Skirmish over Queen Anne’s lace leads to bigger discussions

Queen Anne's lace in front yard courtesy Simpson
Photo Courtesy Nan and Walter Simpson

by Connie Oswald Stofko

It all started about two weeks ago when an anonymous neighbor complained to the Town of Amherst about the front lawn of Walter and Nan Simpson.

The Simpsons mow their lawn, but when an interesting plant pops up, such as Queen Anne’s lace, they mow around it. The neighbor didn’t like that.

When a town inspector showed up, he deemed the Queen Anne’s lace to be a noxious weed, according to the town code. Since the flowers were over 10 inches tall, the Simpsons were told they had to mow the flowers down. If they didn’t, the town would mow the flowers and fine the Simpsons.

“It’s 50 years since the first Earth Day and we can’t grow wildflowers on our lawn, but it’s okay for everyone to spray toxic chemicals on theirs?” Walter Simpson said.

After an article was published Saturday in the Buffalo News, neighbors stopped by and complimented the Simpsons on their lawn. Dave O’Donnell of the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm gave an impromptu talk. And environmentalists from several different groups reached out to figure out how they could help.

The Town of Amherst’s code is modeled on New York State’s code, and there is talk of getting the codes changed.

“There is latent interest that’s coming out,” Walter said. “This skirmish on our front lawn was the catalyst.”

Queen Anne’s lace

Let’s get this out of the way first. Queen Anne’s lace isn’t a native plant. It is established here and grows wild, so it is a wildflower.

It’s not invasive, so if you want to grow it, that’s okay, according to John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County, in a previous article.

But some people are concerned that people who grow native plants in their front yards could also be discouraged by the code.

Amherst Town code

The Town of Amherst has a code that covers how property should be maintained. Here is the section that covers weeds:

D. Weeds. All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches [254 millimeters (mm)]. All noxious weeds shall be prohibited. “Weeds” shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants and vegetation, other than trees or shrubs; provided, however, that this term shall not include cultivated flowers and gardens.

I have allowed Queen Anne’s lace to grow in my garden. You may have seen it in the garden of Craig Coyne and Gary DiNezza who have shared their gardens on Open Gardens and Snyder-CleveHill Garden Walk.

Even Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa has used Queen Anne’s lace in his front plantings. He likes the aesthetic and his kids like dying the flowers with food coloring.

So is it a cultivated flower? Is it still a cultivated flower if it’s in a lawn? You can anticipate more questions like that will be discussed.

The Simpsons’ perspective

To the Simpsons, it seems backwards that it’s legal to spray pesticides on a lawn but against the law to grow wildflowers on a lawn.

The Simpsons haven’t used pesticides on their lawn for the 30 years they have lived in their house. Wild plants find their way into the lawn and the couple mows around any plants they want to grow.

As more interesting plants find their way to the Simpsons’ lawn, “it gets better and better,” Walter said. “The lawn turns into a garden.”

In addition to Queen Anne’s lace, the Simpsons also mow around daisies, violets, chickory, buttercups, purple clover and some other pretty plants they don’t know the names of.

Their yard attracts bees, rabbits and foxes.

“We have nothing laden with pesticides, so it’s good for everyone,” Walter said.

When Walter worked at the University at Buffalo as energy officer and head of its UB Green office, he didn’t spray pesticides on any of the grounds. There was one exception– the football field, which he noted with dismay was the place where people had the most direct contact with the grass.

“It seems unfair and absurd that just about everybody in the neighborhood treats their lawn (with pesticides),” said Nan, a retired nurse, “but you can’t have wildflower plants.

“I think of (lawn pesticides) as akin to second-hand smoke. You can smell it, and if you can smell it, you know you’re breathing it in. If it’s killing things on the lawn, it can’t be good.”

She is concerned about the amount of chemicals that humans accumulate in their bodies throughout their lifetimes in industrialized countries.

“We have a ‘body burden’ of hundreds of chemicals in our bodies,” Nan said, “so why have more?”

And as animal lovers, they want to protect their dogs, who are close to the ground and lick their paws, from being harmed by chemicals.

The town code that covers the matter of maintaining property is vague and open to interpretation, Nan and Walter said. The Queen Anne’s lace in their lawn isn’t a “noxious weed,” they contend. Since they encourage the plants and mow around them, doesn’t that make them “cultivated flowers”?

When the plants get past their prime, the Simpsons mow over them. They will do that soon because the flowers are going to seed.

Queen Anne's lace near street courtesy Simpson
Photo courtesy Nan and Walter Simpson

Habitat versus lawn

The grassy areas we call lawns were originally used for grazing animals, said Lynda Schneekloth, a landscape architect and professor emeritus of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo.

Now people use lawns to play on or to protect their property from fire.

But lawns can do much more.

