Natural Landscape Design IDEAS
Homeowners across America are changing the face of the typical American lawn. Learn strategies for the natural landscape homeowner who is looking for neighborly ways to garden for nature.
Using gardening and landscaping practices that harmonize with nature, they are diversifying their plantings, improving wildlife habitat, and reducing lawn mower noise, air and water pollution, and yard waste.
Homeowners across America are changing the face of the typical American lawn. Using gardening and landscaping practices that harmonize with nature, they are diversifying their plantings, improving wildlife habitat, and reducing lawnmower noise, air and water pollution, and yard waste.
Various “natural” landscapes, planned for beauty and ease of maintenance using mainly native plants, are spreading throughout suburbia. These landscapes include wildflower meadows, butterfly gardens, and woodland habitats that attract birds.
Many natural landscape pioneers have discovered, however, that their neighbors sometimes view alternatives to the mowed lawn as untidy, a threat to property values, and even a health hazard. Worse, their township or borough may have a strict “weed law” that challenges their landscaping practices. In this fact sheet, we provide strategies for the natural landscape homeowner who is looking for neighborly ways to garden for nature.
Back to the Future
Perceptions of lawn beauty have changed with the times. In 16th-century England, the lawns of wealthy landowners were wildflower meadows starred with blooms. Grasses were perceived as weeds, and a garden boy’s job was to creep among the flowers picking out the grass.
Our current love affair with the closely mowed grass lawn dates from the 19th century. Using European grazed pastures and 18th-century formal gardens as their model, the Garden Clubs of America, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture embarked on a campaign to landscape American lawns with a carpet of green. With the invention and spread of the lawn mower, the “common man” could have the same cropped turf as that of an aristocrat’s mansion.
Today, at least one American town has come full circle. In Seaside, Florida, turfgrass is banned. Only locally native species of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees are allowed in the landscaping of private yards. The result has been verdant neighborhoods of shrub-scrub dune vegetation, with its related birds and wildlife—and the residents love it. In most of America, however, the mowed lawn is still the norm, and weed laws are used to ensure conformity with this ideal.
“Weed Laws” and Why They Exist
Noxious Weed Laws were first written to protect farmers from introduced weeds that could compete with crops or harm livestock. Pennsylvania’s first noxious weed law was adopted in 1862 to control the spread of Canada thistle, chicory, Johnson grass, and marijuana.
Today, 11 plant species are on Pennsylvania’s control list:
- Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)
- multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)
- Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense)
- marijuana (Cannabis sativa)
- mile-a-minute vine (Polygonum perfoliatum)
- kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata)
- bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)
- musk thistle (Carduus nutans)
- shattercane (Sorghum bicolor ssp. drummondii)
- jimsonweed (Datura stramonium)
- purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
Proposed additions are another variety of purple loosestrife (Lythrum virgatum), giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzium), and goatsrue (Galega officinalis).
But Pennsylvania’s law is less restrictive than those of some municipal ordinances. Typically, these ordinances restrict the height or type of plants that may be grown; the word “weed” is generally used to describe undesirable plants. Some ordinances state that if the weeds grow to more than a given height (somewhat arbitrary—examples are 18 inches, 12 inches, or even less), the municipality is authorized to levy fines or even to come mow the property and charge the landowner for time and labor.
These municipal weed laws are not intended to protect farmers, but, in theory, to protect neighborhood property values by ensuring a conformity of mowed lawns. Lawn alternatives such as wildflower meadows are sometimes perceived by neighbors and officials as no different from a neglected lot: untidy, a health hazard, and a breeding ground for “vermin.”
“Meadows and natural landscapes are fire hazards.”
This argument is based on the unproven belief that the tall grass and wildflower stems in a meadow are highly flammable. U.S. Forest Service experts state that a grass fire can only sustain high heat for 20 seconds. For a fire to be potentially damaging to a home, it must burn within 4 feet of the home for 7.5 minutes.