Another front yard criminal



Imagine having to hire a lawyer to defend your shrubs. Yet, I suppose more people than I care to think about have had to do just that.

Here’s another front yard that’s run afoul of neighbors and city officials; it belongs to a friend of mine, Jean. This house is at the end of a street in the Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo. Most of the houses around here feature Arts and Crafts-style and other turn-of-the-century or early twentieth century architecture.

Jean has Rose of Sharon, rudbeckia, cosmos, a Kentucky coffee tree and a flourishing stand of name-forgotten red-berried shrubs (center—they’re covered in white flowers in early summer). It’s much, much, more than any of her neighbors have planted in their front yards, and a city of Buffalo housing inspector has just informed her that he’s writing her up for a court appearance. One of the neighbors has complained (that’s all it takes), but Jean doesn’t know who.

I’m not sure what they’ll make her do. It’s not like she can mow down anything; trees and shrubs would have to be uprooted. I suppose the rudbeckia would be easy enough to pull up. But why? No one has complained of visibility problems. All Jean has heard from the inspector is that her yard “doesn’t look like the other yards.” That must sound flimsy even to him because he’s now saying she should paint a back shed and fix a few other minor infractions (if indeed they are infractions).

Of course, Jean’s had to retain an attorney. She loves the shrubs and plans to fight for them until the end. It’s very discouraging that she has to, but as we know, this often happens when you diverge too radically from the norm in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

I’m not saying that these plantings would be my choices; I prefer more open space. But I also don’t see why she should have to spend money defending what is obviously a cultivated and cared-for piece of private property.

I guess the inspector would much prefer this front yard (below), a few doors down.Jean2

[Editor’s note: This fascinating story continues with Jean’s Garden on Trial, Continued, Sally Jean’s 2 Cents, All’s well that ends well, Mayor Brown said he only got involved…, and finally, the Victory Party.]
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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 regular 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. It seems to me that it may be time to get these issues to the Supreme Court as a 1st ammendment case of freedom of speech. If they can declare money as equivalent to speech, ie campaign ads and contributions then personal shrubberies on private property sounds like free speech to me.

    Certainly a bountiful landscape does less harm to the public good than a bought and paid for political system.

  2. Let us know if Jean needs a defense fund. I’ll contribute. I have a neighbor who mowed his lawn exactly once this summer. Even in this drought the ‘grass’ got pretty high and the house looked abandoned. I sure didn’t like seeing it but a little piece of me said “you go Joel. it’s your damn land and you can do, or not do, whatever you want to it.”

  3. im ashamed to say my front garden looks like the aweful second comparison one. I had better get to work. please keep us updated on how this turns out.

  4. This kills me. Her yard “doesn’t look like the other yards.” How f*cking boring! Part of the wonderful thing about gardening is it’s creative and individual. Jean, you go girl. Keep us updated.

  5. If the neighbor who complained would jsut spend time getting his/her hands dirty then he/she wouldn’t have the time to complain about another neighbor and would actually “get” what Jean is all about.

  6. It seems to me that there needs to be a change in the city bylaws so that one complaint is not acceptable – it has to be all of the immediate neighbours, say at least 8 householders and a signed complaint with names and addresses.
    Also if I was Jean I would put a big notice at the sidewalk saying that a complaint had been made so that it becomes a very public neighbourhood issue.
    One would think that City officials had better things to do than respond to a single complaint, maybe he was having a bad hair day.
    My sympathy Jean, I hope you win and get awarded costs.

  7. I think it looks beautiful. Thank goodness when I lived in a city it was Seattle, where parking strip gardens and heavily planted front yards were becoming the norm at the time (1988-92) when I had a jungle in front of my house. I was the first one in my neighbourhood to do a heavily planted parking (hell) strip, but now there are many lush ones all over that neighbourhood which I love to see when I go back to visit. I would have found it unbearable to be forced to go back to lawn.

  8. Wow. In our fair town, there has to be a letter from the city citing which ordinace you are in violation. Before she spends $$$ on an attorney, she should ask to know what ordinace, building code what ever she has violated. Or move to my neck(red)of the woods where we have rural areas with no building codes, no zoning, no rules. The down side of this is you could have a McMansion next to a sngle wide or a junk yard.

