Native gardening is quickly moving from niche to the mainstream, and unfortunately but perhaps expectedly, homeowners associations are the last to catch on. My guest this week, Melinda Soltys, shares what she experienced tussling with her neighborhood’s HOA over her pollinator garden.
Melinda and her family live in Northern Virginia, where she is active in the NoVA chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices “to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” Melinda adopted these practices in her own yard to save butterflies and other pollinators, and to create a healthier environment for her children. This ran afoul of her HOA and has made her a target of uneven enforcement practices — including receiving violation notices for doing things that aren’t even against the HOA’s own rules.
I first heard Melinda’s story on “Native Plants, Healthy Planet,” a really enjoyable podcast by Fran Chismar and Tom Knezick of Pinelands Nursery in Columbus, New Jersey. I wanted to have her on to continue the conversation about HOAs and native gardening that happened recently on “The joe gardener Show” podcast. If you missed my recent conversation with Janet Crouch, who spent $60,000 combatting her HOA and eventually helped pass legislation to protect native gardens in Maryland, you’ll want to take a listen. Janet and Melinda have fought the same fight, though in different ways.
If you are a gardener who lives in a neighborhood that belongs to an HOA or condo association, Melinda wants to know about your personal experiences. You can take her survey, “HOAs and Native Plants, Pollinator Gardens and Environmentally friendly landscaping.” By sharing your experiences, whether they be negative or positive, you can help Melinda and like-minded gardeners work toward understandings with HOAs to protect and encourage native gardens.
How Melinda’s Garden Got Its Start
Melinda and her family moved from one HOA neighborhood to her current HOA neighborhood about 10 years ago, when her kids were 1 and 3 years old. She had friends in the new neighborhood who told her that her gardening would not be a big deal, and even had a cousin in the neighborhood who was a big gardener and never asked for approval for anything she did and never had an issue.
These assurances allayed her fears that she would run into resistance from the HOA. She also points out the neighborhood is surrounded by a riparian buffer on three sides that is part of a county park system, with hiking trails and a famous nature preserve. She says it almost seems like a little slice of your own paradise in suburbia.
After a couple of years of research on how her family could be more ecologically friendly and refrain from putting chemicals into the environment, her garden really got going. It was also when the campaign to save the monarch butterfly really got going. She notes that where she lives she doesn’t have full sun — and 10 years ago, no one was talking about shade gardens.
A fellow gardener had told her once that the only thing that can be grown under trees is Begonias, and she wishes she had the knowledge back then to tell that gardener that is not true at all.
With lots of shade and a desire for a pollinator garden, Melinda planted flowers by her mailbox — the one place she has that gets sun. She registered her garden with Monarch Watch and the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program.
She went from bare grass to baby plants going in, to mature butterfly weed, and she has photos of the progression through the monarch butterflies coming in to lay eggs on the butterfly weed, a type of milkweed (Asclepias genus) which is the only type of plant that monarch caterpillars will consume. “It was kind of addictive once you start doing that,” she says.
Life in suburbia was pretty good at that point.
“We had people stopping by to tell us, ‘Hey, I love your garden.’ And I had specifically planted to make sure that everything was blooming at certain times of the year or at every time that I could possibly have it blooming,” she says. “And I had people commenting on that to me: ‘I always love stopping by and seeing what’s blooming now.’”
She added signs about being a monarch waystation and signs from the National Wildlife Federation and Xerces Society. She received comments from neighbors who told her that they didn’t really get what she was doing, but now that they see the signs, they know.
Signage goes a long way. Frankly, sometimes native plants get a little gangly, and signs help with acceptance and understanding. Refraining from “tidying up” is part of the process of gardening for wildlife.
“I really love the idea of leaving the stalks and leaving the seedheads,” Melinda says.” I think that if I can’t do that, then I’m missing out on probably 50% of the wildlife benefits. Not to mention the fact that now the seeds are out there and kind of doing my work for me.”
Still, she learned there is some “editing” that’s needed, where she goes in and moves plants or takes out plants that are not quite working.
Meanwhile, in the rest of her yard, shaded by giant trees, the grass just didn’t want to grow. The first six years living there, she tried overseeding with shade grass seeds, but after the seedlings came up, there would be a heavy rain and 2 inches of standing water — her yard has no drainage — drowned the new grass.
“Eventually, I gave up,” she says. “Right about that same time, we had a leak somewhere in our water line, and the water company had to come in and they basically dug up all of the yard from the sidewalk all the way to our house — just destroyed a lot of stuff.”
She decided to make lemonade out of lemons. Rather than trying to put grass back in, she put in even more pollinator plants by her front sidewalk. In addition to her existing butterfly weed, she planted purple milkweed, whorled milkweed and other monarch host plants and pollinator garden plants. She also added a shade bed under maple trees — a challenging dry shade area.
“Then along comes COVID,” she recalled. “The kids are home, everybody else is home. So a lot more folks are out there walking.”
Catching the Eye of the HOA
Some of her black-eyed Susans got a little gangly, and she allowed an unidentified volunteer plant to grow that turned out to be a 6-foot-tall boneset. “The bees were just having a field day, but then it flopped over into the street,” Melinda recalls. “I should have just taken it out then. It was obviously drawing a lot of attention, but I was like, ‘Let me let it finish flowering.’”
