By Kevin Mink
Imagine this scenario. A homeowner decides to create a pollinator garden in their front yard. After removing the monoculture of Bermuda grass, the yard is filled with an array of native flowering plants, but also some native bunch grasses. They plant Indian blanket our state flower, and Indian grass our state grass. Milkweeds, coneflowers, sunflowers, and clovers are all incorporated. The diversity of plants is aimed to attract pollinators like our charismatic monarch butterfly and has enough different types so that there will be blooms throughout the growing season, bringing splashes of color to an area that was previously a mat of green. This homeowner also knows that these native plants will also drastically reduce the water requirements for their yard. These native plants are adapted to the local climate and soils meaning they can deal with the harsh dry summer, or the torrential rains of spring without any assistance. In fact, the plants seem to thrive in it, without any pesticide or fertilizer applications. Aware of the excessive runoff and flooding in their neighborhood when it rains, our homeowner also recognizes that these taller plants root deeper in the soil than their former lawn. This encourages more on-site water infiltration when those heavy rains come, not to mention its impact on cleaning the water on the way down. To take it a step further our homeowner has also considered that their driveway and nearby roads and parking lots are often the hottest places to be in the summertime, while their pollinator garden will become a respite from those scorching conditions as it is significantly cooler than its surroundings, including neighboring lawns. They’ve even considered the impact to air quality since there is no need to mow these plants they continue to clean our air as they grow and bloom.
This all sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? Certainly there must be some drawback to this approach to yard maintenance. To our homeowner’s surprise they receive a citation from the city noting, “Rank weeds (meaning anything over 12 inches), which are allowed to stand at any season of the year upon any lot are hereby declared to constitute a nuisance. It shall be unlawful for any owner to allow rank weeds to grow or stand upon such premises.” (taken from Oklahoma City Municipal Code Chapter 35, Section 63) Wait a minute. It sounded like our homeowner was a thoughtful and faithful land steward considering soil, water and air quality, and our imperiled pollinators in transitioning their bermudagrass lawn to a native plant garden. How can such a transformation to one’s own private property constitute a nuisance in the eyes of the city?
Unfortunately, this scenario, while imagined is not incorrect in its scope. Many cities and towns have these ordinances that institutionalize the lawn concept and ultimately vilify anything that does not meet the manicured 4-inch mowed lawn. Rural and urban landowners alike spend countless dollars each year fertilizing their grass lawns encouraging it to grow only hack it away every 10 days with their lawnmower. They regularly expose themselves to known and sometimes unknown harmful chemical pesticides to control the elusive “weeds” in their lawn. Expensive irrigation and sprinkler systems are set up to keep grass alive, and while much of this runs off into the street because the lawn can’t absorb much water because of its short roots; the very fact that we need to tend to the lawn so heavily should indicate to us that this is something contrary to nature. Surely the vast wildflower blooms we observe in the native prairies don’t require so much attention.
Read more in the August issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.