Neighbors—can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em

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If you want to appreciate the widest possible range of opinions about gardening, talk to gardeners about their neighbors. Because, you know, nobody really wants to admit that their neighbor might have the right idea (about anything), and most of us have had mild-to-medium plant-related disagreements with the property holders on either side. I was at a party yesterday, and one of the guests was regaling groups of us with a story about a shrub border, a tree that needed trimming and two neighbors. The right-hand neighbor needed the tree to be trimmed—and then some shrubs were cut back as part of an overall tidying. I won’t go into details, but the upshot was that the left-hand neighbor became so outraged over the way the shrubs bordering her property were trimmed that she called the police on my friend, the party guest.  (The police declined to intervene.)

Trees and—sometimes—shrubs are by definition neighborly plants. They have no regard for property lines. We are living in fear of our elderly sugar maple causing massive damage to the house next door, given enough windy days, and recently had it severely trimmed in hopes that its benign and surprising presence in a tight urban spot can continue. And then there are property lines, the ones that you think you have and the ones that they think they have. Plants can be big players there. The whole notion of invasive takes on a micro definition.

And then there are the stories like this one, about how persistent complaints from neighbors almost caused an entire front garden to be eradicated by city bulldozers. Fortunately it had a happy ending.

Those of you living in the wide-open spaces, with maybe no neighbors for acres, might be feeling kind of smug right now. Not so fast. One of the reasons I think Buffalo doesn’t need a High Line is the incredible variety of urban plantings I can see within half a mile either way from my front door. I see mini-meadows, formal shade plantings, cottage gardens bursting with color, even elegant hardscaping, depending on which block and which house it is. (The architecture is cool too.)

And if not for neighbors, what would we talk about at parties?

(By the way, one of my neighbors has called the police on me, but not over gardening.)

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Even in the wilderness there are property lines. I am taking some risk in planting what I intend to be a background screen and the dividing line of my garden, over the line on the adjoining property. I wasn’t willing to give up any space on my side of the line for that purpose.

    I justify the risk by telling myself it is a steep and crappy 25 acre parcel that has been for sale for 30 years, in the remote chance any owner would build they might want a dividing line and the chances of a non-gardener actually realizing that what I have planted isn’t just wild shrubberies are remote to non-existent.

  2. I have a neighbour in the back that I have called the police on twice, not for gardening. They also own the tall cedar hedge at the back of my property, which also is allowed to spew weeds out the bottom. They have stopped trimming my side (which I’m actually okay with them not stepping foot on my property). I would be afraid that they would damage all the plantings on my side. They also own a black walnut which the majority of the overhead is on my property. Also not trimmed. There is a lot of dead branches that come down in the winds.

    All of my other neighbours are lovely. They tend to appreciate my tearing out more and more grass and take interest in what I’m planting. There is only a little grass (weed) path left in the back yard.

  3. I’m one of those people with acres between us and the neighbors. Our problem is a neighbor with a dog who likes to walk on our land with the dog unleased, even though she knows we have free range chickens and even though she says she keeps the dog tied up when she lets her chickens out. She keeps hoping we’ll give up our chickens. Really!

  4. I’m willing to accept the weeds and appearance of my neighbor’s yards–that’s just part of the deal. But what really gripes me are the neighbors two doors down who built a deck onto their house and now have bright lights on it and no curtains on their windows. So, when I want to sit in my peaceful backyard at night, all I see is their lit-up windows and so-bright-it’s-painful porch light.

    • Val, I really hear you about the lights. The church across from us is lit up like a Loew’s parking lot – all night- for security reasons. In summer it’s not too bad because we have planted a lovely mixed tree/shrub border along the street in front of our house, but in winter it’s painful. So far, several years of polite requests to them and the city have come to nothing. Current city laws would prohibit these type of lights. I seem to be the first neighbor who has complained in 40 yrs. About the residence lights, above garages, etc., there seems to be an epidemic of them. I wonder if any towns have ordinance regulating them? They should.

  5. Overall, I’ve been pretty lucky with my neighbors, though I always try to come up with ways that will keep my style of gardening (almost no lawn in the front) agreeable to them, or at least not objectionable.

