Gardening with Your Hands Tied: HOA Regulations vs. The Inspired Gardener

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Well, it’s comforting to know that in the midst of world chaos, economic devastation and unprecedented anxiety, the HOA Clipboard Police are still doing their jobs.

clipboard

While chatting with a friend the other night about gardening and other landscape-related topics that make others in the virtual happy hour suddenly realize they need to get up and refill their glasses, she mentioned that she had just received a letter from her officious Homeowners’ Association (HOA) asking her to “please remove the dead plant on the left side of your home.”

That is to say, a clematis.

On a trellis.

In early spring.

Once the plant had been removed, she was further commanded (on threat of fines and the weighty disapproval of her neighbors), to sign the letter, put a stamp on it and mail it back to Mrs. Kravitz and her band of tightlipped clipboard junkies.

Micromanaged Landscapes

She returned the letter, writing, “It’s a perennial.” in the margin. It took everything she had not to write, “It’s a perennial, stupid.”  After all, you don’t want to antagonize law enforcement.

“You have to understand,” my friend told me, “they’re trying to keep home values up – they’ve got to compete with _______.”  Here, she referenced a newer, stricter subdivision that furnishes its homeowners (term loosely used) with a laundry list of the many perennials, shrubs and trees they absolutely cannot plant without being clapped in irons.

That is to say, fined.

Yet I only slightly exaggerate. Setting such limits may not literally shackle the passionate, spontaneous gardener, but it sure as hell does figuratively. It restricts creativity and ensures boring, passive, tidy little landscapes which work better than a Unisom for inspiring deep REM sleep.

I know, I requested a copy of their covenants and made the mistake of bringing them to bed with me.  Four times.

Do you have a permit for that swing? And that mullein is over five feet tall! Infraction!

So Much for Inspired Landscapes

If you live in that neighborhood, it is hoped that you managed to get through those covenants more successfully than I. For, should you be inspired one bright Saturday morning by two expressos and Jimi Blake’s gorgeous new book A Beautiful Obsession,  and excitedly tear out more than 20% of your plants in order to replace them with something that makes your heart sing; AND you do so without filing an “Architectural Review Committee Application” and receiving approval; you’d better prepare yourself for a letter from the garden police asking you to “be compliant” and hand over the trowel.

Oh boy. WAAAY too much going on here. Where are the arborvitae? The azaleas? The lawn? Infraction!

Obviously, I find this sort of thing disturbing.  I am a spontaneous gardener. Half of the projects I undertake in the garden involve about five minutes notice, a pile of old stone and the clearance plant racks at my local Big Box.  Though I do not live under the jurisdiction of the Clipboard Police, by my reckoning I break at least two HOA by-laws an hour, and that’s on a slow day.

Dirt happens. And it very rarely happens within accepted parameters, at accepted times, in accepted ways.

The Fear Factor

What is it that entices many of us to hand over our rights to own a gazing ball?

Fear of our neighbor’s tackier gazing ball.

Summer garden
Is that an unapproved ornament? Infraction!

Though these neighborhoods often have community amenities such as pools or walking trails (my friend’s does not), fear of one’s neighbor – or potential neighbor – is at the core of each of these HOAs; and the successful (and subtle) marketing of such fear makes it much easier to swallow one’s doubts and sign up for a lifetime of surveillance.

The rules keep you ‘safe and happy.’ The HOA boards have ‘your best interests in mind.’  On one HOA blog (now THAT has got to be a boring gig), I read that “there is an undeniable, peaceful harmony within the neighborhood” when homeowners follow the rules and regulations.

Fascinating. Harmony apparently reigns when everyone plants Ilex crenata and forgoes a bench in the front yard to watch the pollinators.

Not that they’re encouraging many with the ilex.

Those empty troughs have been drying in the sun for over five weeks!  And what is with all the unplanted terracotta?  Either get some respectable pansies in there or……Infraction!

After all, mere city ordinances can’t possibly think of everything.  What if your neighbor paints their house red? What if she decides to have a compost pile, or wants to stop wasting money and environmental resources and (gasp) hangs her clothes up to dry?

What if she’s just plain crazy and wants to plant a meadow instead of a lawn?  Well, sadly for many people living in these subdivisions, by-laws might protect against compost, meadows and front yard benches, but they don’t protect against ‘crazy’ – I’ve listened to too many first-hand accounts of wack-a-doo neighbors inhabiting tasteful homes with thoroughly approved siding to know otherwise.

mini meadow
First year meadow project? Yeah, no. And BTW that fence needs to go too.

