Municipal officials often claim to have difficulty distinguishing between neglected properties pose potential health and safety problems and those that have chosen biodiversity over blank slates of grass. For those officials, we offer the following checklist:
1. Is there an unmown lawn exceeding any specified height regulations set by the municipality?
The property may be neglected…or the resident was busy at the time recent weather conditions allowed for mowing. Depending on the height of the grass, wait a week or proceed to question 2.
2. Are there large quantities of specifically designated weeds present?
- If the municipality has not designated specific plants as prohibited, any bylaw is likely too vague to be enforceable. Return to base or talk with the resident to suggest that certain species may not appropriate for the area.
- Develop an educational campaign to showcase the problems posed by invasive species and to illustrate how and why to remove them. Many people are simply unaware of the hazards that invasive species pose to the environment or to their health, especially by species still commonly sold in garden centres like periwinkle, goutweed, ribbon grass, english ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and other invasive plants that harm our environment. Very often, invasive species are far more prevalent in ‘normal’ gardens than in those labelled ‘natural’.
- IF your municipality has designated certain plants as prohibited, inform the resident and request that they attempt to control those species. Offer some suggestions as to how that may be accomplished. If only a few strands of a weed are present, that is likely an indication that the resident is aware of them and is already actively controlling their spread. Keep in mind, the reason some plants are designated as weeds is precisely because they are difficult to control…recognize when an effort is being made.
3. Is the yard largely uniform and exceeds allowable heights?…ie. only a limited range of species are present (see above photo arrays), as in a common roadside weed patch.
The property might be neglected. Legitimate gardens generally offer a wider array of species than a simple overgrown lawn supports. Have knowledgeable staff review the species to identify the vegetation before proceeding. It is possible that the resident is preparing the soil with a nurse crop before adding a more diverse range of species or that they are choosing to grow only a limited range of species…much as the common lawn lacks diversity.
4. Are there other signs that the vegetation is consistent with a neglected property?
Rotting structures, peeling paint, waste and debris present over lengthy periods of time could indicate that there may be health and safety issues that actually require intervention.
5. Is the vegetation causing harm?
Presentations offered by the Parks department staff of Toronto, Ontario list 3 reasons that plants may be considered removable:
i. Threatens a person’s health
ii. Threatens native plant communities (unfortunately, in most jurisdictions — including Toronto — this is not legally binding or a great many ‘normal’ gardens would be threatened).
iii. Potential safety hazard (eg. thorns or blocking sight lines)
In the absence of health or safety concerns, most gardens in Canada and the United States are protected by constitutional provisions governing freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. It is not within the jurisdiction of municipalities to act on personal opinions of design or plant choices.
A probably neglected garden is easily distinguished from a ‘natural’ one. The key is simply to divorce preconceived notions about what a yard should look like. Our outdoor spaces have evolved beyond blank lawns with perhaps a sculpted row of foundation evergreens punctuated by a line of petunias. They can and should be as varied as the people populating our urban areas.