Maybe I don’t need to eat the view, but I would like more options



This should be a legal front yard, no questions asked.

Growing up with Sicilian grandparents, I remember very well how their backyard was utilized for all kinds of vegetables and greens for daily consumption and canning, and included a grape arbor for basement winemaking. Maybe I wound up with the gardening genes from the other side of the family, though, because I have always focused on the ornamental side of the plant world (not that vegetable plants can’t be very attractive), and have been content to source locally for produce.

As an ornamentalist, though, I, too, fervently wish for the sensibility that seems to dominate American gardening to change, and if that change would be kick-started with the displacement of at least part of the White House lawn, I’m all for it. It would be a powerful symbolic act that would be seen by everyone, whether they garden or don’t garden. I get that. And from all the pictures I have seen—brother, does that landscape need a makeover!

I wonder though, if a drastic change in the way our first residence looks will truly empower the American gardener. Because that’s what I’d like to see:

I would like to see an end to corporations and municipalities trying to impose their dull, deadening models on the gardening conscious of America. I’d like to see people not only grow what they want, but to realize all the great possibilities they have. I’d like to see neighbors stop tsk-tsking at each other about what they do or don’t do with their front yards. I’d like to see housing inspectors pursue more important matters than whether someone has “high weeds,” and I’d like to see police take care of more pressing criminal issues than jailing someone because she didn’t water her lawn.

I’d like to see nurseries start offering a better selection of native plants and I’d like to see a garden chemical section that is not larger than many of the greenhouses. (For that matter, most garden centers have a better selection of resin animals than they do native plants. I’d like that to change.) I’d like to see funds for cooperative extensions grow rather than shrink every year (our extension service in Western New York is barely viable) and I’d like to see them to better outreach with that money.

I think this is a great moment for people to get inspired by gardening and inspired to stretch their ideas of what gardening can be more than they ever have before. It could start at the White House, but it might be just as important for all of us to start pushing for change at the local level, change that means bugging our council members, our city, county, and state representatives, and all the bureaucrats we can get to listen. Or just starting our own local movements—though eventually you do need to change ordinances.

It is an inspiring moment, but inspiration will take us only so far.

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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. Personally, I’d like to see a huge, lush organic veggie garden at the White House. And, not hidden in the back, but out where the world could see that, guess what, the people in the house need wholesome food and it doesn’t magically appear in bags or crates or whatever. Don’t get me started on the compost pile they could create. Just think about the arguments that could be made to municipalities and home owners’ boards. . . .

  2. I think a kitchen garden at the White House would really jump start a lot of change on the local level. The feeling of hope that is just beginning to emerge from a long germination period could generate involvement from many of those who withdrew from the fight. And I thought the resin animal comment was great too!

  3. “…most garden centers have a better selection of resin animals than they do native plants.”
    While there may be no accounting for taste, I know what I like and it is seldom the ‘whimsical’ garden props such as cheap Chinese-made windmills, gnomes, gazing globes, etc. that are better suited to a mini-golf course than to a proper garden area

  4. Yeah!
    We are too buttoned up as a country when it comes to our landscape.
    Here’s to promiscuous experimentation.

  5. In my experience, new gardeners with larger homes & larger lots in the suburbs seem to feel overwhelmed by large expanses of grass.
    In reality that’s alot to take care of and pay for when you figure in a stressful job with an oftentimes long commute, children in some cases. At the end the day or even the weekend gardening just seems like wishful thinking.
    I’d like to think there will be a new trend of building new homes with much less square footage on smaller properties. Less lawn and property to maintain = more time & money to garden.
    I live in a small home with a city size lot and it is just so much easier to take care of – I have no lawn left in either the front or back but the small square footage makes it easy even though I put in long hours and have smaller children.

  6. In our modest city pop. 40,000 ish, it takes an act of Congress to procure a permit to down a tree on one’s own property. We’re a “tree town” and people, those in positions of power especially, are starting to take seriously environmental issues. My neighbor across the street has a sizable raised bed in his front yard. He and his wife grow vegetables. Everyone in the neighborhood seems fine with it. Progress…slow but sure.

  7. I’d like to see:
    * More people growing their own food, feeding themselves, their families, and their neighbors.
    * Economic incentives – grants, rebates, tax deductions – for people to invest in reducing their use of and demand on natural resources, and making the best use of available local resources, whether that be solar panels, rain gardens, rainwater collection, green walls and roofs, whatever. This is especially important for those on fixed incomes, whom rising resources costs hurt the most.
    * Health care for everyone.
    My Facebook profile lists my political affiliation as “cynical.” I’m afraid I remain so. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

  8. My daughter has lived in developments in California and Texas where the homeowners’ associations mandate absure regulations that especially in those two states make no nod to the environmental realities. It is very sad and foolish. I also support increases in funding for cooperative extension which supplies such important services and education for gardeners and farmers.

  9. Good news on the natives front- two years ago at the big East Coast landscape trade show, there was one vendor offering natives. This year there must have been a dozen or so. I still need to go through their materials to make sure they’re for real, but I’m encouraged. The more sources we have for native plants, the more likely we are to be able to offer them to our clients.
    And no dissing the gnomes! My mother-in-law got me a gnome dressed in a Red Sox uniform for Christmas. Best. Gift. Ever!

