Weedy or Wonderful?
A Maryland law helps define and protect the right to a naturalized landscape.
A Weed By Any Other Name
Have you ever received a letter from your Homeowners Association (HOA) telling you to “weed your yard”? Or maybe you heard someone comment about the “weeds” in your lawn. If you thought, “Well, weed is kind of a vague term,” you were right. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a weed is “a plant that is not valued where it is growing.” While that definition may not help clarify what your HOA wants, it sheds light on the fact that not everyone appreciates the same plants. That can be problematic for advocates of naturalized landscapes, which can sometimes look, well, “weedy” to those who don’t understand their environmental value.
Lawn and Order
This scenario played out in Howard County, where Janet and Jeff Crouch transitioned their lawn to a pollinator-friendly, chemical-free, native plant garden. When neighbors complained to their HOA, a years-long legal battle ensued for the right to maintain a natural landscape. This prompted the State of Maryland to enter the neighborhood lawn scene.
The Crouch's advocacy resulted in House Bill 322, which gained bipartisan support, passed with near unanimity, and became the Low-Impact Landscaping Law. When the legislation was enacted on October 1, 2021, Maryland became the first state to protect homeowner control over eco-friendly yards.
The legislation defines low-impact landscaping as “techniques that conserve water, lower maintenance costs, provide pollution prevention, and create habitat for wildlife.” The law allows homeowners to leave their turf grass lawns behind in favor of more environmentally friendly landscaping methods, including xeriscaping, rain gardens, bio-habitats, and pollinator gardens. This means that when it comes to native plants and turf alternatives, no HOA in Maryland should tell you “no.”
Why is This So Important?
Removing grass means reducing mowing, decreasing fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions, and lessening lawnmower noise pollution. It also means there’s no need for weed-and-feeds and other polluting lawn chemicals.
Native plants are good for the environment- even when the environment is a postage-stamp-sized townhouse yard. Landscapes with native plants provide critical support for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies by providing food, water, and shelter. These small naturalized biomes become a waystation as insects travel across the miles of their territories. These areas stand apart from manicured lawns, which often harm native insect populations because of the pesticides routinely applied to maintain them.
Native plants can improve soils. Unlike turf grass, many native plants have deep root systems that evolved to create healthier, deeper, spongier top layers of soil. That makes your yard better at soaking up stormwater, slowing runoff, and reducing pollutants that can flow to streams and lakes. Conversely, lawns typically have a shallow, densely packed root system that neither improves soil ecology nor allows much stormwater to penetrate.
Native plants conserve water. Even reducing the size of your lawn a little can reduce the amount of water you use. Native plants, with their robust root systems, typically do not require as much water. Native plants have evolved along with local weather patterns. There are no turf grass species native to Maryland or the United States!
How Do You Create a Biodiverse Yard?
First, do your research! Learn what’s truly native. Just because you see a plant growing all around the neighborhood does not mean it is native to Maryland or even the Mid-Atlantic region. The same goes for plants sold everywhere in garden centers. If you are on social media, find a group to ask questions, share ideas, triumphs, and failures, and help spread the word about low-impact landscaping. (See some suggested resources below.) The Frederick County Master Gardeners offer support and free classes that can be helpful as you – and your landscape - evolve.
Next, Keep it neat! Remember that while HOAs may not be able to tell you what to plant anymore, they can require aesthetic appeal and general neatness. The new law states that HOAs may not restrict naturalized areas “provided that the owner maintains and regularly tends to the low-impact landscaping.” So keep it tidy. Remember, “natural” doesn’t mean “no work.” Just because you are now allowed to have plants of varying heights, width, and color, does not mean your yard does not need any care.
While you’ll no longer have to mow every week, seasonal maintenance tasks remain. You'll need to clip off spent flowers. Keep your gardens mulched. (Even areas planted with native species can benefit from a layer of mulch, especially when plantings are getting established. Nature will try to fill in bare areas- often with things that truly are weeds.) Learn to identify invasive species. And you may find that some native plants need to be contained. (Even Maryland’s state flower, the black-eyed Susan, can be sneaky.)
Thanks to Maryland’s Low-Impact Landscaping law, you can be a friend to nature without becoming a target of an HOA or municipal enforcement effort. Contact the Maryland Cooperative Extension to get certification as a "Pollinator-Friendly Landscape." and receive yard signs that explain the benefits of naturalized gardens. Sometimes, a little education can go a long way to keeping the peace- and the pollinators. So, if you get a letter from someone telling you to “weed your lawn,” maybe invite them to sit on a bench and watch the butterflies flit from bloom to bloom.
Want to learn more? Check out these books available from Frederick County Public Libraries!
- Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives, by Evelyn Hadden
- Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas W. Tallamy
- Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner
- The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, by Nancy Lawson
- The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke
- Natural Gardening in Small Spaces, by Noël Kingsbury
- Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, by Douglas W. Tallamy
- The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard, by Beth O'Donnell Young
- 100 Plants to Feed the Monarch: Create a Healthy Habitat to Sustain America's Most Beloved Butterfly, by The Xerces Society
YOUR landscape can help protect local waterways- and the Chesapeake Bay!
The impacts of what you do in your yard often flow downstream.
Here are five easy ways to grow green and show your watershed some love:
- Sign up for a free class on sustainable gardening! The Frederick County Master Gardeners offer them all year round.
- Plant native trees and plants. You can even get a coupon for $25 off the purchase of a tree!
- Let leaves lay. Don't be so quick to tidy up your yard in fall- many pollinators need leaves and debris for safe spaces to overwinter.
- Use a rain barrel, build a bioswale, or put other best practices to work in your landscape.
- Share our information on social media.
Here are Links to Articles and Resources to Help Build Your Case - And Your Garden
- The Rise — and Beauty — of the Native Plant (Washington Post Article) Ecologists have been touting native plants for decades. As climate change escalates, are American homeowners and landscapers finally ready to listen? https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/04/04/native-plants-climate-change/
- A Viable Alternative to Conventional Lawn? Cornell May Have Found One (NYT Article; paywall) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/13/realestate/native-grass-lawn.html
- Why Meadowscaping Is the Hot New Lawn Trend Give your sprinkler—and your lawn mower—the summer off. (Real Simple Magazine) https://www.realsimple.com/why-meadowscaping-is-the-hot-new-lawn-trend-7570118
- Weed Suppressive Groundcovers Cornell University brochure detailing many alternatives to traditional turf grass. https://hdl.handle.net/1813/42430
- Will Natural Gardens Replace the Great American Lawn? A video report on the case of Janet and Jeffrey Crouch and their battle for a natural yard. https://www.voanews.com/a/will-natural-gardens-replace-the-great-american-lawn-/7103793.html
- A Guide to Nesting & Overwintering Habitats for Pollinators & Other Beneficial Insects (PDF Flyer) https://xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/18-014.pdf?fbclid=IwAR30kreAKY3V0lkRTlV_prLzT-XIMbGa3ZTgvEFs6KiR1EOoe9pZKBe0a1s
Administrative Specialist II, Garden Rebel
Frederick County Division of Energy & Environment