Front Lawns and the Law


Frontyard(How Not to Plant an Attractive Pollinator Garden in Your Front Yard:  OK, so my own front yard garden is pretty scraggly this time of year, but at least it’s free of interference from law enforcement)

Cheers to Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton for their San Francisco Chronicle story on the recent dust-up over lawns in Buffalo, Sacramento, and elsewhere.

I particularly liked this part about Sacramento:

Sacramento Mayor Heather
Fargo is a garden advocate herself. But the City Council and its Law
and Legislation Committee were tougher sells. Baumann’s district
councilman, Steve Cohen, was supportive; others were hostile. Law and
Legislation rebuffed the group twice.

"Meanwhile, Code Enforcement offered a compromise that we thought
was ludicrous," Roberts said. It decreed that no more than 20 percent
of a yard could be nonlawn, and no plants could exceed 4 four feet in

"We argued that we weren’t trying to violate the health and safety
code," Roberts continued, noting that city officials appeared to have
no problem with ivy-covered yards that harbor rats.

I can just see gardeners outside with a yardstick, lopping off their sunflowers and bean vines when they exceed 4 feet in height.  Because you know what happens when plants get over four feet tall. Revolution.  Mayhem.  Anarchy!

But they worked it out, and Sacramento gardeners are now free to plant whatever they like on their own land.  Imagine that.  To find out more, check out Sustainable Urban Gardens, and while you’re checking out the Sacramento scene, don’t miss Angela Pratt’s terrific Garden Bliss blog.


  1. “Because you know what happens when plants get over four feet tall. Revolution. Mayhem. Anarchy!”..
    Actually its a public safety issue .
    HUH ?
    Same as not having a fence higher than 3 feet on a corner lot or in your front yard in most California city municipalities.

    The reasoning ( which obviously was thought up before the age of the gigantic SUV ) is that one cannot safely see a child or other obstacle while sitting in a car when a 3 foot fence or hedge or whatever is in the way.

    Just another one of those pesky code compliant rules Landscape Architects and those planning front yard gardens must be aware of when working in a city and most suburban properties.

    Saftety over the sake of horticulture.

  2. I reviewed the before and after ordinance section and it looks like they reached a workable compromise. See, Bureaucrats do listin. Once in awhile.

  3. i am having trouble imagining that safety issue scenario outlined above.

    how is not seeing a child in another person’s lawn going to hurt the child?

    or are you talking about children running into the street?

    i don’t see how they are going to hide in that bush, then run across the 5 foot wide sidewalk, then across the median strip then past the on street parking and get to me in a way that is more dangerous without the 4 foot plantings.

    someone explain this safety issue!

  4. I think by the time my children were over 4 ft tall they could cross the street pretty safely.
    Our local ordinance for plantings in the strip near the street is nothing growing over 4 ft. It is for a clear visual as one turns into traffic. Of course most cars are tall enough to block that vision and around here a couple of parked cars are more likely to hide a small child trying to cross or retrieve something.That is when the rare child is actually outside in front playing.

  5. i think its pretty clear the safety issue is secondary to the primary issue of conformity.

    a lot of these ordinances came from attempts for cities/towns to maintain a conformity of appearance similar to subdivisions with strict HOAs and covenants.

    appraisers were pretty focused on that issue at the time, and older cities were already declining… so it was an obvious step AT THE TIME. currently completely obsolete.

  6. “i think its pretty clear the safety issue is secondary to the primary issue of conformity.”

    George hit the nail on the head. In charming, treesy, bungalow-filled East Sacramento, where Ms. Baumann lives, a garden without lawn typically breaks up the expansive visual swath of green lining these streets.

    What’s lacking, except in yards like Ms. Baumann’s, is personality. You get no sense of who lives in these homes. Many of these front yards are crying out for a little personality in the form of flowers or edibles or garden accents.

    It’s up to pioneers like Ms. Baumann to turn the tide. I remember reading about a man whose front lawn grew “too tall”, prompting his neighbors to complain. His response was to go out front and mow his name or initials in the grass, leaving the remaining grass untouched. You gotta love that independent spirit.

    If enough people plant front yard gardens, it won’t be such a big deal. Neighbors tend to want to do what their neighbors are doing. A neighborhood can be attractive AND diverse. That diversity also makes better habitat for birds and other wild things.

    The bottom line, in my opinion, is that your house and yard are private property and you can edge your yard with toilet seat planters and garden gnomes and grow nothing but giant pumpkins in between if that’s your compulsion. You’ll be known as the crazy toilet/gnome/pumpkin neighbor, but what the heck.

    Or, like Ms. Baumann, you just want the right to retire your lawnmower, plant a garden with your kids, and share this beauty and bounty with friends, family and passersby.

  7. Indeed. There was NOTHING about safety mentioned during Jean’s travail with inspectors. Instead, after she had cut down everything hanging over the curb, and made paths–these were required–through her plantings, they said:

    “It still doesn’t look like the other yards.”

    It is not safety. It is conformity.

  8. Out in the country here in Georgia where I live, the county doesn’t even give you a chance, no, they just drive down the street with a gigantic sideways bushhog hanging five feet onto your property and butcher everything in their path. Trees, shrubs, flowers, they don’t discriminate. And they do the same with weed spray. Nice, huh?

  9. You plant in the county’s r-o-w, you risk losing your plants. Either to the mower or to the salt.(if in a cold area.) That’s what a r-o-w or easement means. You own the ground, but who ever has the easement has the right to go on your property for what ever the easement is for. Access? They can drive on your property and maybe even put in a drive. Water or sewer line? They have the right to come in and dig up your landscaping to do the maintenance and replacement work. This whole thing of planting the curb strip seems self defeating. You stand a good chance of losing all that hardwork and beauty if the politcal subdivision has to do some work in that area. Most of our land has mineral rights belonging to someone else. They can come back in and strip mine to within a certain distance of your house. They have to reclaim the land, but it is not going to be your beautiful landscaping and plants.

  10. Safety of kids shouldn’t be any more of an issue in a no-lawn front yard garden than it would be in a typical lawn and foundation shrubs setting.

    Regardless of garden height, people driving large, high-off-the-ground vehicles have a difficult time seeing children even if they’re right in front of or especially behind the vehicle. Thankfully, many new cars come with backup cameras.

    Drivers need to be hyper aware of kids in residential neighborhoods and parents should always keep an eye on their kids when they’re playing out front.

    More people should put up picket fences. That way, dogs and kids can play out front with less worry. They still need supervision.

    I know of two little kids who were killed in or near their driveways by large delivery trucks in separate incidents. You can’t take your eyes off them for a second out front. Yep, a fence and a parent can make all the difference.

  11. I’m gonna keep planting right up to the edge of the road anyway, I like it because it’s a little, warm microclimate. Luckily, we don’t have salt here.

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