  10. One of my neighbors stopped speaking to me and left an “anonymous” note on my front door after I took out my lawn and let things go a bit wild. I used to let some of the native thistles and milkweeds go to seed for the finches but I stopped doing that. My garden is seasonal. Right now it looks fallow, but I know it’s juicing up for the spring, when there will be lots of foliage, nectar and seeds for the wildlife.
    Because my neighbor reported me, I get a “courtesy” weed-abatement letter from the city every year, no matter what the garden looks like. The front garden is full of perennials, some shrubs, and a couple of trees. In the back I have my mini-meadow. It’s green and wonderful right now, with lots of critters. The poppies are getting ready to bloom. In one corner is a 50-year-old camphor tree. Along the other side of the yard I have bridal wreath spirea, an aging magnolia, crape myrtle, abutilon, camelias, butterfly bush, ornmental grasses, wisteria, cuphea, mock orange, various bulbs, wild cherry, and a coppiced black walnut. I get to see salamanders, raccoons, doves, finches, you name it. It’s a mess and it makes me happy.

  11. Hi Ranters!
    I recently posted about this same subject and got a great response with varying opinions. I directed a question back to our community:
    How many of us who signed the “Eat the View” petition, or believe that edible gardens should replace lawns have done exactly that in their yards?
    A real and compelling influence for others to adopt edible gardening and more sustainable landscaping practices in their homes is to be an example in OUR neighborhood.
    When our neighbor sees that we work full time, have active kids AND tend own veggie garden, they may feel hopeful that they can do the same.
    I also want a government that is sympathetic and supportive of sustainable living and environmental stewardship. I want corporations to sell what is in demand-(if we aren’t buying their chemicals, they are going to have to sell something that we will buy). I want to see more native plants available at stores- we need to help fuel a demand for this as consumers!
    As gardeners, let’s keep sharing our knowledge with others, let’s blog about our edible gardens, how much money we saved growing our own food, how healthful it is, post a delicious recipe.
    Yes, let’s ask for some support from higher ups, but let’s not put our hope in what someone ELSE can do. They may take their time getting around to it or have other pressing concerns.
    The power to influence others is in our dirty little gardener’s hands and in our yards….let’s do something about it.

  12. My colleague was granted a citation over her weedy backyard, but the citation was fairly quickly rescinded when she started giving the latin names of her plants to the city official. Since “weed” is not a well defined term, I think this kind of lawn often *is* legal, if you know how to fight the system.
    Admittedly, though, there should be no need to fight for cosmos and other wildflowers. Ideally, such lawns would be a basic right.

  13. While I might not “go all the way” with my promiscuous experimentation that Michelle wrote about, I have been thinking about my gardening style/being a home gardener/ growing my own food/putting money where mouth is, etc. I, at least, “broke ground” in my garden last summer (with the help of a landscaping service for labor–needed drastic changes fairly quickly) but am now “going it on my own.” Just posted a new post about that at my blog
    I am pretty serious about learning how to be a professional hobbyist instead of a professional gardener.

  14. One person’s weed is another person’s cherished plant. Except for ivy… That’s just a pain, not a plant.

  15. Love the ideas, and could we please inspire our insipid Canadian government and some of the asinine municipal bylaws that are similar to the ones you’ve listed here? Please? Right away?

  16. As Horticulture Outreach Coordinator at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden – an all California-native garden in Claremont, CA.- I try to help people transition from boring water-guzzling,lawn-dominated yards to gardens informed by local nature. Recognizing the difficulty people have in finding stores that not only sell native plants but also educate people about them, we are expanding our plant sales with a new sales yard called Grow Native Nursery.
    Check out our website: and my home garden blog:
    Thanks to all for such a great discussion.

  17. I think we need to do it ourselves and really concentrate on acting locally. While it’s important symbolically for the White House to do something new and different, I don’t think we should wait for them or even spend too much of our efforts pushing them to act.
    Maybe I see this differently because Wisconsin is home to a lot of people who’ve been willing to act on these issues: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, Neil Dibol AND Lori Otto. We have been killing our front lawns all around the state for a long time.
    Madison, WI was the first major city to recognize the legitimacy of natural landscapes by enacting an ordinance that OKs them. There are some issues still with the law but you rarely hear of anyone getting cited. There are requirements about curbside planting heights etc. Front lawns, medians and traffic circles and islands are planted here — many by citizens. We have a “green” lawn movement that teaches people how to have grass without chemicals.
    Where I see change is at the neighborhood level with people following the lead of neighbors. On my street most property slopes down to the curb with no sidewalks. More and more folks are putting in banks of daylilies, small shrubs and perennials. My neighbors first had a circle of annuals around a tree, then a line of flowers across the front that linked to my fully planted front garden. Now they’ve joined fully half their front and side yards to my garden with dry shade perennials.
    It has been a 14-year process that has dramatically accelerated up and down the block in the last few years. I think inspiration from the top can help to get you started, but local example trumps all.

  18. Thanks for the great and lengthy comments, Linda, Shirley, Carolyn, and others!
    I have always said, this blog is all about the readers and their comments.

  19. I could not agree more! The turf grass lawn is dull and unappealing, and I would love to see my own neighbors take more interest in plants on their properties.

  20. Wow! You go girl! I have a neighbor who goes into fits if the lawn isn’t a certain shade of green. I’ve actually seen him come out with a ruler to measure the heighth of the grass.
    Whatever happened to gardening as a stress reliever and a means of providing food for ourselves and our animals?

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