  9. I was just today at a talk by Paul Tukey on organic lawn maintenance. He talked quite passionately about how lawns take more resources than most other kinds of plantings, in terms of water, fertilizer, etc. Manufactured fertilizers use up fossil fuels. Herbicides and pesticides used for lawn care endanger children and pets that play on the lawn. Excess nitrogen washes into lakes and ponds and contributes to their pollution. There are many solid reasons for not planting and maintaining lawns. See his website for ideas to bring to Jean’s hearing. Best wishes!

  10. This makes me extraordinarily nervous. I’ve just dug up my front lawn.

    I think maybe I need to be extra-nice to my neighbors. Yowza.

    I could understand if there was a neighborhood covenant. We know what those are when we move in. “Your grass must be… Your plants must be… You cannot plant… ” We either agree and buy or disagree and don’t.

    But an older neighborhood.


  11. Wow!
    She has a beautiful property. I would not begin to understand what she is going through as we live in a small town and have a very large 2lot yard.
    Maybe educating the neighbors would help? Offer tours and talk about all the different trees and plants she has growing. I know if I saw a home with this many plants I would love to see up close.
    My prayers are with her,

  12. I am very bewildered by the anti wildlife,bird,fauna and floral movement in America. I live in Minnesota and have a lot of flak from my Minnesota Nice neighbors too.

    This story is an outrage!!! I too would kick in for defense fund.

  13. Hey Elizabeth, wouldn’t it be great if you could get hold of the name and email address of the inspector who came to Jean’s yard? (Or at least that of the Buffalo building inspector’s department.) These ranters could sure tell him a thing or two!
    I think Jean’s front yard is very appealing. It is the kind of place that turns my head when I go by, and I think ‘Wow, what a cool place! I wonder who lives there?’
    Squirrelgarden, I would rather think we are on the leading edge of the pro-wildlife, bird, fauna and floral movement. The loss of wildlife is becoming apparent even to mainstream America, finally. By continuing to rant and write and talk about what is causing the demise of wild species, and how to turn the trend around (by simple acts, like providing habitat on our own properties) we help raise awareness.
    Won’t it be nice when the poor folks in the bottom picture are the ones whose yard “doesn’t look like other yards?” Awareness, awareness, awareness…

  14. Thanks for all the support! Some of my neighbors are coming over to talk about this idiotic threat tonight. So far, I haven’t received the paper explaining what ordinance I supposedly violated, and a court date. My lawyer has not charged me anything yet– I just baked him a nice peach pie over the weekend. At least one neighbor has already agreed to testify in court, if it gets that far. Thanks, Elizabeth! and thanks for all the comments — I’ll keep you posted.

  15. The next thing to do is to get the ordinance changed so that if you file a complaint then you must attach your name to it for everyone to see.

  16. Here’s another vote of support to fighting this ridiculous affront.

    A couple of things they *might* be able to require could be having the front door and house number clearly visible from the street for the fire department, and meeting any requirements regarding edge-of-the-street clearance (such as for foot traffic or snow plowing).

    Other than that, what could they say? Just because the prevailing aesthetic in that neighborhood is open front yards with lawns doesn’t mean everyone has to follow it.

  17. What lunacy! Your yard looks great, Jean! Can’t believe you have a court appearance over that. You are saving water runoff into the sewage systems too. Maybe an informational sign about the environmental benefits would educate in the future. ‘Course maybe 99% of your neighbors love your yard.
    There’s a street in Portland, OR in a very expensive neighborhood that has a lot of front yard gardens like yours. It’s such a pleasure to walk down it. It became contagious, evidently, according to local garden writer Anne Lovejoy, if I remember correctly. Actually in all of Portland there are front yard gardens like yours, that street just happens to have a string of them w/ fountains & art all lined up.
    There are also city houses with chickens (up to 3) and one pot bellied pig that I know of. You can do a “Tour de Coop” and visit them once a year.
    Good luck!

  18. Meanwhile, in the “City of Good Neighbors,” people are getting shot, graffiti is everywhere, crime is rampant, and police presence is nonexistent. Time and money is being spent to worry about someone’s perfectly acceptable yard? Is this some kind of a joke? Sounds like a good team of hit-men are in order.

  19. Oh thank the Lord! I was doing this in my back yard in Maine 15 years ago!
    My Dad had 3 acres of Ugly Golf Course lawn while I was coming up and got mad if I even rode a bike on it! For so many years I thought I was the only one who felt this way! Congratulations to everyone who is helping make America more beautiful and helping Mother Nature at the same time!

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