Monday, May 19, 2014

Being Reported to the County Weed Control for my Lawn

Last week, after two garden consults and a presentation on native plants, I came home to a letter in the mail:

I vowed that if I ever received such a letter, I would rip out the lawn and seed in shortgrass prairie -- little bluestem, sideoats grama, and buffalo grass. My best guess is that the guy across the street, who mows 3 times per week, waters religiously, and whose lawn looks artificial, had enough of my mowing 2-4 times a summer and at the highest setting. But it could be anyone. Here's what our lawn looked like before my wife mowed it today (I wanted to hold out until the last possible minute, but she just wanted to get it done):

You can see by the image that, while not being a pristine lawn (I never water or fertilize), it's far from weedy or overgrown. On the edge it grows faster, where neighbor water and nutrient runoff hits my property. There are a few dandelion seed head stalks in the foreground.

Here's the letter I wrote in response to the superintendent:

Lancaster County Weed Control
Attn: Brent Meyer, Superintendent
Work Order: W79922

Dear Mr. Meyer,
Yesterday I received a notice about “weeds and worthless vegetation” on my property. After reviewing the noxious weed list online it is evident that I am not growing purple loosestrife, Canada thistle or any of the others listed; indeed, as a board member of Wachiska Audubon, a prairie conservation group, I would never grow such plants and am well aware of the issues surrounding them and other exotic invasives in our ecosystems.

I would appreciate clarification, pertinent to my property, about what the issue is. If it is the 15-20 dandelions in the lawn, a quick drive through the neighborhood will show many yards have the imported weed currently blooming, including my immediate neighbors; dandelion is an important first nectar source for many early-emerging native bees and other insects that are key to performing essential pollinator services.

If the issue is the length of my lawn, I do routinely stay behind my neighbors in my mowing regime as I work to conserve soil moisture, grow deeper roots, and out compete most weeds organically. I try to keep the front at the 6” ordinance heights, while allowing lawn behind the fence to go much beyond this limit.

My 1,500’ backyard native plant garden has been featured in the Lincoln Journal Star, Omaha World Herald, online at the magazines Fine Gardening and Garden Design, and has been on several local garden tours. In addition, it has been mentioned and linked to on the blog The Buzz at Cherry Creek – a website that explores the evolution of a pollinator garden being established by UNL Extension where your office is located. You can find images and a description of my award-winning garden here:

I’m sure you are aware of the need to conserve water, maintain higher lawn lengths, and even to mitigate lawns in general from our public and private landscapes as we experience drought boom and bust cycles and shrinking wildlife habitats. I have been thinking about creating large shortgrass prairie beds to replace most of my front lawn – buffalo grass, sideoats grama, and little bluestem. As a part time garden designer working with clients in Omaha and Lincoln, and writing a weekly sustainable garden column at, I’m well aware of the challenges and perceptions such a landscape would have in my suburban community and the need for thoughtful design.

I look forward to hearing back from you on a clarification of this matter.

Benjamin Vogt

So, what are your thoughts everyone? Tired of a a culture that promotes the wasting of clean, drinkable water, especially in prairie states prone to drought cycles and water restrictions? What about all the water used and greenhouse gasses produced to create synthetic fertilizers? What about the noise pollution from mowers that causes temporary ear damage? Or about the mower exhaust, many times worse than a car's, that leads to hypertension, lung disease, and low sperm counts?

If you have a tiller bring it on over. We'll only leave a narrow lawn walkway up the middle leading to the backyard, and the rest will be sustainable prairie.

So much for signs educating others and creating positive change.


Travis Livieri said...

Awesome! Keep doing the right thing for our environment and inspiring others to do the same!

ProfessorRoush said...

Yeah, put it in prairie...or extend your back yard to the front. I think your fight will be better served Benjamin. Not to defend your friend, but letting your front yard get overgrown is not a good advertisement for your back yard which we've all seen pictures of.

Keep your chin've drawn the attention of a bureaucracy and God help you now.

Benjamin Vogt said...

You're right, Doc, the back and front need to meld, but I'm well aware that the front needs much more purposeful and careful design. Still keeping lawn paths or edges, and a minimum diversity of plants. Now that I'm logged in the system, it's time to change the system. I mean, last summer I consulted with a guy who was going to prairie his front lawn. Walk the walk, huh? Unless we move in the next year, which is possible.....

Misti said...

You should go all out and do what does. His front yard is awesome!

Diana Studer said...

Good luck and looking forward to the new version. Or the new garden!

Modern Mia said...

I like your response. We've received similar letters over the past 2 years from our local county health department and code enforcement due to our organic gardens and an overzealous neighbor.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love the phrase "worthless vegetation"! What is more WORTHLESS than turf grass??? I think your response is very well written. I hope it gets shared with whomever complained so that he/she can begin to understand what you are trying to do with your small corner of the world. I am gradually replacing lawn with prairie plants. The areas that I have not yet converted are allowed to grow to the max height of my mower (4") and contain clover, dandelion, and other "weeds". So far, the neighbors have not complained, but I would not be at all surprised to get one of these letters at some point. Here, plants have to "flower" to be more than 6" tall (hope my neighbors recognize the flowers on my grasses!). Keep fighting the good fight :-)

Anonymous said...