That is when she received her first letter from the HOA, which stated that she needed to apply for approval of all new landscaping. She says she knew she had been living on borrowed time, so she went ahead and put in an application.
She spent a lot of time writing out many pages explaining the reasons behind her garden and mentioning the work of entomologist and friend of the podcast Doug Tallamy.
“That was a mistake,” Melinda says of her lengthy application. “It was too much information. And I’m on that board now that does those approvals, and it’s just too much. Really, it needed to be more succinct.”
She couldn’t present her case in person because of COVID, and her application was rejected. She was told that everything she planted, 100%, needed to come out and be replaced by turf grass. It didn’t matter to the board, which included no gardeners, that grass would not grow under the heavy canopy of the trees.
Melinda was really upset but expected she could appeal to a separate board and be given permission to keep at least a portion of her garden. Coincidentally, at the same time, a member of that board reached out to her and asked her to give a presentation about invasive species and saving trees.
The board member invited her to speak about not only saving mature trees but also about the benefits of native plants. In another coincidence, her appeal would be heard the same night that she presented for 45 minutes on native plants to an enraptured board.
Despite the board’s great questions and high interest in her presentation, a week and a half later she got a letter from the board upholding the decision that had ordered her to install turf grass. There was no rule against native plants, but the board said that landscaping changes require prior approval and that landscaping must be harmonious with the neighbors.
She put in another application and agreed to make changes, including taking out black-eyed Susans and tall plants. Though the board seemed in person like they would be accommodating, when she got a letter in the mail later, she was only permitted to keep a 2-foot area around her mailbox.
The letter stated that no one had a garden like Melinda’s in the entire neighborhood, which she says was patently untrue. She proceeded to drive around her neighborhood and take 200 photos of her neighbors’ yards.
She appealed that decision and was allotted 15 minutes to speak — even though one board member told her the board was never, ever going to allow her to have what she wanted.
Melinda received permission for 4-foot beds on either side of her mailbox and was promised a future conversation with the HOA’s architectural review board about the area that the water company had dug up. The letter that followed came from the HOA’s management company, not from the board, and it had a different tone and did not acknowledge what was agreed to in the meeting. It told her everything must come out except the small area by her mailbox.
Removing Most of Her Native Garden
Months later, a letter from a lawyer followed. She decided to take out the garden and give away her plants. She was in tears digging up her plants, but she did have good conversations with folks from the Virginia Native Plant Society who came to adopt her plants.
The morning of her deadline to remove the plants, a woman from the HOA drove up at 8 a.m. Melinda ran out to tell her that she would be buying grass seed after dropping her son at school. She did everything she could to show she complied, including running sprinklers for weeks to help the grass grow.
But after complying, she was still a target. She received other complaint letters for things that her neighbors were doing but only she got notices about, such as having an inflatable pool for her kids during COVID.
Making a Run for It
Melinda ran for the HOA board herself and also offered to start a landscaping committee to identify alternatives to annuals. The HOA did not take her up on her offer to get involved, and she lost her first board of trustees election. She then sought to join the architectural review board, which was an easier feat. Right before she was to be voted in, she received a letter ordering her to remove her Monarch Watch signs, flower pots and kids’ toys from her front yard.
Melinda agreed to take out her signs as a gesture of goodwill but she pointed out that she is allowed to have at least one sign under the HOA rules and that there are no rules prohibiting flower pots and kids’ toys.
At the architectural review board meeting where she expected to be voted in, she learned she would not, in fact, be given a seat on the board. She wanted an explanation, and that’s when someone from the management company, clearly very angry with her, stormed out of an office and told her off.
However, the end of that story is Melinda eventually did get a seat on the architectural review board and is joined by another Master Gardener.
Taking a Stand
It never made any sense to Melinda why anyone would be against a pollinator garden and accompanying signs explaining why a garden looks a little different than everybody else’s. But soon she received a letter from the management company stating they couldn’t believe anyone would encourage wildlife in their front yard.
It’s admirable that Melinda continued to stand up for herself in a diplomatic manner and compromising tone in the face of intimidation and so many obstacles. She did not allow the HOA to wear her down.
Other neighbors have come to her asking how they can do a pollinator garden themselves but not get in trouble as she did. It is easier for some neighbors who have sun in areas other than by their sidewalks, and she advises simply applying for new landscaping without mentioning “pollinator garden.” The HOA powers-that-be may give their stamp of approval readily, especially if a professional landscape designer drew up the plan.
Every situation will be different when trying to work with an HOA. Each has its own rules, and some rulebooks are more enforceable than others. Some states protect gardener’s rights (Maryland, California, Texas, Colorado and Florida, for example), and others don’t.
Melinda recently partnered with Nature Forward (formerly the Audubon Naturalist Society) toward a campaign to help gardeners automatically send letters to their legislators to ask for a change.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Melinda Soltys on her native garden versus her HOA, 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.
Has an HOA given you trouble over your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“Native Plants, Healthy Planet” podcast
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