    The closest I have come to conflict with a neighbor was when they were trying to sell their house and suggested that my landscaping might have something to do with why they couldn’t get a buyer. I responded with a diplomatic, “Hmmm.” End of discussion. I have also removed buckthorn trees from hedges, I was within my legal rights because the tree grew on my side of the property line. The neighbors were not happy but did not protest.

    As you can see, I live in a fairly tolerant community. But I have done things such as keep the flowers and grasses less wild closer to the sidewalk, trim plants along the sidewalk, and maintain brick edging. I actually get far more compliments than complaints or disgruntled looks. I have even started to influence how some of them garden.

  6. I’m fortunate. I’ve never had any problems with neighbors. Even when my tree fell on someone’s house. It was an act of God. That is what homeowner’s insurance is for. I expressed my sorrow and offered to help clean up.

    It might have something to do with the fact that I don’t think I have any control over their yards. If they have weeds. That’s life, even if wind blows the seeds into my garden. They’re not responsible for the wind. It might also have something to do with me having a horror of confrontation and being a very conciliatory person.

    Where I live one has the right to cut anything that crosses the property line so long as it does not harm the health of whatever it is. I would probably discuss it with them first. That’s me being conciliatory again.

  7. Our back neighbor’s hired gardener walks the length of our shared 80-ft long fence and blows all of her leaf litter right under the 2″ gap at the bottom of the fence and into MY yard. Makes a damn mess every week and scares the heck out of the chickens when all that junk comes flying under the rail and swirls four feet up in the air before settling on my benches and paths. One of these days I’m going to borrow a leafblower and blow it all right back under the fence 10 minutes after he leaves.

    Can’t complain too much, though, because the rest of our neighbors are wonderful. They don’t mind my front yard veggie garden, and I don’t mind their kids grazing in it–it’s a win-win.

  8. Can I call the police on a neighbor whose lawn ornaments clearly violate some Good Taste ordinance? Pinwheels, giant tea cups, marigolds planted 6 inches apart around the ring of white stones (!) Oh, I forgot -also some loud contraption for frightening away squirrels. Just sayin’.

    We have other neighbors who are great and we’ve been able to work out cutting down trees, installing dog fencing – etc. Just wish the Taste Police could pay a visit across the street.

  9. I trim the nonmaintenance type neighbor’s privit that runs the property line and is a backbone to my border (NOTE: Do not do this. If you have a hedge that needs pruned vigorously , leave space to walk as you trim). The spouse tells me not to do it, the neighbor keeps saying Oh, I will get it next time and I kept trimming it. They have moved and the house hasn’t sold. My theory is if I kept trimming it while the rest of the yard looks like an overgrown hell, the new owners will assume the hedge is mine and not touch it and I will have the back bone to my garden intact.

  10. I live on a corner and share a wire fence with the neighbors in the house beside me. They don’t actually live in the house, but visit the property once or twice a month. These neighbors are elderly. The male neighbor is 95 y/o and the female is in her 70’s. The female is named after a vine. I’ll call her “Virginia Creeper” and ironically, Virginia absolutely HATES vines. So when I planted a vine on a trellis near the mutual fence, and the vine touched about 6 inches of the fence, she had a hissy fit.

    While she was visiting her house, she told the male loudly in the yard, “I just can’t stand vines!!!! You know how I hate vines! She knows I hate vines! I don’t have time to cut vines from the fence! I don’t know why she lets it touch our fence.” She went on and on. I’d cut the vine 2 months previously, but we’d had a lot of rain and it had once again touched her fence.

    Long story short, I relocated the vine. It’s interesting to me, however, that she thinks it’s okay to let the grass get thigh high (no joke) for months in the back yard, but if my flowering vine barely touches her fence, she falls to pieces. Weeds, trees, and all kinds of stuff grow along the fence line. She ignores them all, but let any vine grow along the fence, and she pours gasoline on it or pitches a fit.

