What's a weed?
June 13, 2018 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I like my yard to be wild, which pisses off my neighbor. He likes well-kept lawns. Recently, he threatened to call the cops, because, apparently, I was in violation of a county ordinance. The ordinance (below) states that weeds and grass can't be over 12-inches high. What counts as a weed?

I have no desire to piss off my neighbor, and I certainly don't want to get fined. But I'd like to understand the law before settling on a compromise--or doing lots of landscaping work. Or mowing everything down.

Currently, I'm getting rid of obvious weeds, such as dandelions, but I'm letting other random plants that spring up (such as tree sprouts) grow. At some point, I'll do some research about what plants can grow well together and how close they can be to each other, but, right now, I just want to comply with the law without over-complying--without mowing down plants that are "not weeds."

But what counts as a weed? I'm pretty sure there's no exact definition. Is it just up to the whims of whatever county official makes the call? Whatever plants he likes/dislikes?

I want to be clear that my goal isn't to say "That's not a weed. Ha! You can't make me cut it down." But I'd like to have information before I decide what to do. I'm pretty sure that my neighbor considers anything that looks unplanned or wild to be a weed.

Ordinance: Owners and occupants of property shall not permit weeds or grass within one hundred fifty (150) feet of any building or structure to grow on such property to a height exceeding twelve (12) inches.
posted by grumblebee to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't say what 'weed' refers to in your ordinance, but most states have lists of "noxious weeds", which might be a starting point.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:48 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am an attorney, but I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice.

There is a definition in Section 18-5:

"Weeds means vegetative growth including but not limited to kudzu, poison ivy, jimsonweed, burdock, ragweed, thistle, cocklebur, dandelion, plants of obnoxious odors, or other similar unsightly vegetative growths. This term shall not include cultivated flowers, fruits and vegetables and gardens."

There's a lot of wiggle room in that definition. You may want to consult an attorney in your area with experience with these kinds of issues.
posted by jedicus at 8:50 AM on June 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

The purpose behind these ordinances is usually because tall grass or weeds provides habitat for rodents. Rodents aren't picky about what type of plant it is, just that there are enough stalks close together for them to hide in.

You would have better luck even with plants most people consider weeds, like crabgrass, clover, dandelions, oxalis... as long as you keep them mowed to six inches or less (still good for a wild meadow look?).
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 8:52 AM on June 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

I feel like broadly speaking a weed is an unwanted plant. I think it's a lot easier to get rid of tree seedlings than baby trees, so it's something to consider. That being said, I have all local plants for pollinators and some of them have weed in the name (like milkweed) and initially the neighbors balked, but I have what my husband calls the controlled chaos garden and my neighbors have seen the light. It sounds like your goal is a cottage garden? I suspect your neighbor objects to the garden being less kempt. Talk to him about what your ultimate plans are and why you're doing what you're doing and see if he doesn't lighten up.
posted by Bistyfrass at 8:53 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds to me like they expect there to be a mowed area around every building. Anything that looks as if it ought to be mowed should be kept mowed. You could have a flower bed or a lilac bush or a dogwood tree and it wouldn't matter what height it was, but they don't want you to just stop mowing your lawn, which is what it sounds like you might have done. If you're keeping the grass under 12 inches but you have random tree seedlings, clumps of goldenrod, etc. scattered around the yard that you mow around, that sounds like a gray area. Whether that's considered in violation of the ordinance is probably going to depend a lot on the individual person who responds to any complaint.
posted by Redstart at 8:59 AM on June 13, 2018 [10 favorites]

As a long-term solution, you might want to look into a landscaper in your area that does permaculture yards. There's more to a "wild" yard than just letting your non-native grass grow out. Replacing all that crap with native ground cover that naturally stays the 12 inch limit will make both your and your neighbour much happier.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:05 AM on June 13, 2018 [43 favorites]

Similar to the point about permaculture, what I learned in a landscaping class is that weedy-looking natives go over better if there are other clear signals of care, e.g., if they are in a planter box or well-outlined planting area, if they're planted in a row or grid -- anything that indicates that the plant is there on purpose by someone who cares about their yard, not through neglect. There is even a term for this that I'm forgetting. You might experiment with ways to show this. Mulch the tree seedlings? Put one of those 12" high white picket fences around the tall grass? Mow a sharp edge around the area you're letting grow?

Plus then you're arguably "cultivating" the seedlings and creating "gardens," which are excluded from the definition of weed above. :)
posted by salvia at 9:25 AM on June 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

A weed is any plant you don't want in the garden. Thanks for that legal definition, jedicus.
posted by Rash at 10:13 AM on June 13, 2018

Mow a border and some pathways through the high growth. That makes your property look "maintained". People don't like what looks like neglect, even if you are working hard on cultivating your wild yard.

Get your yard certified as wildlife habitat, it should be pretty easy. Put up the signs in prominent places.

Invest in some bird baths and perhaps bird feeders, etc, and a you should keep both the (frankly, bullshit) neighbor and code enforcement at bay.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:23 AM on June 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

There's a difference between wildlife habitat and just deciding to not take care of your yard. The backyard habitat certification I'm familiar with requires no invasive/noxious plants (your weed management area should have a list) and a certain percentage cover of native plants, among other things. Not knowing what "random plants" are in your yard suggests you don't know what's out there and now might be a good time to start figuring that out - there are also usually ordinances about noxious weeds. Your county Soil and Water Conservation District probably has resources that can help you (that will likely be sympathetic to wanting a wild yard!), and may be able to send someone out and make recommendations for free. You could also try your county Extension / Master Gardeners.

