A small step to a happier planet

We need to get rid of outmoded regulations on lawns. There’s a growing movement to restore native plants to our yards, and they have many virtues.

Homeowners with native gardens from Florida and Maryland to Missouri and Kentucky have gotten slapped with fines or even have their yards mowed without permission. The reason – taller native plants can get mistaken for weeds. Many cities don’t allow weeds to grow above a certain height, and they don’t have the time or staff to find out what’s what. But native plants have a lot of benefits for the planet. For one, they keep the land cooler. Indiana University biology professor Heather Reynolds says they use heat from their environment to pull water up from the soil and out their leaves.

That got me wondering…how do we define weeds? Is big bluestem ( Andropogon gerardi) a “weed”? That stuff grows to be 8 feet tall with roots diving down 10 feet — it was the native grass that grew all over the region I’m living in, which has since been mostly replaced by corn, which also grows to be 8 feet tall, but has much more shallow roots. Is corn a weed? I live in one of those cities that defines “weeds” by their height. The city of Morris has defined 8 inches as the acceptable height for plants in our yards.

Subd. 1. It is the primary responsibility of any owner or occupant of any lot or
parcel of land to maintain any weeds or grass growing thereon at a height of not more than eight
(8”) inches (except for native grasses and wildflowers indigenous to Minnesota, planted and
maintained on any occupied lot or parcel of land, set back a minimum of ten (10’) feet from the
front property line as part of a garden or landscape treatment, which are exempt from being no
more than 8”); to remove all public health or safety hazards therefrom; to install or repair water
service lines upon any property which is improved with commercial or habitable structures; and
to treat or remove insect-infested or diseased trees thereon. It shall also be unlawful for any such
person or persons to cause, suffer or allow noxious weeds or plants identified and defined by the
Minnesota Department of Agriculture to grow on any such lot or parcel of land so as to endanger
the health, safety and welfare of the City.

I’m pleased with the exemption for native plants, as long as they’re not too close to the front of the property, but I’d like to see a different standard. Let’s call Kentucky bluegrass a weed. Let’s condemn any lawn that is too uniform, that doesn’t support species diversity, that is lacking in flowers to support pollinators.

Who needs a privacy fence when your lawn is made up of grasses and forbs climbing up above window height? Think of all the interesting insects and spiders you’ll get, too, and the birds that will thrive in that environment. It might be a problem when the bison come back and start migrating through your yard, but I think that would be amazing. (Sorry, can’t come in to work today, I’ve got a small herd of a few thousand bison blocking my driveway.)


  1. chrislawson says

    The best definition I ever heard of a weed is ‘a plant that’s growing where you don’t want it.’

  2. robro says

    Erland Meye @ #2 — The only plant that deserves to be called “weed”. I think I’ll go have some now.

  3. StevoR says

    As a volunteer bushcarer in my local Belair National Park for me “weeds” are exotic non-native plants that cause problems to the local native plants by out-competing them and reducing the biodiversity. A lot of “weeds” here are garden escapes that were introduced as ornamental or useful species in home gardens but which have since spread and become a serious problem in the Bush taking over from local species and creating monocultures where little or nothing else grows. For examples experienced personally; Olives (Olea europaea), Boneseed (Chrysanthemoides monilifera)*, Roses, Blackberries, Ash trees (Fraxinus species), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Bridal Creeper (Asparagus asparagoides)**, Monadenia (Disa bracteata)***, South African Daisy (Senecio pterophorus), Pricklypear cacti (Opuntia species), Buffel + Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), Montpellier Broom (Genista Monspessulana), Arum Lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and so many more with my least fave being the prickly Gorse. (Ulex europaeus)

    Even species that are Australian but not local natives eg. Pittosporum undulataum, Grevillea rosmarinifolia (Rosemary grevillea) and Sollya ( Billardiera heterophylla) can be seriously damaging. Sometimes – like the Grevillea there – by hybridising with closely related but endangered species – in this case the smaller and endangered Grevillea Lavendulacea – Spider or Lavender Grevillea. (Ditto some species of “Pigface” Carpobrotus)

    So yes. more power to local native plants and careful and wise species selection to get the best biodiversity possible please!

    (We don’t allhave to be botanists or intretsed inplants to do this BTW. – and having native plants as wellas choosing carefullysome others -can get the bonus of birds and insects and other fuana too – from the literal grassroots up so much difference, this makes.

