Ready to switch from grass lawn to something more pollinator-friendly and sustainable in your front yard? These tips will help you navigate disapproving neighbors, bylaws, and create a natural habitat that—we hope—everyone can live with—neighbors, bees, and butterflies included.
If you want to replace some or all of your lawn, consider using a wildflower ground cover using these tips.
How to Switch to an Eco-Friendly Front Garden
If there is one place where politics, societal norms, environmental choices, and civil liberties all collide, it is our front yard gardens and what we choose to grow there.
Every year there are plenty of stories in the news (see links below) about homeowners who decide to try something different than the usual front yard plantings of grass turf, a couple of shrubs and perhaps a giant rock or two—and mayhem ensues.
Perhaps the gardener replaced grass lawn with low-growing wildflowers, added native and non-invasive plants to sustain local pollinators, or built a few raised beds for vegetables or any combination of these.
As someone who has been there and done that (see how I converted my front garden into a flower and vegetable garden here), I have thought a lot about how we can to shift toward more environmentally-friendly choices in our gardens without so much push-back and maybe even find common ground.
It is indeed heartbreaking to see someone put time, energy, and money into a front yard transformation only to have bylaw enforcers rip it out and toss a hefty fine on top. Or spend years navigating through the legal system.
While my own situation was confrontation-free, thank goodness, after reading about countless battles and court cases over the years, I want to share some tips to navigate the transition.
Circumstances and laws vary by region, of course, but I have noticed some recurring themes.
If your goal is purely defending—or hoping to establish—your rights, I salute you and the very long road ahead.
If you hope to avoid legal battles and create your pollinator garden without losing too many feathers, keep reading.
1Know the Laws and Get Them on Your Side
Yes, I know, often much easier said than done…
Find out all the local bylaws, ordinances, or homeowner’s association rules that govern your property. What is allowed? What is forbidden? And why?
I have not seen any cases where pleading ignorance has given the homeowner a pass even though many of these laws clearly violate charter rights.
You have to know what you’re up against and then decide if you can creatively conform or push to get them changed.
Wait! How come you support pollinator-friendly here but use pesticides there?
You may also notice some crazy contradictions going on at City Hall that could ultimately support your mission.
Look for any pollinator-friendly or food growing initiatives supported by local government. This could be grants for projects that reclaim green spaces with native plants or food gardens, special events dedicated to endangered species awareness, or other projects supporting good deeds for the environment.
Front gardens are not the same as wild spaces but just as important if we are going to create ecologically-beneficial networks.
So why do they encourage those initiatives but not something similar in home gardens?
How is it they garner praise for their forward thinking there while old laws are sitting on the books dictating what we can and cannot grow without any concern for climate change, pollution, or habitat loss?
Hold your elected officials accountable and shine a light on those contradictions.
And bring your friends: politicians don’t act unless they feel the heat.
Polish up that PowerPoint presentation that makes others say, Ah, now I get it.
Clean water, fertile soil, biodiversity, and the right to grow food where the sun shines are not outlandish requests.
Without this reckoning, once a neighbor makes a complaint, nothing will stop bylaw from doing their job and you will have some major headaches in your future when really all you want is to grow more than non-native, fuel-sucking, water-wasting lawn (no bias here, lol) and enjoy the property you own. And yes, there are low-impact ways to grow lawn, but no need for it to be a mandated norm.
Update: since originally publishing this article, several lobbying groups have popped up to assist homeowners establish the right to grow eco-friendly gardens. It’s worth seeking out the advice of these networks to prepare for your own road ahead.
2Get to Know Your Neighbors
This one will annoy some people who believe that you should have the right to do what you want with your property. And I hear you but (reality check) your neighbors also have the right to object.
So what can we do about that neighbor who is far too eager to call bylaw enforcement and relentlessly obsesses over your yard?
Apply preventative medicine wherever possible.
It is amazing how much more forgiving people are when they know you. Even if you are very different people.
When you’re a stranger doing strange (to them) things, you are a threat.
But, if you have bonded in some way, know each other by name, share greetings and chit chat and, very importantly, have a common concern for the well-being of your neighborhood, suddenly your same pollinator garden becomes a source of interest, learning, and pride, rather than an unfamiliar eyesore that must be removed.
But, as much as this helps, still do whatever you can to get the laws on your side too. All it takes is one bad day or a mood swing for Gladys Kravitz to make your life a living h*ll. And new neighbors come and go all the time. You have to keep those introductory cookie trays flowing.