Mowing is a good way to prevent a lot of noxious weeds from setting seed that doesn't require a lot of knowledge or work. And yeah, you'll be happier figuring out which of those baby trees you want to keep while they're still <12" tall. Lots of things can resprout from missed roots once they get a foothold, and trees can be invasive, too.
posted by momus_window at 10:43 AM on June 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but my take on ...shall not permit weeds or grass within one hundred fifty (150) feet of any building or structure to grow on such property to a height exceeding twelve (12) inches is that nothing within 150' of a building can be over 12", weed or grass or whatever. All lawn covering has to kept to 12", that's it.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:51 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

nothing within 150' of a building can be over 12", weed or grass or whatever. All lawn covering has to kept to 12", that's it.

That's my take on it, too, but the tricky part is how they interpret the things in your yard that aren't lawn or lawn-like. I expect they're fine with an attractive flower bed next to the house, or a neatly mulched ornamental shrub in the middle of your lawn, or an old tire painted white with sunflowers planted in it. Does that mean it's also okay to have scattered tree seedlings or patches of milkweed and goldenrod that just came up on their own and were left to grow? (And look like they just came up on their own and were left to grow?) That's where individual interpretation is going to come in.
posted by Redstart at 11:21 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

From my college degree having landscaper best friend - a weed is any plant that is unwanted. There isn't anything that actually distinguishes weeds from plants besides people's impressions of them (and legal code that defines them). You are going to like your yard better and you'll be more within your rights if you do permaculture instead of wild growth.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 11:42 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's a tricky situation. Just letting a lawn go is not going to make a meadow and a meadow is entirely more "defensible" than a weedy mess. This means doing it properly rather than letting nature take over.

I think you should familiarize yourself with what species are currently growing in your yard. Are they natives? Are they invasives? Are they nectar sources for pollinators, will they spread by rhizome or by seed? Do they feed the birds in winter? If you know what you're growing and why you'll be incredibly more comfortable arguing for its purpose.

Pull the invasives, mow a path or two through it, plant some natives purposefully, and there you go: now it's a garden and not an overgrown lawn, even if it's a work in progress.
posted by lydhre at 11:47 AM on June 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

> As a long-term solution, you might want to look into a landscaper in your area that does permaculture yards. There's more to a "wild" yard than just letting your non-native grass grow out. Replacing all that crap with native ground cover that naturally stays the 12 inch limit will make both your and your neighbour much happier.

This this this.

I am ready to rant anytime on how stupid grass lawns are, but just letting pretty much whatever grow is not really doing the world any favors either. You can cultivate a mixture of native groundcovers, host plants for butterflies, and other no-maintenance, wild-looking, definitely-not-a-lawn plants.
posted by desuetude at 12:56 PM on June 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

Look up bee lawn or bee turf for your ecosystem. Don't harbor regionally noxious weeds or smothering invasives in the false belief that your least effort in a disturbed ecosystem is most "natural" or helpful. The middle stages there are rats or wildfire or kudzu or silverlace or creeping buttercup.

Pretty much, if you can't keep grazers or aim for mature forest on disturbed inhabited land, you have to garden it. There are more or less hassly ways to do that but there aren't any that are no hassle.
posted by clew at 1:22 PM on June 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

Grumblebee, I'm not certain whether your neighbor's issue with you is that you are not mowing at all, or that your lawn contains weeds, or both. Lots of neighbors go ballistic over the yard in the neighborhood that is kept neatly mowed but contains weeds.

As others have noted, if you want an unmowed prairie, you can't just start from an existing weedy lawn. It needs to be properly done, working within whatever restrictions are in place (such as the height restriction in the ordinance). But if all you want is to not worry about dealing with the weeds in your lawn, you can just keep it mowed and your neighbor can't complain. The ordinance forbids tall grass and weeds, but it does not mandate a weed-free lawn. (For good reason: Nature is all about diversity. Monoculture is artificial and thus can only be maintained with extreme measures, including regular treatment or manual removal of weeds.)

Personally, I don't think the prairie look works out well in most residential areas. On the other hand, I do not want to spray herbicides and pesticides. I care about the insects and wildlife and the lake across the street a lot more than I worry about weeds. Besides, dandelions are excellent bee and butterfly fodder, as is clover. So I keep my lawn mowed and appreciate the beautiful diversity that comes from just letting anything grow that can flourish despite regular mowing. Around here that includes dandelions, creeping Charlie, clover, daisies, violets, wild snapdragons, and a number of other pretty, low-growing wild plants.

That was the lawn of my childhood years, and as kids we loved to lay on the lawn and pick all the pretty flowers. We need to get back to that mindset. Grass isn't bad, but neither are many/most common lawn weeds. As long as it's green and kept reasonably tidy, it works for me - and the bunnies - and the bees - and the hummingbirds - and the butterflies - and everything else, human or otherwise, that safely travels across the untreated lawn.
posted by Lunaloon at 1:51 PM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

A neighborhood eccentric near us saved his collection of volunteer tree seedlings, where his lawn used to be, by putting stakes around them and tying ribbons between the stakes, to show that each of those seedlings was a wanted plant. Now his yard is a grove of self-sown trees, with a vast number of rain lilies between them that bloom after a major storm.
posted by chromium at 3:26 PM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I prefer a non-manicured lawn, hardly a lawn at all. I have encouraged ground cover, have converted lawn to vegetable garden, added blueberry bushes, daylilieas, hosta, rosa rugosa, and have moved the wild daisies to an area that is not mowed. Get a landscaper and make a plan. Plant trees where they'll do well, not just where a squirrel buried an acorn. Maybe plant some food sources; the birds and I are in completion for the cherries. If you have a plan, it's harder for the town to give you a hard time, and you might like the results better.
posted by theora55 at 6:12 PM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

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