    .* See :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysanthemoides_monilifera

    .** See : https://weeds.org.au/profiles/bridal-creeper-bridal-veil-creeper-smilax-florists-smilax-smilax-asparagus/

    . *** See : https://cdn.environment.sa.gov.au/landscape/docs/ki/monadenia_factsheet_final.pdf

    Not a typo – for once! Buffel grass Cenchrus ciliaris, has apparently vastly altered huges araes of semi-desert Australia trasnforming it tothe immense greif of some of our Indigenous Peoples.

  4. strangerinastrangeland says

    Am I the only one who finds it incredibly funny that a country where a lot of people are so proud about their freedom has laws about the height of grass?

  5. robro says

    I’m totally with you on this point of view about lawns versus native plants. I’m not knowledgable about plants and don’t really care what’s a “weed” or “native” or whatever. But my partner does. She has spent the last four years transforming our property into a habitat for native plants, some apparently very rare. We had the juniper dug out, pulled up the irrigation, and sheet mulched the “lawn.”

    Along with the native plants has come a lot of lizards, insects, and many more birds and species of birds compared to when we started.

    The result is beautiful to my eye. One consequence is that the back of our property with its tall grasses blends into the grasses in the open space behind us.

    It’s also easier and cheaper to maintain because the native “weeds” are draught tolerant. A big boon in water-starved California. Even with the bounty of last winter, and the promise of more this winter, water conservation is vital.

    That said, the nice 80-year-old German lady who has lived in the house next door for 50 years has a very clear idea of what a “weed” is apparently. She complained to my partner about “the weeds” not long ago.

    Here’s another thing people do around here that we don’t understand: Once a year our neighbors have their trees limbed back to nubs except for a few scraggly branches. Because it’s been done repeatedly over the years, some of the trees have developed ungainly stumps at the ends of their branches. This is not pruning. It’s ugly and sad to me. I think it’s unhealthy for the trees although I had an arborist argue with me that it doesn’t hurt the tree. We’re not sure why people do this to their trees. The only rationale I can come with is that it’s easier…and cheaper…to maintain rather than having the mow-and-blow guys rake up leaves several times in the fall.

  6. StevoR says

    Dóh! Bloody italics fail, my apologies. Wish we could edit here. yeah, my preview ability like my typing stinks I know. Sigh.

    On Buffel Grass & ts impact :

    Buffel grass is now considered to be the single greatest environmental threat to arid ecosystems. It out-competes native grasses and alters habitats, leading to more dangeous fires, significant biodiversity loss and loss of Aboriginal culture.

    Native to parts of Africa and Asia, buffel grass is a perennial tussock grass that was introduced to Australia to provide pasture for stock and to stabilise soils that were eroded as a result of over grazing. Many pastoralists in the Northern Territory continue to grow and spread it.

    Buffel grass poses a significant threat to arid ecosystems, communities and Aboriginal culture. Buffel has an extremely high fuel load and causes very hot, widespread, frequent fires. It destroys habitat it poses a catastrophic threat to native wildlife. Buffel affects the availability of bush tucker and is a threat to Aboriginal culture.

    The good news is that research shows once buffel is properly managed, native flora and fauna can bounce back. There is an urgent need to prevent the deliberate spread of buffel grass and for management on a much larger scale in the NT.

    Source : https://www.alec.org.au/stopbuffel

    NT = Australia’s Northern Territory for those unfamiliar. The not-technically-a-state state that used to be part of South Australia before being split off in 1911 meaning that Darwin was once actually part of “South” Australia and “..11th-largest country subdivision in the world” according to its wikipage – which yeah, I checked. The NT, SA, Qld, NSW &, of course, Western Australia all handily beating Texas which ranks 26th on that list FWIW!

    On the Grevillea hybdisation issue :

    Rosemary grevillea (Grevillea rosmarinifolia subsp. rosmarinifolia) is currently of most concern in south-eastern South Australia, where it is a common environmental weed of the Greater Adelaide region and Mount Lofty Ranges. For example, it is listed as an invasive plant in bushland in the Adelaide Hills Council District and has become naturalised in Mount George Conservation Park. Rosemary grevillea (Grevillea rosmarinifolia subsp. rosmarinifolia) also hybridises with the lavender grevillea (Grevillea lavandulacea subsp. lavandulacea), which is locally native to this region. These hybrids are becoming common in bushland in this area, including in conservation areas (e.g. Angove Conservation Park), and have also been recorded in some parts of Victoria. This interbreeding problem is degrading the genetic viability of the native species, and there is concern that the lavender grevillea (Grevillea lavandulacea subsp. lavandulacea) could eventually become locally extinct in this parts of South Australia.

