimes, a gardener who does minimal yard work is mistaken for being lazy, instead of being recognized as having a yard that is low-maintenance by design. This is akin to accusing someone of not maintaining their car when they have bought a reliable vehicle rather than an old beater (and hence they don’t spend much time bringing it to the repair shop), or insisting that someone is not taking good care of their pet because they don’t regularly walk and play with their goldfish. Some yards just don’t need much maintenance, and having such a yard is usually a mindful choice motivated by reasons other than laziness.

For example, the gardener may have a demanding job that leaves them with little time for yard work, and so they choose to have a yard that can look after itself while its owner is staying late at the office. They may have a disability that makes it hard for them to struggle with a lawnmower every week. They may be planning ahead for when they are elderly and unable to keep up with the maintenance requirements of a lawn. Or, they may have established a natural yard because it filters stormwater, supports wildlife, combats climate change, and creates peace and quiet in the neighborhood – the fact that it is easier to maintain is just a fringe benefit.

All of us are busy and have many priorities. Replacing maintenance-intensive aspects of our lives with things that benefit from benign neglect is not a sign of laziness; it’s a wise choice that allows us to make the best use of our time.

What is benign neglect?

What is maintenance?

Maintenance is the practice of keeping something in the same state it is already in.

This makes sense when something is currently in a good state, but not when something is in a bad state. We don’t speak of maintaining our health when we have the flu; our doctor doesn’t advise us to maintain our weight after informing us we are obese. Similarly, we don’t maintain our home if we have just bought a fixer-upper: first we need to repair it.

By almost any measure, our Earth is not currently in a good state. Forests are vanishing at an alarming rate. The oceans are on track to contain more plastic than fish in the not-so-distant future. And global temperatures are rapidly moving into a range that we are not certain is compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

For the same reason that sustainability is no longer good enough, we need to do more than simply maintain our planet: we need to restore it to a healthy state.

Our yards are a microcosm of this. Arguably, a lawn is not a good state that we want to maintain: it is a monoculture of unhealthy non-native plants kept alive with infusions of our dwindling water supplies, applications of chemicals known to cause cancer, and regular use of machines that are contributing to the present climate crisis. When we “maintain” our lawns, we are keeping our yards in a degraded state that is harmful to our own health and the health of our planet.

Now is the time to restore our yards to thriving communities of native plants, free of fossil fuels and toxic chemicals. Only once we have done so will it be possible to maintain our yards in the sense of keeping them in a state that’s worth preserving.

What is maintenance?