Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Letting plants grow a little wild in their parking strip or potager can attract pollinators.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Letting plants grow a little wild in their parking strip or potager can attract pollinators.

How wild is too wild?

Dennis Moriarty, an 80-year-old veteran in Kansas City, was sick of mowing his 60-degree sloping front lawn. Traditional lawns require massive quantities of water, fertilizer, weed killers, which poison the groundwater, and gas for power mowers, which pollute the air.

Moriarty came up with a solution that would be easier on him and the environment while inviting and feeding a chorus of birds, butterflies, bees and other beneficial pollinators.  

According to NPR station KCUR, at the start of the pandemic in April 2020, Moriarty covered his 1,500-square-foot terraced lawn with plastic to solarize and kill the grass — and planted wildflower seeds, including 10 species of native plants, https://www.kcur.org/news/2021-09-11/kansas-city-mans-plea-for-native-flower-justice-unites-gardeners-around-the-world.

Moriarty received a warning that he was violating a city code banning the overgrowth of “rank weeds and noxious plants.” Moriarty was told, if he didn’t cut them down, he could face a court date or up to a $500 fine. The code, written in a way that really makes no sense to anyone who has grown plants, cites that no “unattended” vegetation may grow higher than 10 inches. Trees seem to be exempt from “weed” status, which will shock anyone who’s met an Ailanthus growing through their concrete. Basically anything “attended” is all right, but whose definition of tending are we using — Marie Antoinette’s, Mother Nature’s or somewhere in between?

“If everyone did this, you know how many bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to this?” Moriarty stated. “Their (city) code isn’t realistic in the first place.”

Thousands retweeted Moriarty’s Twitter post, spurring a supportive editorial in the Kansas City Star and a phone call from the mayor.  

While the issue was not yet resolved, it seems like it was mainly an issue of tidiness — the Department of Neighborhoods has an unwritten policy of looking the other way on native plants if it doesn’t appear too overgrown, the Kansas City Beacon reports, https://thebeacon.media/stories/2021/09/13/wildflowers-or-weeds/.

Kansas City code excepted, a weed is generally defined as an unwanted plant — leaving it largely a matter of perspective. For instance, the leaves of dandelions — the sworn scourge of lawn growers — are nutritional powerhouses in a salad, and the flowers brew a sweet wine.

Home gardeners like Moriarty have the right idea of supporting pollinators and the environment through more sustainable planting, but the practice has yet to be fully mainstreamed, causing the occasional Mrs. Kravitz — remember “Bewitched?” — to drop a dime on their neighbor for a “weedy yard.”

In contrast to Kansas, the Iowa State Extension is promoting converting lands to restore some of the 30 million acres that were once prairie. It is encouraging farmers to include prairie strips and homeowners to plant their own prairies, https://naturalresources.extension.iastate.edu/encyclopedia/prairie-restoration-habitat-headquarters.

According to the University of New Hampshire’s extension office, https://extension.unh.edu/resource/wildflower-meadows-plant-selection-and-establishment, “adding even a small area of native wildflowers and meadow grasses to your property provides habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife, serves as an infiltration area for storm water, and prevents soil erosion, making them valuable components of sustainable landscapes. Once properly planted and maintained over a season or two, they require almost no inputs of water, fertilizer or energy.”

At home, I’ve kept meaning to make nice edges for my parking strip — and a few other beds, for that matter. For better or worse, however, putting in cool new plants has always taken priority over neatness. Most of my plants are over 10 inches high, and how much I “tend” them is up for debate. My goal is the less tending the better.

In case you’re wondering, the Seattle code is mainly concerned with keeping the sidewalks, streets and driving views clear. Nuisances consist of either fire, health or safety hazards, https://library.municode.com/wa/seattle/codes/municipal_code?nodeId=TIT10HESA_CH10.52WEVE_10.52.020NUDE.

You’re required to maintain 8 feet clearance over the sidewalks and 14 feet over streets, but there is no language about tending.  

Seattle is pretty pollinator-positive. It was at the forefront of “pollinator pathways” in 2008, when an artist created a now mile-long stretch of parking strips planted with natives in the Central District. Since then, the city created the “Green Line” along 14 miles of lighting corridor in Upper Rainier Beach and “Flight Path” programs promoting wild bees at Sea-Tac Airport and Boeing Field.

In 2015, Seattle became a “Bee City” with the Xerces Society and others, promising to create or enhance pollinator habitat each year and incorporate pollinator-conscious policy. 

King County has also penned a brochure about creating your own native plant pollinator paradise: https://your.kingcounty.gov/dnrp/library/water-and-land/yard-and-garden/native-plant-guide-western-washington.pdf.

Are you ready to go a little wild? Here are some suggestions that may help bring non-gardeners along with the idea:

 

Contain the chaos

Go ahead: Let your hyssop weave through your bee balm. Whether in a parking strip or a potager, people are more accepting of a little chaos within defined edges. The interior of your mini-meadow can be untamed and frizzy if you put an edge around it. This can be man made, such as a border of stones, a brick or concrete mowing strip (if you still have some lawn) or edging fence panels.

Your edge can, British garden-style, use an edge of neat, if non-native, shrubs like boxwood (Buxus) or sweetbox (Sarcococca) or evergreen perennials that rein in the wild. Lower-growing perennials include sea thrift (Armeria), carnations (Dianthus), heuchera, thyme or ajuga.

Mulch with natural bark chips, soil conditioner or compost, which gives a finished, “gardened” appearance while feeding the soil.

Keep in mind, the thicker you apply bark chips, the less likely seedlings — of either “weeds” or wildflowers — will multiply.

 

Announce your intentions

Understanding can be the first step in forging happy community relations. Installing a sign announcing “Bee Garden” or “Pollinators Welcome Here” will let people see the method to your madness. You can also have your yard certified as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation for $25, and they will send you a sign to mount.

 

Do some research 

Take care not to include invasive plants in your wildflower bed, for which neither your neighbors nor plants will thank you.

Check wildflower mix labels for full botanical names, looking ideally for plants native to the Pacific Northwest. Be aware that grass species can often overtake the flowers quickly. Also, investigate how much seed is in the mix versus fillers like vermiculite.

Cross-check names with the state’s noxious weed list, https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/identify-a-noxious-weed.  Some native perennials the Xerces Society recommends for the Pacific Northwest include Manzanita (Arctostaphylos), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii — not vulgaris, which is a class C noxious weed), Clarkia, (strawberry) Fragaria, sneezeweed (Helenium), buckthorn (Rhamnus), and Checkerbloom (Sidalcea).

So, let’s keep those wildflowers and native plants under 8 feet tall and off the sidewalk, OK?

I’m so glad to live in Seattle.