    Source : https://keyserver.lucidcentral.org/weeds/data/media/Html/grevillea_rosmarinifolia_subsp._rosmarinifolia.htm (Under ënvironmental impact” section.)

    Of course, I think many folks here will already know how the battle against Prickly Pear here provides a successful example of wise biocontrol useage :


    To counter-balance the “Getting it totally wrong!” example of the Cane Toad!

    Clarity fix :

    So yes. more power to local native plants and careful and wise species selection to get the best biodiversity possible please!

    We don’t all have to be botanists or intrested in plants to do this BTW – and having local native plants as well as carefully choosing some other non-native flora species – can get the bonus of encourage dand increased birds and insects and other fauna too – from the literal grassroots up so much difference, this makes. Variety and flowering time variety so plants are chosen that willflower insequences menaingsomething sialways inflower for insects, birds, etc .. is a really good idea.

    My own garden is a constant work in progress here FWIW. 123

  7. Dunc says

    Am I the only one who finds it incredibly funny that a country where a lot of people are so proud about their freedom has laws about the height of grass?

    Nope! I think it’s hilarious… Sure, you can have all the guns you like, but you’d better not let your grass grow too long!

  8. StevoR says

    Oh FFS. Clarifying again on the expanded bit :

    Selecting a variety of plants with varying (seasonal) flowering times so plants are chosen that will flower in sequences meaning something is always in flower for insects, birds, etc .. is a really good idea.

    @ 5. strangerinastrangeland : “Am I the only one who finds it incredibly funny that a country where a lot of people are so proud about their freedom has laws about the height of grass?”

    “Funny” is one word for it I guess. Strange and sad are other applicable terms there in my view – good point.

    @6. robro :

    Once a year our neighbors have their trees limbed back to nubs except for a few scraggly branches. Because it’s been done repeatedly over the years, some of the trees have developed ungainly stumps at the ends of their branches. This is not pruning. It’s ugly and sad to me. I think it’s unhealthy for the trees although I had an arborist argue with me that it doesn’t hurt the tree.

    It certainly isn’t helping the tree or allowing it to grow naturally is it? Also expect it means it stores less carbon and casts less shade although that may be something they are trying for in Winter. Notan arborits here but many tree species esp temperate ones do have periods of dormancy where they aren’t actively growing or doing much FWIW.

  9. zygoptera says

    People’s preference in yards concerning chemical usage, weeds and grass height sure varies in my neighborhood. Some have the lawnmowers set pretty low and scalp the lawns regularly even in abnormally dry conditions.

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to change neighbors’ views toward a more ecologically sound approach?

  10. monkeysea says

    Support Native Species Diversity!
    Say it just right & it’ll attract more attention.
    Diversity! Now featuring morebetter spider habitat…

  11. says

    My favorite definition of a weed is “A plant that we have yet to figure out a use for”.

    We have a very small “lawn”, like a few thousand square feet. I don’t think you can buy lawn chemicals (fertilizers, weed preventer, etc.) that cover less than 5000 sq. ft. so even that is too big for us. Besides, a good chunk of the “lawn” is covered in ajuga, mostly because I like the blue flower stalks in the spring, and you don’t have to mow it.

    I recall reading somewhere that the average lawn produces less O2 than a gas lawn mower uses to cut it. What I find particularly entertaining is people who have huge lawns (as in acres) who also complain about the time and expense of maintaining them. Hey, you chose to have the lawn, buddy. If I had that much open space, I’d have planted fruit and nut trees, among other things. Lawns are only useful if you have a bunch of kids to play on them or you like to play Bocce, badminton, and the like. Otherwise, they’re boring.

  12. mordred says

    robro@6 Be wary of nice old Germany ladies when it comes to gardening!

    Years ago one of the nice old Germany ladies in my family talked about how she very nicely asked the neighbour who had “neglected” his garden to cut the “weeds”. Her son looked at here: “You asked nicely? I heard different!”

    Though it’s not just the nice old ladies, Germans in general seem to be horribly when it comes to gardening and lawns! I don’t know how often my neighbour mows his lawn, he isn’t even stopped by cold weather in spring and autumn when nothing is growing anyway or draught in summer, even when his lawn mower is producing a dust tornado.

    And get me started on these fscking robot mowers, running day and night to keep the lawn low and sterile, killing what little animal life remains, insects, lizards and small mammals, including hedgehogs.