Love this; as a recipient of this letter last year I was most offended by the "worthless vegetation" designation. My worthless vegetation consisted of raspberry canes, day lilies, milkweed, concord grapevines, and fading daffodil foliage. Should I get this letter this year I'll use yours as a model for responding.

gail farley said...

It's called a 'Freedom Lawn'...only mow. Got to live with city ordinance on mowing heights. You've just got a cranky neighbor who hates change.
I'd reduce front lawn area to bare minimum (keeping within neighborhood or city ordinance regulations). It'll really annoy your neighbor. Gail Farley of St Marys, GA

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog after discovering you through Houzz. This is why I live in the middle of neighbors! Turning the front lawn into prairie is kind. I would be tempted to go the gravel and boulder route.
Keep on educating, it's all you can do. If water issues continue in this country, the tide is finally going to turn on these pristine manicured lawns.
C.K. Wells, from drought-stricken West Texas.

Mike.LeValley said...

My guess would be that the notice was about the bare dandelion stalks as much as anything - because they had gone to see and the seeds had blown away they would probably be considered "worthless" at that point. I would suggest converting the majority of the front lawn to beds, but cut the hellstrip to fit in with the neighborhood standards. You could probably find a reel mower to do this small area on a regular basis - therefore not contributing to pollution.

Anonymous said...

Your response letter was very classy. I see much worse lawns all the time, and I live in a nice neighborhood. Clearly it's a single grumpy neighbor who complained. I'm very inspired by your actions and look forward to this all being straightened out as even though you're on the right side of the tracks here, I'm sure it's stressful nonetheless!

Anonymous said...

I concur with changing the front altogether! Out of curiosity, because I keep the small lawn on my terrace long too and just run the weedeater over it a few times a summer, I checked the Madison Wi rules. Here we can go to 8 inches, and file for approval of an alternate landscape, called a land plan; the land plan is, I suspect, how people get approvals for small prairies and rain gardens that exist inside the city. Maybe it is time for Lincoln to move forward?

Years ago I let my turfgrass lawn grow to it's max height (in Ca), no one complained and in time a natural length red fescue became a not uncommon groundcover in private landscapes and on roadside embankments...turns out to be pretty drought tolerant if allowed to grow and has a nice soft appearance. But I digress, love what you do and your defense of the planet, and good luck with your front yard. BTW, for everyone's information, our mutual hero, Dr. Douglas Tallamy, will be the keynote speaker at the Native Gardening Conference here in Madison 9/21/14

Nate Walker said...

I would argue the point about "weeds or worthless vegetation". The point to argue is that you've got intentional landscaping, not worthless vegetation.

While you need to do the whole official letter writing dance, it would be worth your time to call Brent and talk to him on the phone. He's a pretty reasonable guy who cares about making sure that troublesome weeds stay out of his area. He may have to go through the motions of the process due to the complaint but I would think he'd be more reasonable if you talked with him directly. I've been out with him on several prairie walks so I know he knows his way around prairie vegetation. I'm surprised they called it weeds if he was the one that inspected it; he should know better.

Keep up the good work, you're doing the right thing.

It might be worthwhile to educate your neighbors a bit too. It might feel like wasting your breath and tearing your hair out at the same time, but some education for them can't hurt.

Good luck!

Nate Walker said...

It also occurs to me that if there's a need to maintain a 6' height of vegetation in the city there are thousands of people with pampas grass that violate that rule every year.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Nate -- I appreciate your insight. I'm sure the letter was something that has to be sent whenever someone complains. I know they sent a car out here -- such a waste of money. It's the system, and we know it's not working. Maybe a phone call is in order BEFORE I tear out my lawn.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Everyone -- I very much appreciate your comments, insights, sympathy, constructive criticism. What a community we have here! :)

biobabbler said...

FAN tas tic. I love how polite, specific and well-written your letter is. GREAT, great stuff.

Prairie front yard ALL THE WAY, baby! =) (to the degree that is legal, NOW, of course)

Having learned years ago the statistics re: lawn "care" in the U.S. I mentally bailed on them completely. SO resource intensive, inspire SO much chemical pollution, create a not-only wildlife-benefit depauperate landscape, but a toxic one, etc.

Plus, they're boring (IMHO). AND expensive.

I am PSYCHED to see where you go with this re: front yard. WOOT!

Judith said...

I'm really curious to know what happens next...

Nate Walker said...

Please keep us updated on how this goes. I hope you're able to resolve this issue in a satisfactory manner.

Green Bean said...

I love your sign! I want one like that. I get comments all the time on my Wildlife Habitat and Pesticide Free Zone signs but yours really rocks. Keep up the good work. Here in Northern California, lots of people getting rid of lawns. No water! Natives work better.