Every summer it seems, there are lots of stories in the news about homeowners' conflicts with city codes or homeowners' associations regarding the landscaping and care of their yards. I recently wrote here about one such conflict in Michigan, which ultimately ended happily.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across another such story in The New York Times, concerning a homeowner in Philadelphia. The story has been rattling around in my head since then. I was struck by the philosophy which the subject of the story had embraced in landscaping her yard. It was expressed succinctly as, "Don't just do something. Stand there!"
In this case, the homeowner was actually a landscape designer named Margie Ruddick who had experience in designing ecological landscapes. She had worked with various design firms in other cities, but, after a divorce, she relocated to Philadelphia. After the move and renovations and remodeling to the house that she had bought, she had little money left for landscaping. That's when she decided to make a virtue of necessity and to let Mother Nature landscape her yard. It turned out that Mother Nature let the "weeds" grow too high to please the City of Philadelphia and she got a summons for being in violation of property maintenance codes for having weeds over 10 inches high.
As a professional landscape designer, though, Ms. Ruddick was well-equipped to argue her case. She knew that the plants that were growing in her yard were not really "weeds" but native plants that were important to the environment. In March of this year, she went before a hearings officer in the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, armed with photographs of her yard and lists of the plants with their botanical (Latin) names attached. She was able to persuade the judge that she actually knew what she was doing and the case was dropped.
On her part, Ms. Ruddick admitted that perhaps the yard did look a bit unruly and unkempt and she hired a gardener to help her bring a little order to it. They pruned and put in a few mowed paths to show the neighbors that there was an actual plan and that the growth was not entirely haphazard. She has also planted some magnolias, viburnums, and holly trees to give more shape and focus to the landscape. From this distance, it looks like a perfect compromise: Each side gave a little and the result was a better product.
Ms. Ruddick's yard is a habitat garden and she proudly displays her sign from the National Wildlife Federation that shows hers is a "certified wildlife habitat." I have one of those signs in my yard, and I, too, display it proudly. As Ms. Ruddick says, "You have to allow a certain amount of mess to create a habitat," and that is a point well-taken by anyone who seeks to create a garden that is wildlife-friendly. In general, animals are not most comfortable in a landscape that is perfectly tonsured. They prefer that things look a little raggedy and natural. Maybe that's why most of them seem to like my backyard. Raggedy describes it pretty well. Perfectly tonsured it's not.
One of the happiest trends in gardening in recent years, to my way of thinking, has been the growing number of gardeners who recognize that beauty does not only reside in a perfectly manicured lawn with a few perfectly manicured shrubs around the edges. A more natural look can be just as beautiful, and, in the opinion of a lot of us, much more beautiful. For those who enjoy seeing wildlife in their yards, the natural look is the way to make them feel welcome. To get started on such a look, you could do worse than to embrace Ms. Ruddick's philosophy: "Don't just do something. Stand there!" Stand and watch while Mother Nature shows you the way.