Nevertheless, we are convinced that we can create utopia with these regulations – eliminating any variables that make us uneasy (referred to in previous generations as “the spice of life”).

It’s no longer enough to give your neighbor a list of the paint colors that won’t offend you and won’t inspire her, but now we can make sure her floral life resides firmly within established parameters.

And she gets to pay for the privilege.

Buff Orpington
Oh hell no.

Liberty for Security – A Good Trade?

So what are we giving up in return?  For if you support such petunia policing, do not kid yourself, you will give up something in return. Here’s a list just off the top of my head:

1)   The stifling of creative energy when a homeowner sees an unusual, beautiful plant in a nursery and finds that it’s not on the list of approved flora.

2)   The establishment of mini-monocultures which are particularly vulnerable to pests and disease. (You can bet that Impatiens walleriana and Knock-Out roses once featured as ‘approved plants’ on many lists.)

3)   A severely impacted nursery trade as this practice continues, and garden centers (quite rightly) respond to the needs of their customers. All begonias. All the time.

That looks like a lot of garish color. And is that a CASTOR BEAN?!?!?!?! Infraction!

4)   A growing group of the public who is less physically connected to the incredible range of plants that Nature provides – and to the Earth itself.

5)   A neighborhood that looks like Disneyland – without the rides and definitely without Sleeping Beauty’s castle. (Pink is never an approved color.) Probably without gardeners.

6)   The inability of many homeowners to proactively take steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, such as hanging up clothes, having a compost pile, growing vegetables in sunny front yards, collecting water in rain barrels, etc…

7)   The desensitization of the public to similar standards of uniformity, and with desensitization, a growing uneasiness when ridiculing such practices, or holding them up to scrutiny – or indeed, contrasting them with the unique mix of cultures, practices and people that make up this country.

Whew – all because it’s more comforting to know your neighbor can’t go off the deep end and plant garish, hopelessly vulgar and completely lovely sunflowers in his front yard. And if he does, you’ve got the power to stop him – and make him pay for his transgression.

De gustibus non est disputandum…

Except.

No matter how many matters of taste we attempt to remediate with various sections and subsections, there are hundreds more for which there is no answer. Which is why HOAs tend to become more restrictive over time – particularly if they are in desirable areas.

As my friend has found out over the last 16 years of increasingly pedantic letters from Mrs. Kravitz and her merry band, when you choose to live in a Homeowners’ Association, you not only sign up for the rules that are, but the rules that will be.

walkway
Are those approved building materials? Infraction!

And “running for the Board” (as one is always instructed to do after receiving one of these letters and losing one’s freaking mind at an appeals hearing), is not a proportionate time/energy response when you just want to keep the rights you had when you signed up.

Ways Around the Madness

Certainly there can be compromises, and I have great respect for gardeners who work within the rules to create a garden they can be proud of.  In my book Big Dreams, Small Garden, I profiled Sheryl Massaro, a painter and gardener in Maryland who overwhelmed her HOA Board with a professional blueprint of her planned garden and a thorough list of the plants she wanted to use. She even became a Master Gardener during the proceedings which added weight to her application.

Lists, plans and credentials go a long way.  Sheryl got her garden, and as a result, her neighbors were inspired to do something similar. A win for everyone – including the HOA.

But Sheryl is not the norm.  Most people shut down in the face of bureaucracy. Including me.

According to the Community Associations Institute, over 20% of Americans currently live under the power of a Homeowners Association, and those numbers have grown steadily since the 1960’s.

That’s a lot of begonias folks.  Maybe it’s time to think about what we’re giving up, and why.

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Marianne Willburn

Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

31 COMMENTS

  1. This is exactly why I will NEVER live anywhere with an HOA. They’re nothing but petty dictatorships. Unless your name is on the mortgage, you don’t tell me what to plant. Or what color curtains I can have in my front windows, or what window I can have an A/C unit in. Fie on the Stepford Existence!!

  2. Good one! And coops are even MORE restrictive – I know coz I live in one. A historic one, so with THAT baggage propping up the restrictions. I’ll be posting soon about trying to garden in a historic “garden city.”
    Susan

  3. I’ll second the statement that I will never, never, not ever live anywhere with a HOA. If I’m paying the mortgage and taxes, I’ll be damned if anyone other than county/village/town regulations will tell me what to do! I just really hate the idea of having to conform to someone else’s idea of what is good looking or appropriate- clearly I’m just not cut out for HOAs! Great article though!

