Our Campaign for Natural Landscaping

Through education and patience, a couple contests the legitimacy of lawn laws, and advocates for their property to serve as a lush wildlife haven.

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by Blythe Pelham
The author fought to grow patches of plants, such as chicory, that some think of as weeds.

Several years ago, my husband and I decided to reduce the amount of lawn we were mowing. Our children had grown up and moved out, and we no longer needed a large area for playing catch or otherwise spending pent-up energy.

Our first decision was to mow pathways through the lawn, letting large patches grow meadow-like. Unfortunately, as much as we enjoyed the look, feel, and sound of this, we found that it was illegal. At the time, the Ohio Revised Code stated that our “lawn” could be no taller than 12 inches.

I tried laying it down flat, but I was told it was technically still too long and needed to be mowed. My heart broke as we had a friend mow it for us, laying waste to what had become a haven for bunnies and fireflies.

My new mission became learning all I could about the laws pertaining to private property gardens. We decided to intentionally create a more wildlife-friendly garden and produce more food for ourselves while staying within the law’s limits.

Slowly but surely, we’ve transformed those grass gardens into beds that host a growing diversity of plants — many of them native varieties. One of the biggest aids to this transformation was free mulch delivered through our arborists. The downside is that these arborist chips can contain black walnut, which is toxic to some plants. But a definite benefit is that we have a never-ending supply of chips to do with what we choose.

This transition didn’t happen overnight, and we experienced roadblocks along the way. After I studied the “noxious weeds” list and rid our property of all that applied, our village still attempted to “clean up” our property with subsequent letters and meetings. It was anything but cordial or comfortable in the beginning, replete with raised voices and threats on both sides.

a green and black caterpillar sitting on a green twig

a yard with a garden and a fire pit surrounded by stones with a fence…

With much education and patience, we muddled forward. One of the lingering issues was our insistence that we be allowed to let the chicory remain on our bank. For many of our local politicians (most of whom are farmers or from farming families), this was a weed. To us, the chicory was lovely and useful, and it provided seeds and habitat to birds and insects.

The final ruling legally determined that chicory is not a noxious weed, and our property was otherwise in compliance. Our garden may buck the norm for Ohio, since it isn’t a large expanse of manicured lawn, but we can’t be penalized for what others deem “ugly.” I still make many choices that my fellow villagers would simply mow over out of habit. I’m able to replace the non-native privet hedge with native elderberries that I’ll turn into mead or let go for the birds. I’m free to create beds for wildflowers and native perennials, just as I’ve created more space for fruits and vegetables. I also preserve much of what I grow through drying, freezing, and canning. At any given time, I have my own dried herbs and peppers for seasoning, dry beans and corn on hand, veggies in the freezer, and jars of tomatoes and applesauce for use in my next kitchen creation.

This way of gardening brings me a great sense of satisfaction, as does the ability to provide for my family, friends, and the local food pantry during the height of the season. It also offers an enjoyable creative release while I decide whether I’ll turn our newly reclaimed spot of lawn into a home for edibles, a haven for wildlife, or a sculpture garden — or maybe all three at once!

Since receiving our first letter, I’ve attended nearly every village council meeting. I’ve wanted to keep abreast of the various tasks they handle, as well as get a heads-up on any problems with our property. I’ve found the process fascinating, educational, and rarely boring. I’ve watched mayors and council members come and go. I’ve grown to respect the process and the hardworking employees along with the elected officials.

Since I was attending the meetings anyway, I decided to run for our council last fall. Three of us ran for two seats. Being the odd woman out, I didn’t make it onto the council. However, one of the formerly seated members resigned at the end of the year, and the council appointed me to fill his seat.

To date, two council members and one mayor have come onto our property. Once here, they seem to understand what we’re doing. Others still complain, but now those complaints are received by a mayor who can explain our vision in words they more readily accept since she’s a longstanding member of the community.

As happens with all council members, I was appointed to a few committees. I was even named chair of one of them: Public Grounds and Streetlights. One of its duties is the beautification of the village. More than a few people have pointed out the irony of this appointment — from fighting the city for my right to keep our garden lush and full of life, to having a solid say in how the village grows going forward. I’ll take that irony. Here’s hoping that more natural landscapers find their way onto the bodies that make rules. Perhaps our voices can be amplified evermore.


Blythe Pelham is an artist, writer, energy worker, and gardener who lives in Leesburg, Ohio. Find her online here.

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