Replacing Lawns with Native Species

We recently received the following question from Josh on our Facebook page:

“Hey Green Venture, Do you have any info on Hamilton’s Long Grass and Weeds by-law? I’m interested in planting native plants this year but wondering if the city will stop the plants from growing to their full height. Thanks in advance!”

The recent record-breaking warmfront has some folks thinking about spring, gardening, and how to make the best of our seasonal outdoor “play time”. As most of us know, maintaining lawns is time-consuming and has some real, avoidable environmental costs in terms of water, soil, and air quality. An overview of these issues can be found on our factsheet Healthy Lawns and Healthy People.

Green Venture is however, quick to point out that lawns make wonderful outdoor play areas for families and pets. So, the trick is limiting lawn areas to what you need – this will mitigate damage to the environment and provide a great space to play outdoors. Remember that nearly all grass varieties used for lawns are non-native, and therefore require much maintenance as they are not used to our local climatic conditions. If you do need a “lawn” area, then check out some healthier alternatives below that will still provide a great outdoor playing surface (groundcovers including clover, and eco lawn seed mixes).

If you find the only time you are spending on your lawn is cutting it, then you might want to think about alternatives to lawns that would allow you more time to spend with family and friends. Alternatives include food gardens, shrub gardens, edible gardens, groundcovers, trees, and even permeable (porous) hardscaping such as paver stone (interlock) patios, or gravel areas.

Josh is interested in replacing his lawn with native species – we say hurray!

Weed Law Battles

Josh’s question is not uncommon – the battle between weed laws and folks trying to reduce their carbon footprint by using alternatives has been going on for some time. One of the most interesting reads in this subject includes examples dating back to the 50s including some Canadian examples. You can find this article on the US EPA’s webpage entitled “A HISTORY OF WEED LAWS AND THE BATTLES OVER THEM” (1/3 down the webpage).

My favourite is Lorrie Otto’s story:

Lorrie Otto – The High Priestess of Natural Landscaping Movement

The modern suburban natural landscape movement’s roots are traced to the efforts of one woman, naturalist-teacher Lorrie Otto. When the Otto’s moved to their suburban Milwaukee home in the 1950s, the front yard was an acre and a half of lawn with a bed of tulips and 64 spruce trees. It looked like a swiss chalet surrounded by Christmas trees. Mrs. Otto wanted her children to learn first hand about the wonders of Nature so she planted some blue and white aster (Aster azureus), yellow goldenrod (Solidago canadenis), fragrant bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and some ferns.

In the early 1960s, Bayside, Wisconsin, officials viewed her wild fern garden as “weeds” and cut it down. An enraged Lorrie Otto took up the fight and convinced village officials that a natural landscape was a public good and not a health hazard. She went on to become the director of the “Wild Ones – Natural Landscapers, Ltd.,” a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and share information with members and the community at the “plants level” and to promote bio-diversity and environmentally sound practices. By 1992, the Wild Ones boasted five chapters in Illinois and Wisconsin and more than 1200 members.

Mrs. Otto, now in her seventies, has received national awards for her environmental efforts. Her naturally landscaped yard is considered one of the best gardens in America. It contains 80 wildflower and grass species reflecting the diversity of a native Wisconsin prairie.

In a poetic turn of fortune, in the village that once sent a mower to level Mrs. Otto’s wildflowers, there are now sold-out bus tours of a dozen naturally landscaped homes including her now famous yard.

Hamilton Lawn Maintenance By-law 10-118

Although the “battle against weed laws” may seem out-of-date and somewhat ironic to folks today, it is still a very real issue to some. There are recent examples in Burlington and Hamilton that suggest people (and complaining neighbours) are coming around. In fact, Hamilton’s revised Lawn Maintenance By-Law No. 10-118 is a reflection of this changing trend.

Among the dated provisions from the repealed by-law were those that required all lawns to be “weed-free” (whatever that means), and required a buffer-zone of cut grass around naturalized areas.

