Your Right to a Wild Yard
What makes good neighbors? More than just fences.
Dear Avant Gardener, Our side lot — clearly our land — is edged by thick, 10-foot-tall ivy plants. One day our neighbors came over with landscape drawings that involved putting up a garden folly in place of the ivy. They wanted our permission to do this. NO!!! I went through why the ivy was important to me. The husband was sympathetic, but his wife kept saying it was undeveloped land and they had an improvement. If you live in a highly developed area and have undeveloped space, how can you not be infringed upon? — Pissed Off in Pennsylvania
The gall! Your neighbors have no right to improve your land, no matter how wild it is. I was incensed when I read your question. But it turns out a majority of Americans are itching to fix up their neighbors’ properties — and many are willing to pay or even criminally trespass to do it. According to a recent survey of Americans 25 and older,
Almost four in ten respondents (39%) said a neighbor has entered their home or property without permission, and 52% said they’d consider sneaking into a neighbor’s yard to fix, change or remove something from their property — such as a sign, flag or décor. . . . Interestingly, when it came to messy or unkempt properties, which 65% of respondents told us they’ve lived next to at some point, they’d be willing to spend an average of $180 to clean up a neighbor’s yard or home. One in 10 (9%) even said they’d pay more than $400! — Offerpad
At least your neighbors asked permission! On reflection, I imagine they tired of looking at your ivy and thought you’d appreciate their investing in your property. The wife just couldn’t believe you preferred the ivy to their folly. Tough luck.
Property maintenance ordinances
Neighbors do have a right to report violations of local property maintenance ordinances. Those who prioritize habitat over a traditional aesthetic are contesting rules requiring turf, and the tide seems to have turned in their favor (see “Why, How, Wow!” below). However, most property maintenance ordinances properly focus on health and safety.
Ironically, ivy is an invasive, non-native plant that can attract and harbor rats — a health hazard. But as long as yours remains rat-free, no reason to fear your neighbors.
Dear Avant Gardener, Someone building a house across the street pumped sludge from around the building site into our front yard during recent heavy rains. This yard is a grove of 100+ year-old California oak trees, protected here in the California Floristic Province and endangered by years of drought. We talked to the construction chief and he stopped and promised not to do it again. We want to talk with the architect and, if we can track them down, the homeowners. Beyond “get the hell off my front lawn,” what else would you include in a cordial conversation? — Annoyed Neighbor, La Canada, CA
Sorry, but this is serious. Your neighbor’s construction team may have seriously — even terminally — damaged your protected oaks. Only a few inches of construction dirt within the treeline can impair oaks. And you may not know the extent of the damage for several years.
Life-supporting roots are frequently severed during construction or damaged by other construction practices that change the existing soil environment. . . . The net effect is reduced water and mineral uptake. This typically causes die-back and decline over one to many years. Few people associate this decline with construction or landscaping because the symptoms often develop gradually. Most of these trees will die or fall prematurely unless prompt remedial action is taken. — Keeping Native California Oaks Healthy
Beyond talking with the architect and owners, I suggest documenting the damage; having it assessed and, if necessary, remediated; and (cordially) notifying your neighbor of their responsibility for the cost of remediation, including if the trees fail within the next several years.
Double and triple damages
But I’m no lawyer. A quick Google search reveals that disputes over tree damage are big business in California. According to one law firm blog, “trees are among the most frequent causes of disputes between neighbors.” I expect one reason is that arborist work easily runs into the thousands of dollars. They conclude:
[I]n some instances, the trespassing/destroying homeowner could be liable for triple damages if the destruction/damage is deemed intentional, or double damages if the injury is deemed “casual or involuntary.” — MBK Chapman
Sounds worth a consultation. Good luck!
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. If you’re a regular reader, consider upgrading to a paid subscription so I can reach more people looking for guidance to create a more ecological yard.
Why, How, Wow!
In both questions this week, readers underestimate their rights to maintain natural landscapes. These rights are substantial — and increasing, as people become more aware of the environmental and ecological costs of maintaining “perfect” lawns. Yes, many communities, especially home owner associations (HOAs), have detailed rules about yard care designed to encourage a uniform look and, supposedly, protect home values. These rules are being challenged, changed, and even made illegal. Maryland’s bipartisan Low-Impact Landscaping Law, enacted in 2021, was the first in the country to make it illegal for HOAs to require turf or ban pollinator-friendly plantings. And new ordinances are being enacted to prioritize sustainability over yard care — from watering restrictions to invasive plant bans. Palm Beach has gone so far as to require that 30 percent of plants in new landscaping projects be native to the state.
To put yard maintenance controversy in perspective, however, keep in mind that “unkempt landscaping” is only ninth among the top 20 neighbor annoyances, well below noise, not cleaning up after pets, and nosiness, according to a recent national survey.
You can allay concerns among neighbors by giving cues that your plantings are intentional — the opposite of “unkempt.” This is especially necessary during what I consider the “puppy uglies” of an ecological landscape, the several years it takes to establish. Two easy intentionality cues are mown turf borders and signage. We self-certified with National Wildlife Federation and display their sign; I like the bold graphic featuring Ranger Rick.
Steve Turnipseed created this stunning habitat within the strict “neat and tidy” requirement at the Villages in Florida. Edging, a natural stone path, and architectural planters signaled the internationality of the native coontie (foreground), live oak and Spanish moss. Read more about Turnipseed’s landscape in Dwell.
Struggling with the puppy ugly phase? Learn about the five tactics I’m using in Help! How Do I Rescue My Front Yard?
Interested in restored landscapes and property values? Read this New York Times article on how “Developers are no longer aiming to simply preserve nature, but are actively restoring it as a selling point for their projects.”
For "Annoyed Neighbor, La Canada, CA"
I make my living as an arborist (one day writing will pay the bills). I agree with Heather's assessment that you could see damage that only manifests slowly over time. I sadly deal with it on a weekly basis, the most common being trees on the edges of newly cleared home lots that damaged during grading ( I used to know a fellow who ran an excavating company who assured me that he always goes and smooths the ground at the end... you can imagine the myriad reasons this is actually even worse.)
The arbosit profession does have a handful of interventions to help the tree buffer the impacts of construction damage. And, perhaps most importantly in your case, there is a subset of the profession that includes nationally registered consulting arborists. These people can provide legally valid documentation of the damages and provide risk assessments and function as expert witnesses in court. They ought to also be familiar with the protection ordinances and any protocols to leverage those in your favor.
I hate construction damage. It makes me sick. I hope your trees remain healthy and your problems are few if any. Best of luck.
“Puppy uglies”, ha! I love it, thanks.