On this blog, I focus on the promotion and instruction of low-maintenance edible landscaping rather than unused lawns. This type of landscaping typically comes in the form of guilds, food forests, wildflower gardens, and other wild gardens that function more like ecosystems. This type of landscaping is not as meticulous, organized, or controlled as the gardens your neighbors might maintain. That’s what makes it low-maintenance (and usually more eco-friendly). You might think your property is gorgeous, and it probably is. However, beauty is subjective, and no matter how many times they repeat the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” most people forget this in real life. Most homeowners expect all their neighbors’ yards to look exactly like theirs’, and when they see that’s not the case, they tend to get angry or righteous.
When that happens, these neighbors who think they are in the right — upholding the beauty standard of the neighborhood, averting plummeting property values, banishing evil plants… in their minds — will start doing things to try to bring things back to the way they “should be.” Their goal — to return things to their own comfortable homeostasis. They might start by grumbling to other neighbors about your apparent lawlessness. They might approach you and tell you you can’t grow certain plants because they are “invasive .” They might tell you to “mow them weeds down.” And they might report you to the HOA or to the city. (Side note, make sure you know your city’s codes and follow them so that if you do get reported, there is nothing to be done against you.)
How to start shifting perceptions
All is not hopeless. Like I said before, beauty is subjective, and minds can be changed. Is it easy to change peoples’ minds? Well, no… you already knew that. But there are some simple things you can do to make your low-maintenance edible landscaping more appealing, or at least less appalling, to the lawn lovers. So besides following city codes and keeping out invasives, what else can you do to help change perspectives on whether your property is weedy or wonderful?
First of all, sharing your bounty is a great start. When your neighbors directly benefit from your beautiful wilderness, they are likely to see it in a much more positive light. They also might feel a little indebted to you and feel too guilty to raise hell against you.
Second, you can add elements to your design that coincide with the norm’s version of beauty. This could be in the form of lots of beautiful blooms, incorporating plants that are recognizable to your neighbors as “normal landscaping plants,” and containing wild-looking gardens within clean lines in your landscape via landscaping border, fences, or hedges.
Become a Certified Wildlife Habitat
Finally, I usually recommend putting up and making clearly visible a sign in the garden that it is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. To get your property certified, go to the National Wildlife Federation’s website, make sure you have the required elements (food, water, cover, places to raise young, sustainable practices) and then clink the link to get certified. You’ll fill out a form which ensures you have enough elements to be a good habitat for wildlife and then you can choose the option to purchase a sign.
This sign works remarkably well at shifting peoples’ perceptions from “weedy yard” to “wildlife oasis,” and it helps support the National Wildlife Federation. I cannot tell you how many compliments I’ve received because of that sign. Kids, especially, love it. Every Halloween, sweet little trick-or-treaters tell me they love our certified wildlife habitat and sometimes even thank us for providing it. Think of the impression you could make on these little future adults.
Shifting your own perception
One more thing. Before you are able to stick up for yourself and your right to design and maintain a landscape that is right for you, you may need to do some convincing within yourself. When you are maintaining your property in a way that is counter to the culture within which you’ve been raised, you have to make a conscious effort to not cave to a fear of rejection. This fear of rejection is hardwired into our neurobiology. In the spring, when your yard is dominated by the yellow tufts of dandelions, it is normal to suddenly become very afraid of what the neighbors will think/do.
You may hold certain ingrained beliefs to overcome, such as the belief that certain plants are weeds/evil/ugly. Movies, friends, and family may have taught you to hate dandelions, plantain, spiders, mice, and wasps. You may now know, intellectually, that these living beings are integral parts of an ecosystem and very useful in your garden yet still have a quite contrary and repulsive action when these things show up on your property. Time and time again, you will have to remind yourself why these living beings are not bad, that there is indeed nothing wrong with them and have just as much right to live as you do, and that no, your neighbors aren’t actually going to kill you because of them.
This process of your intellectual self continually reminding your reactive self could go on for years before your subconscious actually begins to come around and join you in the good fight. Keep at it. Don’t give in to that subconscious fear of rejection on an impulse. Come back here and read some more perception shift blog posts and remind yourself why you are allowing life beyond the green and bladed monocot into your yard. Because all life is worthy and beautiful, and beauty is just a perception.