Living under the strictures of a homeowners association can be incredibly stifling for gardeners who want to work outside of the turf lawn and irrigation dynamic, but sometimes gardeners successfully stand up to their HOAs — and lawmakers in some states are making it easier to do so. Native gardener Janet Crouch joins me on the podcast this week to explain how she helped gardeners across Maryland earn the right to plant native.
Janet is the sister of Nancy Lawson, a friend of the podcast and founder of The Humane Gardener. Janet and her husband, Jeff, learned about native gardening from Nancy and implemented the ideas in their own yard, which no one complained to them about for years — until one day they received a letter from their HOA. What unfolded was a multi-year battle to keep their yard as it is and the successful passage of legislation to protect native gardens. Janet and Jeff’s story is chronicled in the 2022 New York Times article “They Fought the Lawn. And the Lawn’s Done.” by Cara Buckley.
Janet and Jeff moved into their home in 1999, and Jeff soon created flower beds in their yard using a variety of plants. “Some were native, but we didn’t even know the positive part of that at the time,” Janet recalls.
As Nancy’s interest in native gardening grew, she shared the benefits with Janet and Jeff.
“Jeff would talk with her frequently about what to plant and where we should plant it,” Janet says. “And so our garden grew from a turf grass lawn into many flower beds situated throughout the yard.”
A number of plants that they had put in before they became attuned to native gardening remain — lovely plants that still have some wildlife value, Janet says. They also add annual plants during the summer months to fill in gaps.
“After many, many years of doing this type of gardening, our HOA suddenly sent us a ‘cease and desist letter’ in 2017, telling us that we had to tear out our entire garden and replace it with turf grass,” Janet says.
This came as a huge surprise after 17 years of planting out their yard. Janet notes she and Jeff had preemptively had a discussion with the HOA’s new law firm in 2010 — the same law firm that would send them threatening letters years later.
“My husband stood up and talked and said, ‘We’re very concerned about this change — that we’re going to have this law firm that we’ve never had before, and we’ve not heard good things about this,’” she recalls.
He told the HOA they were concerned the law firm might raise issues about their garden, but the HOA president assured them the board had no issues with the garden.
“Everybody knew about our garden,” Janet says. “It’s in our front yard. It’s visible to everyone who walks down the street. A lot of people have walked by with their kids for years just to see it — all the butterflies, all of the different creatures, the bunnies. It’s lovely, and the children haven’t been indoctrinated into the turfgrass culture, they just see the beauty.”
Janet and Jeff’s yard passed neighborhood inspections for years.
“Then they suddenly decided that it wasn’t okay after all of those years of it being okay,” she says. “And that’s the type of power that HOAs have. They can come back. They’ve never required anything. They’ve never had a problem with it. No one else in our neighborhood has ever been told that they have to change their garden. They never requested approval for their garden. And then suddenly one day everything changed.”
Janet and Jeff would later learn that their next-door neighbor for all 17 years that they lived there did not like their garden. He had never said a word to them, but he began sending anonymous letters to the HOA board. He finally, in 2017, sent a signed complaint to the HOA board that led to the board sending a violation letter to Janet and Jeff.
The first letter they received told them that they would have to mow their grass — which they had always mowed anyway — and that they would have to pull some weeds. Janet acknowledges they had some invasive Japanese stilt grass among their turf, but they could sense that the HOA’s violation notice was not about their grass but about their plants.
She wrote a response to the HOA explaining that that yard is an ecologically friendly habitat and that’s why they have had it for all those years. “We don’t use pesticides or fertilizers,” she told the HOA. “Anyone else in the neighborhood gardens as they choose to, and this is how we’re choosing to garden.”
The cease and desist letter came a month and a half later, the Saturday before Thanksgiving 2017. The neighbor’s complaints had continued, and he began sending them from his .gov work email account, which caught the HOA’s attention.
Janet says the cease and desist letter was unprofessional and inaccurate — shockingly so.
“There are very few law firms that represent homeowners in these situations because they’re very difficult to deal with,” Janet says. “HOAs, again, have so much power, and you typically have to spend a lot of money to be able to defend yourself against them. But there’s an amazing law firm in Crofton, Maryland. They got back to me right away. I went in and met with them the Tuesday before Thanksgiving while they were shutting down their office.”
The law firm told the HOA that the Crouches’ yard was not in violation of the rules — and they heard nothing back for six months. In the meantime, folks would stop and take photos of their yard, and Janet and Jeff lived with the uncertainty of not knowing what the HOA would try next, like coming onto their property suddenly and removing their plants.
When the letter finally came, it stated that the HOA had been waiting for “peak growth” to judge the yard and had decided that it is unacceptable and the Crouches must change their garden to turf grass.
The First Hearing
They eventually got a hearing though Janet says it was like a kangaroo court presided over by the HOA attorney. When she and her husband separately tried talking to a board member before the proceeding began, he yelled at them to shut up.
Janet read a prepared statement, and Nancy talked about the benefits of native plants to the environment and wildlife until the attorney interrupted her and yelled at her to be quiet.