  11. We were the last to move into a neighborhood of new homes, so everybody else had put in their landscaping before we even had a chance to consider what we wanted. To the back, one neighbor has put in those darned flowering pears (messy year-round & the prevailing winds blow the mess mostly into my yard), and another put in some sort of evergreen that drops leaves year-round, again into my yard. Both of these neighbors put the trees as close as possible to the fence. And since the trees have grown very tall, my attempts at growing food in my small backyard are becoming increasingly frustrating. The neighbors to one side are renters – always someone new it seems, and no one who cares that the backyard is full of dog poo & weeds (again, prevailing winds bring the smell). The neighbors on the other side ? Love ’em. They mow & trim our lawn sometimes (don’t want grass, but hubby insists so I refuse to tend it) & seek gardening advice from me, as do many of the others whose homes front on the same street. They rarely take it, sure. But few of their yards bother me so I’m okay with that.

  12. I have a lifelong dream to build an ornamental garden. Having had to leave two previous gardens before the structure was completed or trees growing tall, my husband promised to find a home we could live the rest of our lives in with plenty of flat land for me to garden upon. We set aside a large (for us) sum from the sale of our old home to fund this beginning garden.

    Unfortunately I was unaware of just how many plants are affected by the toxin in Black Walnut, nor that the toxin is located in its greatest strength in the tree roots. Although my city lot is approx 100×200 ft, there is not one square foot which is free of my 3 neighbors’ walnut roots. Last fall I spent a 50 hour work week doing nothing but cleaning up nuts and leaves for over a month and a half in an attempt to limit the toxic effect.

    I have begun digging 4 ft deep and wide trenches along the edges to remove the roots and improve the soil for my hedges (to keep out our tame city deer), much to one elderly neighbor’s fear for “her” trees. We had to pay 1500 dollars to remove one on the property line and another couple of hundreds apiece to remove 3 of the lowest and longest overhanging branches. She is not happy. I am not happy. My husband removed by hand the many other nut trees within our property. Another few thousand went to have an excavator pull the stumps. I have barely enough money left to purchase the hedge plants. In fact, I will have to start a propagation nursery and wait many years to achieve my goal of enclosing a space for my gardens.

    All these things I could face with perseverance. But now my neighbor’s children have brought a bunch of baby trees and planted them in every gap along their side of the property line. They are loving children, but that means that in 10 years, these tree roots will also be in my garden, and for long after my elderly neighbor is gone. We cannot afford to move again and my years of mobility for gardening are limited. I also am not willing to alienate my neighbors further.

    If you understood how limited my plant palette already is by soil and climate, and then looked at how many are left to me after subtracting plants known to die in 1-3 years from walnut poisoning, you would understand my bitter disappointment. Even if my hedges grow, inside may only survive the very wild vines, brambles and grasses that I have labored so long and hard to remove from this neglected plot.

    No one ever talks about planting trees so that their mature circumference fits within property lines. Everyone wants the biggest possible plot, so trees and fat shrubs continue to proliferate upon property lines. The garden makeover shows and garden magazines should be warning about this loud and clear to prevent trouble and grief for so many neighbors. It is already preached that not thinking ahead to mature plant size is the number one landscape mistake, now let’s spread the word that it is terrible to wait decades for trees to grow, then loose them because they encroach on others’ property rights. It is terrible to have to give up a desired garden to remain friendly with the neighbors whose trees encroach upon one’s land.

    At least Christopher realizes his plantings beyond the property line may end up being removed one day. Everyone wants more space, but please, be on guard against illegal greed, especially when living in smaller spaces like city lots. A tree is a lot more than the size of the trunk or planting hole.

    As for what my neighbor’s gardening choices are that fall within her property lines, I extend the same aesthetic freedom I want for my own garden. If you want aesthetic control on your neighbor, you should live in a subdivision that has aesthetic restrictions in a legal covenant.

    • If you have not already come across it, you might want to look at a blog from someone gardening in property with many black walnut trees: Underneath her banner, she has link to part of her site called The Black Walnut Society. She lists all of the plants that have done well in that environment and readers have sent in their lists of success stories.

    • Erin – you could try constructing a raised garden for those plants that don’t tolerate juglone (walnut poisoning) like tomatoes & peppers, then research which ones – usually native plants – are compatible with walnut trees. I’ve also had good luck growing some tender plants in generous-sized pots. Good luck!

  13. I will never forget the time my neighbor decided that after 20 years their fence was three feet away from the property line, and needed to move it out ASAP!
    In doing so they cut down a tree I planted for the 25 anniversary of earth day when I was in the 6th grade…
    I am still ticked!!!

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