We are in a biodiversity crisis, Schneekloth said. Human beings have taken over 75 percent of the earth’s land surface and 25 percent of the marine area. Other living creatures have been pushed into smaller and smaller areas, or they have become extinct.

We should be encouraging people to use plants other than just grass in their lawn areas, especially native plants that help native insects, birds and other creatures. Schneekloth is one of the co-founders of the WNY Native Plants Collaborative and is on the executive committee of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.

Schneekloth pointed to Doug Tallamy, noted researcher and author, who encourages us to set aside half of our lawns for native plants so they can become part of a homegrown national park.

A code that is more friendly to native plants would help, she said.

“We should encourage planting of native plants to build up biodiversity,” Schneekloth said. “The idea that the lawn has primacy–that’s problematic. Is there a way to change our landscape that still accommodates us and other living things, too?”

The Simpsons have a few patches of wildflowers in their lawn. What if the wildflowers were the lawn? This concept is unlawning, she said.

“You need to change the basic rules and regulations to do that,” she said. The Town of Amherst’s code is based on the state’s code, so many communities are probably facing the same issues Amherst is, she noted.

More to come

The Simpsons were told that they would have to mow down their Queen Anne’s lace by yesterday (Monday, Aug. 17) or the town would mow and the Simpsons would be fined.

The Simpsons were able to get a halt in the process. They are exploring applying for a variance to be heard at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Sept. 15.

“Nan and I feel very happy about the outcome for now,” Walter Simpson said. “It looks like the larger question will be discussed by the town.”

The Zoning Board of Appeals would look at a very narrow issue: whether the decision that Queen Anne’s lace is a noxious weed was appropriate. If the ruling is that Queen Anne’s lace isn’t a noxious weed, that would be precedent setting– for that plant, explained Kulpa, town supervisor.

But the Town Board has their hands into this matter, whether they want to or not, Kulpa said. And the Town Board is the body that can change the code.

“It’s certainly worth looking at,” he said. “Now we’re going to be talking about it as a town.

“So the question to the town board is: how do we handle this? In this day and age of trying to add biodiversity to lawns, how much regulation do we want to get into? There is value in having people maintain their property well, but everybody has a different idea on what that means.”

Many people have traditional front lawns. There are also beautiful grassless front yards in Western New York, he acknowledged.

But the Simpsons don’t have a plain lawn or a grassless front yard. They have a grass lawn interspersed with flowers. Queen Anne’s lace can get tall and scraggly, Kulpa said, and that makes their lawn look unkempt.

“But beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Kulpa said. He doesn’t like dandelions on lawns, “but does that mean we should force people to treat their lawns? I don’t think so.”

Staff in code enforcement told him he is opening Pandora’s box.

“It’s going to be interesting to have these discussions,” Kulpa said.

22 Comments on “Skirmish over Queen Anne’s lace leads to bigger discussions

  1. Take this as far as you need to. Queen Ann’s lace is one of the first flowers my grandmother and I picked together. We have a right to cultivate our land, be artistic, enjoy our yards. This land is your land, not the person who wrote the article. This is the result of someone having too much time on their hands. May I suggest to them the host of areas that could use assist with volunteers.

  2. Pesticides on lawns should not be allowed. I just don’t get people thinking that is better than a few flowers, this is 2020, I fully agree with the Simpson’s. Make good trouble.

  3. I agree with the Simpsons. I worry about the use of pesticides. We already have enough carcinogens we can’t control. So happy I live in a neighborhood that doesn’t worry about such minor “problems”.

  4. I mow around pretty wildflowers. Perhaps it’s different because they are tall? But if they are less than 10 inches, they are okay. I am just so glad I don’t live there. My hell strip is chock full of VERY tall flowers! And yes, some crab grass too!

  5. Maintainable would include keeping plants, ornamental grasses, etc. from getting out of the home owners control. You can’t just let things go without some sort of maintenance. I have several native plants growing that just showed up. Every so often I do have to thin some out and even provide containment in the way of some sort of border fencing to keep them inline and not spilling into areas where they shouldn’t be. Some plants can handle a hair cut now and then so they don’t droop and stay more upright. Sometimes it even works to move a wildflower to a more acceptable area with other like plants to showcase it more as a wildflower than a. Noxious weed.

  6. The last sentence of my post read “as long as it is maintained I would be concerned”. I should have double checked my typing before I hit the post comment button. It should have read that I would NOT be concerned…sorry!

  7. Lynn, the town has a code that basically says you can’t have a lawn with tall weeds, and the Queen Anne’s lace meets the height requirement. It would be unwieldy to ask all the neighbors whether they think the lawn is a problem. The town has a code and inspectors to make those decisions. But maybe the code should be changed.

  8. Commenters: Please be respectful when stating your views. We don’t need to disparage or label anyone, especially people we don’t know. I will edit or delete comments that are hurtful to anyone.