“The whole thing from beginning to end was a joke,” Janet says.
The results of the hearing, unsurprisingly, were not in their favor, she says, and an HOA letter that revealed the results and supposedly recounted the hearing did not actually reflect the reality of what was said or what occurred.
The Crouches sought a settlement that would address the HOA’s concerns while still allowing them to keep their yard, but the HOA was not interested.
“I was determined, and you have to be really, really persistent. But there’s no guidebook as to how to deal with these things,” Janet says. “Each HOA is different, each board is different. Each set of documents is different that you’re trying to work with.”
She reached out for help on social media and also contacted a number of organizations, including the Audubon Society, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation — anyone she could think of.
“Occasionally someone would call back and they would want to hear the story, but they would say they were unable to provide any assistance,” she says. “I understand that. It’s not in their repertoire.”
Then someone recommended she reach out to her state legislators to see whether they might have any interest in getting involved. They were also handing out fliers in the neighborhood, letting their neighbors know the situation and how much the HOA was spending on it.
They started going to environmental events, including the inauguration of Bee City in Howard County, Maryland.
Reaching a Settlement
Janet remains confident that their garden never violated the HOA’s rules.
“What makes it difficult is when they sort of extrapolate from what’s written on the page and change it to whatever they are trying to come after you for, which is kind of what they did in our situation,” she says. “We still don’t think we violated anything in the architectural guidelines, and I think ultimately that’s probably why they settled with us.”
The Crouches filed their lawsuit in the summer of 2019 after two years of not being able to come to a resolution.
They heard from their state legislator Terry Hill, who asked if they wanted to lend a hand with her proposed legislation to protect homeowners in this kind of situation.
That was a quick “yes.”
The law, modeled on similar laws in other states, was passed on October 1, 2021. HOAs can no longer require homeowners in Maryland to have turf grass. “They have to allow them to have environmentally friendly landscaping, which includes pollinator gardens, rain gardens — a variety of different things outlined in the law,” Janet says.
It probably would have been adopted sooner had COVID not put the issue on the back burner.
During the time that the legislation was originally introduced back in 2019, the HOA had countersued Janet and Jeff. During the discovery process of the litigation, they learned some surprising things, including that it was just the one neighbor filing complaints with the HOA — after they were told there were several people complaining.
Janet, Jeff, Nancy and others were interrogated about Janet and Jeff’s garden during depositions. There were accusations made that the yard attracted vermin.
“If anything, our yard is more ecologically balanced than any yard in the community, and we go back to woods, so everybody has deer wandering through,” Janet says.
Finally, just as the court date of January 2021 was near, Janet and Jeff and the HOA reached a settlement. They agreed to remove native plantings for a 6-foot setback from the sidewalk and put in sedge grass. The settlement also included a 3-foot grass buffer from the neighbor’s property, but when they measured, they found they already had an adequate side yard buffer.
Hopes for Progress Elsewhere
Janet says she hopes this type of legislation spreads across the country because there are too many people being harmed when they’re just trying to do the right thing to help the environment and have a safe space for kids to play that’s not full of pesticides and chemicals.
I hope there comes a time sooner than later when we get off this notion that we must have turf grass as the dominant thing in our yards and subdivisions so that everything can look like a carpet from house to house to house. It has to change. At the rate that we are losing habitat to urban sprawl and environmental destruction, it’s now or never — and I don’t know why people don’t get that.
Why is it that a lawn is more important than putting back habitat to protect what is becoming extinct? One of the only things that homeowners can do is take action on their own property. When they’re precluded from doing so because they must have lawn instead of milkweed, the rules are antiquated.
“It’s a heartbreaking thing that we’re having this conversation — that we have to somehow fight to be able to protect the earth, protect the children, protect all of us and all of the wildlife, the insects,” Janet says. “Because we’re all dependent on each other, we’re interdependent, and we’re killing everything.
If nothing is done, there will be ecological collapse, she points out. “There’s so much turf grass, there’s so much opportunity, but somehow the turf grass lawn has become the status symbol, and having the outside vacuumed and looking like it’s the carpet inside has become the norm — and it must change.”
What Residents of HOA-Run Neighborhoods Should Know
Since every HOA is different, homeowners can’t rely on one set of rules. They should review their HOA’s guidelines and see what is acceptable in terms of plant choice and garden layout.
Work within those guidelines to get approval for native plantings to change the tone of the neighborhood, Janet advises. Then, when others show interest, educate them about what you do and how they can do the same.
“Sometimes that works,” she says. “Some people are open, some people are not. But I think that’s a first step.”
One of the first things they tried after receiving violation notices was to post a “bird-friendly yard” sign only to get into more trouble with the HOA.
“Other people have pesticide signs, security signs, whatever. But when we did that, we got a notification from the board that we were in violation,” she says. “We hadn’t requested approval and we had to take the signs down.”
Janet says while many adults are set in their ways she is hopeful that young people will be open to learning about the benefits of native gardening.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Janste Crouch on native gardening and HOAs, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you experienced challenges gardening under HOA rules? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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