Navigating Local Regulations in a Garden

Use diplomacy to become an ecological trailblazer for your community.

aerial view of a housing development in the UK

Justin Paget / Getty Images

Speaking to my friends and clients around the world, I have found that quite a few gardeners are stymied by local regulations in their efforts to garden in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way. Homeowners' associations (HOAs) and authorities often impose stringent rules about what gardeners can and cannot do on their own properties. 

Some local regulations can be beneficial, such as those prohibiting the use of certain problematic invasive plants, for example, and those which safeguard local wildlife. But unfortunately, there are also outdated or shortsighted regulations which can be a detriment to local communities and the environment.

Many of the most common regulations I have encountered involve lawns—stipulations about where neat lawns must be maintained and how often they must be mowed. As a Treehugger reader who wants to do the right thing, navigating local regulations of these kinds can sometimes feel like a challenge. 

Neat Lawns Versus Native, Naturalistic Planting

Local regulations in certain areas strive to preserve neat lawns. But neatly mowed lawns are ecological deserts, which require high water use and often toxic chemicals to maintain. In the desire to maintain neighborhoods which look neat and orderly, regulations can unfortunately be a detriment to the very communities that they are meant to protect.

There is a misconception that native, naturalistic, wildlife-friendly planting always looks messy and untidy. But creating more diverse planting schemes to replace neat grass lawns can bring a huge range of benefits to a community. The best solutions will depend on where you live. 

Education Is Important

If, as an ecologically conscientious gardener, you find yourself coming into conflict with neighbors, HOAs, or authorities over the way in which you wish to plant or manage your garden, it may just be a simple case of educating others about what you wish to do.

It is perfectly natural for people to fear the unfamiliar. But when we educate others about sustainable and eco-friendly gardening, this can become far more familiar. In fact, it can become the new norm.

Many of us feel reluctant at times to be trendsetters. We may fear being viewed as different and for sticking our heads above the parapet, so to speak. But change begins when good people step up. 

Reaching out to those with different views to our own can sometimes feel like a major challenge. But by remaining open about what we are doing or wish to do, we can educate others about the benefits of an eco-friendly approach in a garden. 

The first step is to make sure we are aware of the rules and local regulations where we live. Where those regulations are out of step with the permaculture ethics of "planet care, people care, and fair share," we can explain to others why this is the case—and make our case for the alternative. 

Keep the Conversation Going

When we encounter any situation in life where we are not happy with the rules, it is common to have the sense that someone else will come up with a solution. But sometimes it is important to recognize the power of our own voices. It is important to recognize that we have more power to make a difference than we may at first imagine.

First of all, it is important to avoid having an "us and them," "right and wrong" mentality. We cannot change anything for the better unless we step up and keep talking.

Starting a friendly dialogue with neighbors and those in positions of authority can often yield positive results. People may simply not have looked at things from your perspective. People and authorities are more amenable to change than you may have imagined.

Even where there is disagreement, polite discourse can yield compromises which work for everyone in the long term. The key is to explain clearly and pleasantly how what you wish to do in your garden will not only benefit you, but will also provide many benefits to the whole neighborhood. 

If you step up to garden in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way, standing for elections, lobbying to change the rules, or asking for an exemption, other gardeners may see the benefits of what you have done and follow suit.

So, don't use local regulations as an excuse to continue in harmful practices. Feel empowered to fight for the changes you wish to make and to become an ecological trailblazer for your community.