Hamilton’s revised Lawn Maintenance By-law No. 10-118 states:

3(1)(a) Every owner or occupant of property shall keep vegetation in the yard of their property clean and cleared up.

3(1)(c) …”clear” or “clear up” means:

3(1)(c)(i) for property located inside the urban boundary that is equal to or less than 0.4 ha [43,056 sq ft] in area, to keep all plants cut to a height of equal to or less than 21 cm, except:

1. ornamental plants;
2. shrubs or trees,
3. cultivated fruits or vegetables; or
4. plants buffering or otherwise protecting a natural feature such as a watercourse.

[There are other requirements if your property is larger than 0.4 ha.]

My Interpretation of the By-law

I am no lawyer, but as far as I understand, Josh, you can go right ahead and replace all of your lawn with beneficial native species (if you think or know I’m wrong, please let me know!). I am basing this interpretation on the following (remember, I am no lawyer!)

“Ornamental” is open to interpretation. Hamilton’s by-law provides the following definition: “‘ornamental plant’ means a plant deliberately grown for beautification, screening, accent, specimen, colour or other aesthetic reasons but does not include any variety of turf grass.” If you are anything like me, you feel that native plants fit very easily into this definition. Heck, they’re beautiful! Not just their flowers, which last for a precious short time, but for their foliage and other attributes.

However, common sense should be used here– although it appears you could technically replace the lawn with some “ornamental” native species from your foundation to the sidewalk edge, I think it would be safer to plan your design and carefully select the species you decide to plant. I would consider creating a large “garden” area (or several smaller ones) with clearly defined edges, and a metre-or-so wide buffer area of ecolawn, clover, or other groundcover that grows below 21 cm in height between them and public sidewalks (as per by-law heights above). You could also make it look attractive with a border of paver stones, potato stones, or other permeable hardscape, instead of something that may require maintenance. This way, your natural areas will clearly be “ornamental gardens” (you might want to talk to you lawyer about this interpretation!)

There are also landscape designers that have experience in using native plants (and best methods of presenting them to keep neighbours from complaining). We have used Paul O’Hara from at EcoHouse for many years.

Look Out! Noxious Weeds

You should also be careful when selecting native plants for your garden. Section 3(1)(c)(iii) of the Lawn Maintenance By-law states “to remove noxious weeds and, in the case of poison ivy, treat the poison ivy with an herbicide…”.

There is a Provincial Act called the Weed Control Act, which regulations list a number of noxious weeds (you can find a list of these noxious plants here). This provincial act provides a list of plants that present dangers to grazing animals and some species like poison ivy (a native species by the way), which pose some threat to humans. Many municipal property standards by-laws reference this act, including Hamiltons.

One plant that is listed in the act is Milkweed (a native species). As most of us are aware, milkweed is vitally important to monarch butterfly populations! Sure, it might kill a cow if it ate enough of it, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a cow grazing along King St in Westdale or Stoney Creek!

Years ago I contacted the by-law department to express my concern with urban lawn maintenance by-laws integrating the noxious weed act, which was developed to protect the agricultural sector. I was pleasantly surprised when the by-law representative stated that they would be happy to meet and begin the process of amending the by-law, and make provisions for certain plants to be used in urban settings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have funding at the time to pursue the issue and was too busy to follow it up – perhaps I can reopen this file sometime soon…

In Summary – Go For It!

I believe Josh, that you could, and should go for it! Although…be prepared to run into some troubles with complaining neighbours or by-law officers who have yet to be enlightened on the benefits of native species and the detrimental effects of traditional lawn care.

However, if you do go for it, and do run into trouble, I’m sure there are some lawyers, councilors, and community groups that would help you in your efforts to convince folks that your native garden (as beautiful and ornamental as it might be) actually contributes to a healthier community!

Bottom line – our society is moving in this direction, and frankly we need folks like you to be early adopters – if you don’t do it, who will!

All the best in your efforts. I have included some resources that may be helpful below. Please let me know if you have any other questions or comments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *