Jean’s garden on trial, continued


This story gets more outrageous as it unfolds. As I reported in this post about the persecution of a Buffalo gardener, my friend Jean (shown above) will indeed be going to court over her over-exuberant (by housing inspector standards) front yard. She does not yet have a date, or a specific charge, but when I visited her this morning, she showed me an old write-up from July, 2006 that cites her for “overgrowth.”

There are clear paths between the various plantings.

The problem with that charge is that nothing is overgrown. What grass there is has been cut, and the trees, perennials, and shrubs are all their normal height for their particular habits and ages. Today we went through the garden, and ID’d a few of the plants, which I apologize for not properly describing in my earlier post.

The central shrub is prunus virginiana or chokecherry. I’m really loving all the berries on it and I like the early summer flowers even more. Jean got this, as she has gotten many of her plants, from a county-sponsored leftover plant sale. God knows what kind of gulag these municipal cultivars are stored in before they finally go on sale! They must be hardy specimens. It’s an unusual choice to have a stand of shrubs in the middle of your yard, but I like it. They’re much more interesting than her inherited foundation shrubs (some tall spirea maybe) planted in the usual spot.

The viburnum.

She’s also got young cherry, peach (not doing terribly well), and mountain ash trees, as well as the Kentucky coffee tree I mentioned before. Other shrubs Jean’s trying in the front include viburnum opulus americanum (highbush cranberry). Most of the trees are fairly immature, though there is some inherited (and storm-damaged) ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven) in the city-owned spot between Jean’s house and the overpass wall that abuts her house and ends her street.

Flowers include rudbeckia triloba (the basic type), peonies, cosmos, and zinnia. I think the main reason housing inspectors are quick to flag Jean’s yard is that they don’t understand it. They’re building inspectors, not plantsmen. To them, it’s overgrowth. As for the neighbors, Jean tells me that at least three of her closest neighbors will be with her in court testifying on her behalf, saying how much they love her yard. My sense is that it is really one person. And here’s where the plot gets sordid.

This neighbor is a city official. He supports other candidates than the ones Jean supports and he is a big player in the local political machinery.

I am not saying this is the sole reason—he probably truly hates Jean’s yard, judging from his grass, shaved within an inch of its life—but I bet he hates her politics (environmental activist, peace activist, anti-casino activist) even more.

Can we prove this? Absolutely not. The other piece of the inspection puzzle is that for some reason Jean does not have a sidewalk (it ends at her neighbor’s), and they may make her put one in at her expense. It would be a sidewalk to nowhere, as it would end at a wall with a twelve-foot drop on the other side. Jean’s told me that because of the position of her house, the city uses it as a dumping spot for snow, with the resulting salt build-up adding to her troubles. She has to use a lot of compost to make up for this. Indeed, one of the reason she has a lot of woody plants in front is to impede this dumping.

How can we help Jean? I think emails of support would be good. You would need to reference Jean Dickson of Crescent Avenue and send them right to the top—Buffalo mayor Byron Brown’s email address is

[Sorry the photos in this post are no longer available.]
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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. Jean,
    Please have someone contact local and national media especially high profile garden or news. This is such an outrage and injustice.

    We are really here for you but what is needed for this pompous local official is exposed.

    Please know that we are with you in this.

  2. I like Ms. Dickson’s yard and wish her all success. Here’s what I sent the mayor:

    Dear Mayor Brown,

    I read on the Garden Rant weblog an article about the actions the City of Buffalo housing inspectors are taking against Jean Dickson of Crescent Avenue. Please see these links for the articles describing the problem:

    From the pictures included with the article, Ms. Dickson appears to have created the kind of mixed planting, including a number of highly desirable native shrubs, that are increasingly recommended for home landscapes. They have a lower environmental impact than grass lawns and provide considerable value to songbirds and other wildlife. I ask that you study the resources provided at the following sites, especially the Connecticut College one. There is an growing understanding that we need to promote this kind of sustainable landscaping, not discourage it.

    I have a description of my own attempts to design and maintain my home landscape in
    Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley according to these recommendations.

    Finally, one article notes that there is Ailanthus altissima growing on the city owned property adjacent to Ms. Dickson’s property. This is a hideously invasive and undesirable alien plant. I urge you to begin to eradicate it whereever it is found. It is hard to control but foresters have had some success with basal applications of Garlon herbicide.

    Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

    Susan V. Hagen

  3. I am working on local press possibilities, but we are also sort of waiting to see what the F they are charging her with.

    A best case scenario would be if this somehow got aborted even before court, though I doubt it. That’s why I was aiming at City Hall first. I have emailed people I know there.

  4. What a lovely garden; I’m sorry that her local bureaucy doesn’t appreciate her efforts. We had a similar incident in our historic district.
    I sent a short email to your mayor; I hope he gets pages of outraged notes.

  5. The garden looks really good, and there are many environmental benefits as well.

    We need more of these, not fewer. I just e-mailed the mayor.

  6. Here’s what I sent to the mayor:

    Dear Sir,
    I am writing to express my disbelief that a lovely garden with so many botanical species would be targeted by your city as being “overgrown”. Surely you must realize how ignorant this makes your city appear? Perhaps you could consult a master gardener or county agricultural extension office to confirm the “authenticity” and value of her gardens. Not all yards ARE or SHOULD BE lawns.
    Brooke Dryden

  7. Here’s my email:

    Dear Mayor Brown,
    I am incensed to learn from the GardenRant blog that your city is considering action against Jean Dickson on Crescent Avenue for “overgrowth” of her lovely front yard garden. It is clear to me that your city must reevaluate your ordinances in light of today’s new realities. Ms. Dickson should be commended, not censored. You certainly do not want Buffalo to attain a reputation as a regressive community. I hope you will give this matter your personal attention and intercede to drop this ridiculous complaint against Ms. Dickson.
    Sincerely yours,
    Marte Hult, Ph.D.
    Minneapolis, MN

  8. here is my note….

    This note is in support of gardeners such as Jean Dickson of Crescent Avenue. It is my understanding that her garden is said to be “overgrown.” This summer my wife and I vacationed in western NY at the end of July and we spent a day doing the Garden Walk in your city. It is gardens such as hers that make the event. I would hope that these gardeners who devote there free time to promote the city can be supported in their endeavors.

  9. Holy mackerel, these are some vindictive plant-hating people! No forestry department, and now this. Doesn’t anybody at City Hall know what “ecosystem services” means?

    I have nightmares about this kind of thing especially because I planted four chokeberry seedlings across the edge of the largest part of my front yard.

    I also live next to a city councilor, but since he’s got the daylily jungle out front (and we helped with his campaign), I don’t expect him to complain.

    Any chance you could get a certain “professional horticulturist” to testify that the plants are actually well-maintained and properly pruned? 😉 Expert testimony plus the neighbors’ support might do the trick.

  10. Hello plant people…
    What a challenge this one, as it is the epitome of the struggle between ignorance and knowledge of horticulture. When I hear words like “overgrown,” I know we’re in trouble. (What would we call a cottage garden then, or Sara Stein’s natural gardens, or even the Oehme & Von Sweden “American Gardening Style…” with sweeps of grasses and Rudbeckias (and not a clipped Taxus in sight!)

    I will do what I can, as a garden writer (Buff News) and TV/radio person, to communicate the values: What IS a garden, the value of biodiversity, the beauty of texture, etc.
    Thanks to all who are responding. I will have to meet Jean.

  11. Politicians need to start encouraging yards like this, not discouraging them.
    They don’t require mowing, which means they don’t burn foreign oil and add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

    The close-cropped, manicured lawn is an unnatural and unhealthy obsession.

  12. Forwarded this to my brother Chris, an environmental writer. He forwarded it on to his close friend Ron who writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

  13. That would be me. My husband Joe and I have a column in the Home and Garden section of the Chron; it’s online at on Wednesdays; put my name in the archives’ byline field for more.

    It’s amazing and scary how often I’ve heard similar stories. We’ve had them from Sacramento and fom around San Jose in the past few years, and we haven’t even gone fishing for them. We have a series on the schedule now, but I think I could work up a good rant after that so please keep me posted either on my blog or (site folks) at the above email address.

    I think naturophobia ought to be in the DSM-VII at least.


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