Friday, March 20, 2015

The Thorny Path of the Non-compliant Xeriscapist (updated with Epilogue)

The Thorny Path of the Non-compliant Xeriscapist
(in San Antonio, Texas)

It’s been almost 25 years of xeriscapery, though passive at first…lazily letting whatever would grow flourish. I had finally stopped paying rent and moved into my own little house with plenty of yard space in front and back.  I took pictures of the lush growth in my enclosed back yard. My green reverie was soon desiccated -- I received a citation from the city! My verdant grasses and tall plants were in violation of the city code. If I didn’t comply within a certain time limit there would be a hefty fine to pay. 

(Those green sprigs in the picture are Pigweed and are no longer part of my garden. See Epilogue.)

For several years I would wait for the notice and then retreat over the city code line that my natural vegetation had again criminally crossed and trim the luscious growths back to a code-acceptable height and width.
It seemed that someone in my neighborhood didn’t like my yard style and would regularly make complaints. I don’t think there is enough staff to patrol all our streets in search of weedophiles (it would be runcophile if I used the Latin word or hierbaphile if I used the Spanish) – there had to be some self-appointed monitors who would call in the official weed-killers.

About ten years ago I decided to become an active xeriscapist. I researched catalogues and other online sources and found Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, Texas -- exactly what I was searching for: offering seed mixes for this region and also for special purposes, e.g., attracting butterflies.

I bought seeds by the pound and randomly strewed them in my front yard. I was getting mixed results but every year I would have more beautiful flowers that were natural to the region and needed very little care and watering. I am not a dedicated gardener – my hobbies lie elsewhere.

I continued getting periodic visits from our code compliance friends from the Development Services Department – Field Services Division – Code Enforcement Section of our venerable City of San Antonio.

One winter friends helped clear my front yard, turn the soil and plant about $200.00 of Texas native wildflowers. I had included a variety of sunflowers that grew to be huge golden borders. I was very new to all this so I had many smaller flowering plants that were hidden by the large sunflower plants. After that I increased the varieties of seeds and was more organized where I scattered them. I made sure to cover with a bit of topsoil so that the birds wouldn’t have a feast at my expense.  I no longer planted the big sunflowers with the edible seeds: birds, bugs and ants just love them and I won’t use pesticides. The wild sunflowers, quite common to this region do quite well on our roadsides, empty lots and my front yard.
And still I would get the code-enforcer visits. One year I was actually at home (I usually got the message from a form tacked to my front door). I tried dialoguing with the lady about my garden which was in full bloom that early summer day. She was adamant that I had to chop every green thing down to a height of one foot regardless of what the plant was because everything in my front yard was considered a weed or noxious plant.
I contacted my city council office and talked to some young intern who seemed perplexed by my situation. I emailed pictures of my yard and a kind civil note, which took some effort because diplomacy is not my strong suit. A week later I got a note from a supervisor from the city department that has taken such an interest in my yard. He had driven by and saw the flowers and told me to chop them down when the yard was finally dry and flowerless.

The last two years had been uneventful until I got a Notice of Violation tacked to my door on June 25, 2014.

This year (2014) I planted my seeds very late and so everything didn’t start coming up until late April.
It wasn’t until late May and early June that I had a decent variety of flowers but no Bluebonnets and few Indian Blankets. Right now, aided by some rainy days, there’s a color riot dominated by the Zinnias and wild sunflowers (not the edible kind). A thick growth of a plant with a tiny yellow flower (a weed I didn’t plant) covered some sections of the yard and actually choked out some of my seeds. I assumed that was the noxious plant referred to. I had put fertilizer in the soil because I was planting so late and so I have a lush growth, mostly of plants I like and want. What I didn’t do was trim the ‘weeds’ (plants I didn’t want) because I didn’t want to cut the flowers that are now blooming profusely.  
Several years ago I started encouraging plants that die in the winter but become nice bushes in the spring and that had just appeared in my yard with no formal invitation or planting.

One is a reed-like plant that spreads easily and blooms with pleasant (to me) wheat-like spikes. Another is a dark green leafy plant with daily purple blossoms that die in the evening. The reed-like plant, located at the intersection of the public sidewalk and the one leading to my front door, this year is huge! I love it but I think it is one of the main code-criminals. We trimmed it and left a few tall spikes. (Noxious weed, now totally uprooted - See Epilogue)
So -- We went out there and trimmed more of the edges (from 1 foot wide to 2). We lawn-mowered through some of the thicker sections of the unwanted plants but there were too many floral casualties with that approach.  Because the soil was moist from a recent shower I was able to pull out almost each unwanted plant (weed to the City of San Antonio). 
I hope I've made my horticultural design intentions clear: the plants that remain are “… cultivated flowers and gardens, or native grasses, perennials and annual plants installed as part of a landscaping design.” 
Maybe I should give the whole subsection as given in the San Antonio Property Maintenance Code – Notice of Violation – In Person/Posted.
302.4 Weeds All improved premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weed or plant growth in excess of 12 inches in height. All noxious weeds shall be prohibited. Weeds shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants and vegetation, other than trees and shrubs provided; however this term shall not include cultivated flowers and gardens, or native grasses, perennials and annual plants installed as part of a landscaping design.
I’m old enough to remember my youthful appreciation of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign for the bountiful natural variety of things that grow natively to Texas.  I fully induct myself in that horticultural order, culture and practice.
Maybe I have neighbors with time to spare and go around as amateur code-enforcement cops. I assume their concern is ‘property value’ and what is deemed proper for a middle-class neighborhood. They seem to prefer the ugly, un-ecological water-gorging regularly-trimmed lawns -- they need to see an order and design that fits within very narrow perimeters.  Some of my neighbors were stopped from erecting some really elegant iron fences. We are now a historical area and the codes are even stricter. (Forget that many ugly cyclone fences were left in place and grandfathered when the new codes were established.)
The only thorns along my xeriscape floral path are the San Antonio Property Maintenance Codes! But in the Lady Bird Johnson tradition I will (Candide-ly) continue to let my Texas wildflowers grow.

Last summer (July/2014) an Assistant City Arborist (Development Services Department - Land Development | ISA Certified Arborist) visited my front yard and engaged in the most diplomatic and instructive visit I have ever had from a city agent. I’ve had numerous visits from the code compliance offices, none of which were helpful much less understanding of my garden goals and wishes. This young man, Justin R. Krobot, was able to explain to me clearly why some plants are labeled noxious. These are the real-life versions of the “Little Shop of Horrors” people-eating plant. They spread their roots endlessly and don’t let anything else grow. So my Johnson grass and Pigweed had to go because they were a threat not only to my garden but to all the neighboring turf. I no longer saw them as ‘cute green plants’ but as a dangerous to the life of all my other wildflowers blooming in unrestrained profusion.  I will continue to keep good counsel on that.

He advised me to be a little more orderly in how I seeded the yard and have some visible sense of pattern and human-imposed order so that my neighbors and the self-appointed code-compliance-cops wouldn’t be so bothered. That’s a very different issue and I’m still going to have my garden be much more random than a Formal English Garden.  As I continue the quest of dreaming the impossible natural floral garden, I’ll encourage my crazy zinnias to snub their multicolored noses at the yards and yards of un-ecological, non-native burr-cut, water-gorging lawns that surround us.

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