Blame George Washington.
America’s first president maintained a lawn at Mount Vernon, copying the style from English manor houses and castles. Being first in war and first in peace also, apparently, made Washington first in landscaping for Americans — at least the wealthier ones.
The love of the turf grass lawn has hardly abated since, so much so that it eventually became encased in law. Cities and towns across the country adopted ordinances to impose the ideal of the grass lawn, and then used code enforcement officers and fines to compel compliance.
This week, though, a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling exposed a conflict between that standard and the desire by some policymakers and homeowners to swap manicured lawns for native plantings. In a ruling written by Judge Denise Reilly, the court found that North Mankato’s attempt to force Edward Borchardt to cut back his trees, bushes and grasses wasn’t legal.
“We conclude that the evidence presented to the city council does not support the city council’s determination that the vegetation on Borchardt’s property constituted a ‘rank growth’ or that it unreasonably annoyed a considerable number of members of the public,” Reilly wrote.
Borchardt had sought for the court to find that the grass and weed ordinance was unconstitutionally vague, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the court found only that the city council received insufficient evidence that Borchardt’s yard was a nuisance.
North Mankato — like an increasing number of cities in Minnesota — does have exceptions to its rules regulating lawns, grass length and weeds to allow for natural plantings. It says gardens can only account for 30 percent of a yard and says they can’t include “noxious weeds” that go to seed. But the exception for pollinator gardens wasn’t enough for Borchardt, and he proceeded to challenge the city’s nuisance resolution against him.
Now, the chair of the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Committee has introduced a bill that would require all cities to permit native landscapes. “We have it out there for people to take a look at,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St Paul.
He called it a next-step in the state’s modest but popular Lawns to Legumes program, in which micro grants and how-to advice is given to residents who want to convert some or all of the lawns to native gardens that support pollinators, especially the rusty patched bumblebee.
But the program requires local governments to make sure their ordinances support such decisions. “You do have a lot of cities with ordinances that the traditional lawn is the standard. Having something different and having a diverse landscape is more healthy,” Hansen said.
Not a free-for-all for weeds
The state’s Lawns to Legumes program is less about the money that’s available — the grants are in the $350 range — and more about providing coaching as well as “social acceptance” of deviating from the standard lawn. “People are brought up through how many generations of taking care of a lawn versus how do I take care of a native garden,” Hansen said. “It’s another piece of the pollinator puzzle.”
But Hansen’s bill would not be a weed free-for-all. “Except as part of a managed natural landscape as defined in this section, any weeds or grasses growing upon any lot or parcel of land in a city to a greater height than eight inches or that have gone or are about to go to seed are prohibited.”
Many cities around the state are modernizing their ordinances to allow more diversity in residential landscapes. Minneapolis has one of the state’s most-permissive ordinances, but it also has a place on its webpage to report grass or weeds “taller than 8 inches.”
One city in Hansen’s district, West St. Paul, temporarily suspended its rules on keeping grass shorter than eight inches to provide habitat for pollinators that are emerging from hibernation. They called it “No Mow May.”
“We’re a Step Three on the Greenstep cities so we’re trying to progress,” said West St. Paul Council member Wendy Berry, referencing a voluntary state program that challenges cities to take steps to increase environmental sustainability.
“No Mow May” was an experiment for the city. “We had a majority to go ahead and give it a whirl,” Berry said. Residents were encouraged to let their lawns grow during the month. “It’s a quick 31 days to encourage pollinators.”
While some residents took part, others complained. Code enforcers spent the month telling callers about the program rather than citing those with long grass.
“Once they explained that, ‘Hey, people are doing it for a reason’ and not just because they are lazy, people seemed to be a little more forgiving of it and not so worked up,” she said. “We had a lot of complaints about it, but also a lot of people who were pretty excited about it. You could tell when you drove down a block who was pro No Mow May and who had had enough.
“Not everyone is on board when it comes to long grass,” Berry said. “I’m sure my dad would have had a fit.”
City regulators often hear complaints
City ordinances on lawn length and weeds are commonplace. One was even the subject of a U.S. Circuit Court ruling in 2015, written by Judge Richard Posner, considered one of the leading legal scholars on economics and commerce. The court upheld Chicago’s ordinance against tall or unmaintained weeds, but not before questioning both the city’s use of average weed height and the claim of First Amendment protections by the property owner.
Dan Shaw is the senior ecologist and vegetation specialist for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, the agency that oversees the Lawns to Legumes program. Forty four Minnesota cities have adopted resolutions declaring themselves pollinator friendly cities, but Shaw said he still hears “every now and then” from a resident who wants to convert their lawn but is running up against restrictive local ordinances.
The program tries to head off conflicts by posting model ordinances for cities that allow pollinator gardens and advises residents how to work with cities and neighbors. “We do quite a bit of outreach on thinking about the aesthetics and what we call ‘cues for care,’” Shaw said.
That refers to designing projects so they look cared for, perhaps with layout, edging and signage. “There are various ways so that people know this is an intentional planting; designed and thought out,” he said.
City regulatory staffers are often faced with complaints from residents about what they see as unkempt yards but might be allowed under emerging pollinator garden ordinances. “In a lot of cases it does come down to a judgement call about what is an intentional planting and what might be a weedy planting that might have some noxious weeds in it,” Shaw said. And not many cities are large enough to have staff devoted to identifying plants that are allowed and which aren’t.
“We wanted the program to be accessible and not run into issues with compliance with ordinances,” Shaw said, including offering tips on plantings that would be allowed under different types of regulation.
The pilot program provided grants and coaching to about 3,000 people and still has money available. A second phase was funded with $2 million, $800,000 of which was to go for grants to residents. Additional use of that money will be for outreach and education as well as for plantings in larger community spaces and “education landscapes” as part of an effort to build pollinator corridors through the state.
Are all the suggested plant types legumes, commonly used to refer to peas, lentils, peanuts and beans?
Lots of plantings attract pollinators, including some native plants classified as legumes such as the partridge pea and prairie clover. Shaw said he isn’t certain of the origin of the name, but it was included in the original legislation that created the program.
“We did consider changing the name but there was so much social media about the program right away that the name stuck. If it’s something that’s memorable to the public, that’s a valuable name, whether people know what a legume is or not.”