PRESS EDITORIAL: Communities need diversity—the garden variety

A vignette in the Village of Fredonia on June 17 showed exactly why local elected government is the foundation of the American democracy.

Two citizens—husband and wife homeowners—came to the Village Hall to respond to an an allegation that they were violating a village ordinance.

Village Board members listened attentively to the couple’s articulate presentation, carefully reviewed photographic evidence, made comments indicating they clearly understood the issue at hand and voted unanimously to allow the petitioners to have a garden behind their home rather than a groomed lawn.

Representative government doesn’t get any more basic that.

The subject of this exercise in democracy may seem trivial, but it certainly wasn’t for Dan and Lisa Halloran, who had to defend the natural garden into which they had invested a great amount of planning and work and the expense of landscape design, or for the village trustees, who were duty-bound to consider a complaint of an ordinance violation.

Like many municipalities, Fredonia has an ordinance requiring the yards of homes to be covered by well maintained lawns. The purpose of the law is to prevent unkempt, overgrown lawns that irritate neighbors and detract from the neat, orderly appearance many associate with well-managed communities.

The unfortunate side effect of such attempts to mandate uniform neatness is that they stand in the way of the natural beauty and benefit to the environment of gardens like the one in the Hallorans’ backyard.

The fact that a neighbor complained to village authorities about that garden and its rich and flourishing abundance of native plants is a classic reflection of the American obsession with mowed grass. Apart from the satisfaction it gives to those who admire the green-carpet appearance of lawns, that obsession has little positive value to offer.

Lawns require about a third of all of the water available to the public in the U.S.—3 trillion gallons per year—according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They are treated with thousands of tons of pesticides and fertilizers that can be carried by rainwater into streams and lakes, causing pollution that is harmful to the creatures that inhabit the ecosystem, including in some cases human beings.

Grass cutting consumes an estimated 200 million gallons of gasoline each year, producing air pollution that speeds global warming and noise pollution that disturbs the peace of the outdoors with that bane of summer living—the racket of lawn mowers.

This is not to say lawns don’t have their place in community living. They are comforting and aesthetically pleasing symbols of the pride of home ownership, and surely preferable to pavement and weed patches.

But while lawns are a detriment to the environment, gardens like the one that was complained about in Fredonia provide a nurturing habitat for the native pollinators, plants and wildlife that are essential to a diverse and healthy ecosystem. With their lush foliage and vivid flowers, they are more visually appealing to those who appreciate natural beauty than even the most carefully manicured lawns. And they are blessedly silent.

In arguing to keep their natural garden, the Hallorans pointed out that it was hidden behind their house, while the front yard was a conventional lawn. This no doubt helped persuade the Village Board to permit the garden, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. The natural garden should have been just as welcome in the community if it were in full view in the front yard.

The Fredonia trustees did the right thing, but they would have done better to have taken the opportunity, as was suggested by Village President Don Dohrwardt, to amend the lawn ordinance to specifically permit natural gardens, as it already does for vegetable gardens.

That change should be on a future board agenda so that the next Fredonia homeowners who want to enjoy and share the benefits of a natural garden will not have to fight for the right to have it on their property.

In the meantime, Dan and Lisa Halloran should be nominated for a village beautification award.   

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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