Many homeowners want to create more natural, biodiverse landscapes in their front yards. After all, maintaining grass not only takes a lot of work, but it may also be less environmentally friendly than previously thought because of all the fertilizers and pesticides needed to keep it looking green. This is especially true in the Southwest and other areas of the U.S. where droughts have become the norm. In many cases, it just doesn’t make sense to plant grass when there are other options available.
Natural landscaping uses native, water-wise, and otherwise low-maintenance plants to create a biodiverse ecosystem right in front of your home. In addition to attracting beneficial insects, it also provides a home for local wildlife. But that doesn't mean that it can only be made up of plants. In some locations, a natural landscape can even use gravel in place of large swaths of grass. While it may be tempting to get out a spade and start working to perfect your own lawn, there are a few key things to consider before you do.
Laws and Regulations
Many gardeners say that weeds are just unwanted plants. Unfortunately, the government sees weeds from a different perspective and may view your "natural landscape" as a neglected yard overrun with weeds. Weed ordinances were created to prevent properties from becoming infested with pests of the insect and rodent varieties. The regulations that dictate the maximum height of vegetation in your area were likely put in place to reduce the risk of widespread fires. These regulations might also dictate things like what you can and cannot grow, how often and when you can water, etc.
A lot of homeowners also believe that a well-kept yard is a surefire way to boost curb appeal. “Well-kept” typically means a short-mowed, green lawn with a tree or two and a few trimmed hedges around. Unfortunately, anything that falls outside this parameter may be viewed with curiosity by the neighbors. In some cases, the presence of a vegetable garden or tall plants in the front yard has prompted overly concerned neighbors to call zoning officials. However, those attitudes are starting to change in some places, as people wish to reclaim their free time and nurture natural habits for both bees and butterflies. While most ordinances and regulations were made to create a uniform appearance in neighborhoods, they haven’t kept up with the times.
Federal and State Regulations
America's invasive and noxious weeds lists are maintained to raise awareness of the plants you likely want to avoid having in your yard. Categorized by state, these lists may also outline information on how to rid your yard of them if you should spot them.
In most cases, landscape-related legislation falls under the jurisdiction of your city or county. Contact the appropriate person within your local government to learn more about the planning and zoning ordinances in your area. Not only can they give you more information on the plants that are and aren't allowed, but they can also provide insight into a few structures you might consider putting in your yard, such as compost piles, sheds, and fencing. Although it may be tempting to flout the rules and go ahead with your landscaping plans, keep in mind that if the neighbors complain, a city official may visit your property and give you a fine. While many cities and counties are working hard to update these out-of-date ordinances to meet the changing needs and priorities of their communities, others may need more of a push from caring and engaged advocates.
If you have a homeowners’ association, there may be a different set of rules you’ll need to follow. Many HOAs define the look of your landscape for you, right down to the number and type of trees you’re allowed to plant in the front yard. Incorporating a more natural landscape may be more of a challenge in this situation, as your HOA will likely issue a fine if you don’t comply with their rules. If you don’t have one already, get a copy of your HOA's regulations and review it to see what is allowed and what isn’t.
How Far are You Willing to Go to Create a More Natural Landscape?
Although many homeowners will push the regulations as far as they can without getting fined, others take matters into their own hands and try to change the laws themselves. Ask your neighbors, gardener friends, and local activist organizations if there are currently any campaigns underway to update the landscaping ordinances in your area. Review local newspapers and media coverage to see if any other homeowners have run afoul of the regulations and are working to change them. If so, team up with them to work towards making those ordinances more eco-friendly. If not, think about becoming the activist who inspires others to help make the regulations more progressive.