  9. Penny, you stated the crux of the matter perfectly. What is a well maintained property? Some would say that the Queen Anne’s lace looks weedy and the Simpsons’ lawn isn’t well maintained. How do you define that?

  10. My thought is that if plants are well maintained on private property and are not encroaching on a neighbor’s property then stop complaining. It could be worse. You could have a neighbor that has junk vehicles and tall uncut grasses growing everywhere making a home for rodents. I am not a fan of Queen Anne’s Lace but it is used by pollinators so as long as it is maintained I would be concerned.

  11. I cannot believe because one person complains, the Town of Amherst is ready to come onto someone’s property, mow the Queen Anne’s Lace down , then fine them. Something is terribly wrong when one person can be allowed to cause that to happen. If the majority of the neighborhood doesn’t care, that should be the end of it. I think the whole thing is shameful and has no place happening in this country. Instead of cowtowing to a malcontent, the Town should have told the person to deal with it. Surely there are serious violations the Town should be addressing , not wasting time and labor on this nonsense .

  12. I am with the Simpsons. Good for them for going pesticide free, and allowing beautiful flowers to grow in their yard. I have always loved Queen Anne’s Lace. Growing up, I presented my family with numerous bouquets of that familiar dainty white flower. If it helps support other wildlife in the area, and is not out of control, I think the town should allow them to keep whatever flowers in their yard that they like. I’d much rather see the wildflowers than smell the chemicals.

  13. This sounds like a neighbor that doesn’t want to see anything other than a perfectly manicured lawn. Perhaps a gated community is more their cup of tea. I’m with The Simpsons. It’s not my preference either to have unkempt wildflowers interspersed in my lawn, but I’m going to appreciate the good having those flowers there provides.

  14. Manicured lawns full of pesticides should be a thing of the past. The Simpsons are setting a good example for children in the neighborhood by allowing the growth of native flora, and by turning away from the use of poisons on their property. In so doing they are helping the birds that feed on insects that would otherwise be killed, they are playing a part in keeping our water supply clean, and they are harming absolutely no one by choosing to take a different approach to landscaping. Why is it necessary for every lawn to resemble a putting green? Good grief. There are much worse things in the world than a few patches of Queen Anne’s lace!

  15. It can’t be a weed and a wildflower. Anything that attracks bees is a plus in my book. Maybe a little fence/border could surround the wilflowers indicating they were cultivated. Give them credit for just not mowing them down. Hope the ordinance gets changed. Also, perhaps the dangerous chemicals could be banned.

  16. As with many wildflowers that most people call a weed. It is just that . . . a wildflower. There is nothing so beautiful as a field full of wildflowers, out in the country. Chemically doused lawns are highly over rated. The prettiest bouquets I have picked have been those made of Queen Anne’s Lace, Indian’s Paintbrush, Wild Baby’s Breath, Daisies, Asters, Spearmint, Various Grasses and other beautiful “weeds” I don’t know the name of. My grass is always mowed but full of tiny Violets in the Spring and Dandelions but I can’t bring myself to dump chemicals where I watch baby bunnies feed. For the first time in many years, I saw Honey Bees flitting from flower to flower of clover. I also leave thistle grow out back for the finches to feed on towards end of summer. All a part of Nature. Here long before we and our manicured lawns invaded.

  17. My mom always said that it’s only a weed if you don’t like how it looks! In several European countries, Clematis is considered a weed and they pull it out! Personally, I like the look of creeping Charlie, but it’s way too invasive

  18. I am with the Simpson’s. Several years ago, I went to a Doug Tellamy seminar where he extolled the virtues of indigenous plantings to attract more pollinators to our garden. It has been a godsend to us but mostly to the critters that inhabit it. Some time later I read another article about how to attract more beneficial insects: don’t mow your lawn! Well, I didn’t go that far, but did allow several sections of my back yard to turn into meadows or “no mow zones”. Queen Anne is flourishing in our back garden along with several other wildflowers, Shasta’s and Black-eyed Susans among others. We also have not used any pesticides or weed killers on our lawns for over 30 years also (have you read their MSDSs? Yikes!). You’re welcome to come see it.

  19. I am with the Simpsons. I love Queen Ann’s Lace and a few years ago the field in front of my house was covered in them. As long as the lawn is cut and the flowers are cut down before the seeds are dispersed, I say good for them.

  20. Queen Anne’s Lace is so much preferable to pesticides and a “perfect” lawn.

    40 years ago I had a one acre lawn to mow. I now have a forest for birds, deer (yes, they do munch my shrubs) turkeys and squirrels. Even a bear. That’s why I live in South Wales instead of Amherst /Williamsville.

  21. I am a neighbor three doors down and the Simpsons are right. I fully support their efforts to provide a natural habitat in this pesticide drenched neighborhood.

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