  13. StevoR says

    @8. Dunc : There was a meme I saw once noting that contradiction – except with the numbers and restrictions on dildoes instead…


    ..in states like Texas, where gun restrictions were loosened in the last two years as restrictions on things like abortions have increased, one particular law on the books comes up every few years as a particularly stark (if utterly absurd) sign of the state of legislation in the state: There are more intense laws restricting the number of sex toys — more specifically “obscene devices… designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs,” per section 43.23 of Texas’ penal code — a person can own than there are restrictions on automatic firearms.

    Source : https://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/2572389/texas-dildo-ban-gun-control/

    “Small govt” huh? LOLsob.

  14. dbinmn says

    The anti “weed” folks in these rural parts are hypocritical. Replace “noxious weeds” with “covid” in this passage from the MN Department of Ag, and the anti maskers would have lost their shit.

    “MDA, county, city, and township officials inspect land and ask owners to control and eradicate noxious weeds that are present in order to keep them from spreading and harming neighboring lands. Land owners that refuse to comply with an official inspectors notice to control noxious weeds are in violation of the Noxious Weed Law and are subject to having the county contract the work to be performed, with all costs being added to their property taxes, or a summons to district court.”


  15. StevoR says

    ^ Emphasis added.

    @12. zygoptera : So much depends on the character of those individual neighbours and your rel’ship with ém & how they feel and how ready they are to listen to you..

    @ 15. mordred : “And get me started on these fscking robot mowers, running day and night to keep the lawn low and sterile, killing what little animal life remains, insects, lizards and small mammals, including hedgehogs.”

    Literal killer robots? SF disappoints in the year 20-23 again..

  16. dbinmn says

    We have a section that used to be a dirt road, so you can imagine how thin the topsoil is and how hot the ground gets. Grass is impossible, but Bird’s Foot Trefoil (BFT) grows best there. Some consider it an invasive, but honey bees love it (bumbles not so much? They prefer our Russian sage). Every year, I’m in a tussle with city staff, but I am able to argue by using the 8-inch rule which our city uses yet BFT rarely reaches.

  17. StevoR says

    @18 PS. Seriously? Those are NOT something I’ve ever seen in Oz – & I work as a groundskeeper & gardener. They sound terrible. Also stereotypes about the Germanic focus on strict order spring to mind as well as this song (Zager And Evans – In The Year 2525 – 3,mins 25 secs long.)

  18. says

    Our Home Owners’ Assoc. mandates specific colors of gravel for yards with only a few square feet of lawn approved as an exception for those coming from ‘wet’ states where lawns are a necessity in their minds. But, we live in Aridzona, so low water use is responsible. Xeriscaping can look good and require no watering. I am in favor of indigenous plants in yards. But, you should be careful not to let them get so big near the house that they would act as cover for someone trying to break in through a window. (trim the weed and smoke it to prevent that problem!?)

  19. mordred says

    @20 Seriously. Not sure what they might ge commonly called in Oz, but I’m talking about something like that: https://www.amazon.com/Husqvarna-Navigation-Installation-Ultra-Quiet-Technology/dp/B09WNDLXJL/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1399FT0811ZJ&keywords=mowing+robot&qid=1693336169&sprefix=Mowing+rob%2Caps%2C206&sr=8-3
    That one is a bit on the expensive, most seem to be going for 300 – 600€ around here. And a lot of people here have them.
    And yes, some stereotypes about my countrymen are quite true.

  20. says

    I agree with pretty much everything said here about replacing standardized lawns with taller-growing “weeds.” The only question in my mind is, are any of those plants preferable for kids to play on? And what would a backyard of such environmentally-compatible plants look like after two or more kids have been playing in it for an hour or so?

  21. magistramarla says

    We bought a home on a corner lot with a large patio that wraps around two sides of the house.
    It came with lots of beautiful plants along the edges of the patio, lots of rosemary bushes (which I use in cooking) and a nice area behind the house in which I planted more herbs for cooking. There’s a large, sloping backyard which is mostly green moss,so it doesn’t require maintenance. There is a concrete slab in the lower yard with a hookup for an RV, but we are saving up to have a hot tub and gazebo installed there.
    I hired a gardener to keep my husband off of ladders. We have a long stretch of a very tall privacy hedge along one street and a smaller stretch of it between our driveway and our neighbor’s driveway. Manuel keeps those hedges precisely trimmed, and he even goes up onto our roof to clean the solar panels and the gutters each fall. I’m happy that he keeps my husband from attempting those jobs.
    Our front and small side yard on the corner are green grass. We really don’t care about it, but Manuel is obsessed with keeping it perfectly trimmed. I’ve planted a few perennials along the edges. (Has anyone heard of Pink Naked Ladies? They grow from bulbs with almost no maintenance and thrive here in CA.) Hummingbirds and bees are loving some of the flowering bushes, too.
    I allow Manuel to have his fun with that lawn, since he takes good care of our property. I’ve even spotted him stopping by with prospective clients to show off his work!