  4. Clipboard scolds less of a problem here where it takes two good incomes (and often four wealthy parents) to buy a house. There’s just no time to care about what other people’s garden looks like.

    HOAs have both bad and good aspects–no Air B&B party houses or group homes for recovering addicts are major goods.

    • As I said, many are drawn to HOAs due to amenities, for there are many. My husband and I often walk through the ‘Disneyland HOA’ nearby and fantasize about having their pool, gym, and community garden beds within walking distance. Then we remember the tax load and the restrictions (I have friends living there) and stop the fantasizing. – MW

  5. Yay for Sheryl! Other than Master Gardener, one other credential gardeners might find helpful: a certificate in horticulture from regional teaching institutions.

    Another thing that is lost in the mix of “Liberty for Security”:
    8) The loss of biodiversity of butterflies, moths, bees, other pollinators, causing a greater loss of the number of birds the yard will host.

  6. I also would never, ever live under an HOA’s iron fist. I refuse to fall asleep and become a pod person, devoid of emotion or creativity, especially when it comes to my garden. When my Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick died, I spray painted it deep purple and loved it even more dead than when it was alive. I wonder how that would have gone over with the clipboard biddies!

  7. While it is great to say “I would never live under an HOA” in many areas it is almost impossible not to. I had an area about 4’x 6′ in my front lawn that is sapped dry by maple roots and was overtaken by low weeds. In a fit of foolish inspiration, i got down on hands and knees and pulled all the weeds, fertilized, watered and waited for the St. Augustine grass to spread into the spot. A stern letter arrived from the HOA stating that I must immediately sod my lawn. I did so, but after a hard summer the grass promptly died. Lesson learned: Leave the low growing weeds, keep them mowed, and the HOA is happy!

    • I think we always have a choice – but it may not be as easy or convenient as buying a home in an HOA. When we first moved to the East Coast, we were taken by a realtor to houses only in HOAs, until we finally made it clear we did not wish to see any. We had to move a little further out, and renovate a fixer upper, but it was worth it.

  8. Pays to read the dead restrictions and HOA by-laws before you buy. Surprising how many people think these kind of neighborhoods are wonderful, until they are not.

    • Yes – and it’s certainly difficult to anticipate what might come down the wire with different leadership/different times. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t buy a house in an HOA that we knew to be benevolent and hands off. Couldn’t guarantee that forever. – MW

  9. Seems to me that “peaceful harmony within the neighborhood “ sounds a lot like Brave New World. No thanks.

  10. My mother-in-law lived in an HOA,aka the gestapo. One year she planted glorious zinnias that were almost three feet tall and beautiful! Well, you can guess the HOA committee response.

  11. I lived in an HOA. NEVER again! I was still moving in when I got a letter ‘reminding’ me that I better not paint my home any ‘unapproved’ colors. Sheez!

  12. I don’t live under an HOA (praise be) but I do live under a cross-lease, so we’d need to get the neighbours’ ok before repainting the house, putting in additions etc – though the lease notes that permission cannot be unreasonably withheld.
    Luckily, we have excellent neighbours, who have not so much as batted an eye at the conversion of our front lawn into a hardwood-seasoning woodpile, or the three-month saga of the agricultural drain down the middle of the back lawn.
    Who knows? One day we may even be able to manage a few chickens.

  13. That was quite a rant, Marianne. These are strange times we live in, and I’m sure the HOA nazis are running wild, channeling their anxiety into something they think they can control.

    I occasionally wish that the Founding Fathers would have codified freedom to garden within the Bill of Rights.

    Amendment XI: A beautiful and bountiful garden, being necessary to the mental health of the gardener, the right to bear hoe and plant as they wish, shall not be infringed.

    But then I suppose we would just end up arguing over the meaning of “health” or what type of “hoe” would be permitted. Does a prairie planting indicate the gardener’s mind is healthy? Would the Founding Father’s have thought a “hula hoe” was acceptable or an abomination not trusted in peasant’s hands?

  14. This is why I’ll never live in an HOA again. I have before and it was terrible not being able to have the freedom to do what you want with your exterior! The frustration is not worth it.

  15. I don’t live under an HOA currently but I was looking into it. I’ve had friends discuss with me about their issues with living under an HOA and it’s deterred me from living under one because of the issues that you’ve listed. Thanks for sharing this, I can definitely understand your frustrations as a fellow gardener myself.

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