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.
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.