  22. says

    @6 robro & @9 StevoR talked about ‘Once a year our neighbors have their trees limbed back to nubs’
    I reply: Our arborist doesn’t like it, but recognizes that in many places it’s been done for many decades on deciduous trees when they are dormant without significant problems. In many neighborhoods in the u.s. where houses are only a few feet apart, such trimming keeps the trees from growing huge and becoming a danger to roof shingles on both houses in high winds and prevents them from intruding into neighbors’ yards.

  23. Dennis K says

    @24 magistramarla — Wow! Sounds like you’ve realized the American dream. Good for you!

    Our large lot is mostly just shabby-looking perennial native grass beholden to the whims of the local climate since we can’t afford the water, concrete slabs, gardeners, or gazebos to make it look otherwise.

  24. says

    @24 In the 60s and 70s my family lived in the northwest corner of California. We rented, but the landlord was ok with adding flowers. My mother planted her Naked Ladies between the house and driveway, and they bloomed every year with no real care. IIRC you are in Monterey (I attended Monterey Peninsula College for a year before transferring to UCSC, and lived in Pacific Grove) and the climate is similar, with Del Norte county being a bit cooler and definitely wetter.

  25. asclepias says

    I’m fairly sure Kentucky bluegrass (Pot pratensis) is invasive, though I don’t think it’s classified that way. I spent two summers working at Cedar Creek Nature Preserve in Bethel, Minnesota on a project called BioCON, and Poa pratensis was one of the things that got planted there. I was on a crew whose job it was to weed the unwanted species out of different plots. I still shudder at the thought of trying to pull Poa pratensis out of a Koeleria cristata monoculture. (The two grasses looked so much alike that we literally had to go through blade by blade.)

  26. says

    People with lawns have too much time on their hands. Also, most grass is just ecologically useless you keep some alpacas or sheep who can graze. I try to keep our property “ecologically friendly”, which means doing very little and enjoying all the wildlife. there’s actually one thing that I constantly have to weed: grass.

  27. antigone10 says

    @Raging Bee

    Depends where you live. Most places have native ground cover plants that are honestly better than grass when it comes to letting kids stomp on it and still thriving. Creeping thyme, clover are two that are native in my neck of the woods. Your local university if they have an agricultural program (most do) would probably have a page telling you what a good lawn mix would be.

  28. magistramarla says

    Dennis @26 & Adiposis @27
    Yes, after 7 military moves, we sold the huge house that we bought in Texas when we had 5 kids at home and bought our lovely little bungalow in Monterey to be our retirement home. We chose Monterey because we’ve lived here before, in military housing, so we knew that it would be an ideal climate for my health, since I have a chronic autoimmune disease.
    We got very lucky when we bought this place, as it already had beautiful landscaping. I’m no gardener, and always joked that I had two black thumbs. Everything grows so well here, so I’m gradually learning a bit about it.
    Adiposis – we live in Monterey, close to the airport. We love Santa Cruz, and go there often to eat at the restaurants on the pier. You are going to school on a lovely campus. It must be difficult to concentrate on school with all of the gorgeous distractions of Santa Cruz nearby. I wish you the best of luck in your studies.

  29. says

    @Marla, I wasn’t clear: I got my BA and MA in pure mathematics finished in 1998. The campus is beautiful, and one class I tended to get a bit distracted by the windows, but a great place to learn.

    I did really wish for a jet-assist car so I could leap over Monterey bay: driving down the hill I could see Pacific Grove across the other end of the bay, and knew I had to drive 50 miles around.

  30. StevoR says

    Invasive species have been making the news a bit lately with DW News has recently having this :


    As well as this : https://www.dw.com/en/can-invasive-alien-species-be-repelled/a-66691678

    Plus SBS this :

    Invasive species a major threat to world’s biodiversity
    Published 5 September 2023, 7:19 pm

    Invasive alien species cost the global economy $660 billion dollars a year and contribute to 60% of extinctions, according to a new international report.

    Source : https://www.sbs.com.au/news/video/invasive-species-a-major-threat-to-worlds-biodiversity/po9eavzz7

    (Emphasis for headline.)

    Hopefully folks can play that? 2 mins 36 secs length video.