I’m also a fan of community mediation services if you have them available. If you have not been able to bridge the communication gap, sometimes a good mediator can help.
3Show You Care About the Neighborhood
Besides getting bylaws changed (or working within the restrictions) and being a reliable, likeable neighbor, it’s also just as important to be thoughtful about your garden design and take good care of it.
Rookie mistakes include planting on adjacent town property (encroaching), putting tall plants on side strips and median strips that block views for drivers and pedestrians (compromising safety), or thinking abandoning yard work will somehow convert the yard to something ‘native’ and ‘natural’. It won’t.
Some of us have a good plan but take on more than we can manage resulting in a mess that the weeds gradually take over.
If you’re not sure or don’t want to plant the whole thing at once, work in sections. This may also ease your neighbors into it.
One of the top complaints about alternative front gardens is how people fear it could depreciate house values in the neighborhood.
Right or wrong, it’s the number one excuse for pushback.
We’ve been raised to think seas of grass turf are good and normal and it’s tough for some people to shift away from that.
But, connected to that, research shows homeowners most often want to do with their own yards whatever is considered the norm in their neighborhood.
So you can see again how an influential neighbor who liked and respected—and clearly cares for the well-being of the neighborhood—and market values—could be very influential by stepping outside traditional norms and introducing new ways to create a pleasing garden. A garden that not only looks good but invites pollinators, provides food, and requires fewer inputs.
Joan Nassauer, an ecological designer and landscape scientist, calls the factors that make eco-friendly gardens in a residential setting more acceptable “cues to care.”
Ultimately, neighbors are more accepting when they see good stewardship, neatness, and a sense of purpose.
Sometimes leaving a small strip of mowed lawn surrounding a bed of colorful wildflowers is all it takes to marry tradition with more sustainable practices and steer clear of any objections.
Some gardeners also suggest displaying a Pollinator-Friendly Garden sign to further gain respect. It’s sounds simple, but to those not acquainted with environmental issues, sometimes just knowing there is method behind the madness is enough to thwart a complaint to bylaw.
And that’s it.
The bylaw changes could take years (sigh) but unless you’re willing to gamble and lose it all, it’s worth knowing what you’re up against and adapt accordingly.
It’s seems nuts to think it’s this hard to do what’s best for the earth, but here we are.
As more people learn about this stuff, acceptance will continue to grow—more so if we keep any unnecessary power struggles to a minimum.
And, once you know the power and beauty of pollinators—and how important a healthy ecology is for our future, it is worth pursuing.
Stories About Front Yard Garden Disputes & Victories
- Gardeners Fight With Neighbors and City Hall | Florida | 2012
- Update: Florida passes law preventing local governments from passing rules against homeowners’ vegetable gardens | Florida | 2019
- Illegal Front Yard Garden: Canadian Couple’s Kitchen Garden Targeted By Authorities [UPDATED – 2013] | Quebec
- Man who ripped up his lawn to plant a MEADOW says his neighbours thought he was ‘nuts’ – but he’s having the last laugh as beautiful wild flowers bloom | UK
- Garden battle: Quebec City woman told she can’t grow veggies in her front yard | Quebec City | 2017
- We Replaced Our Front Lawn With a Vegetable Garden and Grew Our Community With It | Ontario
- Toronto Neighborhoods Come Together to Create a Huge Butterfly Habitat | Ontario
- Couple’s win forces Smiths Falls to revisit approach to ‘naturalized’ lawns | CBC
- They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn Lost | 2022 | New York Times
by Owen Wormster
In a world where lawns have wreaked havoc on our natural ecosystems, meadows offer a compelling solution. They establish wildlife and pollinator habitats. They’re low-maintenance and low-cost. They have a built-in resilience that helps them weather climate extremes, and they can draw down and store far more carbon dioxide than any manicured lawn. They’re also beautiful, all year round.
by Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla
A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee provides all the information gardeners need to take action to support and protect pollinators, by creating habitat in yards and community spaces, on balconies and boulevards, everywhere!
by Kim Eierman
Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening; Attract and Support Bees, Beetles, Butterflies, Bats, and Other Pollinators
Tapestry Lawns: Freed from Grass and Full of Flowers by Lionel Smith
Also see his website, grassfreelawns.co.uk and go to the FAQ section.
Related searches to explore: Foodscape gardening, alternative lawns, pollinator gardens, eco-friendly landscapes, kitchen gardens international, city farmer.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