Articles

How to Keep Things Neighborly in the Lawn & Garden

By Stephanie Dunnewind
Seattle Times Staff reporter

Yard rage expresses itself in gradually escalating actions: A pruned overhanging branch becomes a hacked tree, a side lawn mowing creeps over and then completely abandons the property line.

“One time when one neighbor was out of town for a couple weeks, I went over and picked his weeds,” confessed a local gardener.

For gardeners who spend hours planting, weeding and pruning, the worst garden pest is often the next-door neighbor who doesn’t seem to care about the knee-high grass, those blackberries galloping across property lines or that tree nudging down the fence.

And conflicts are on the rise as lots shrink, borders narrow, schedules get busier and neighbors remain strangers.

“We don’t know our neighbors as well as we used to,” said Deborah King, a gardener and president of Final Touch Finishing School, which offers etiquette courses for children and adults.

“We leave for work in the dark and come home in the dark and the only time we think of our neighbor is when they’re an irritant,” King said.

In most cases, homeowners have the legal right to do what they please in their garden and yard, said Andrew Kidde, manager of the Bellevue Neighborhood Mediation Program. “You can do what you want, but you also have to live together with neighbors,” he said.

That’s why communication is key, right from the start. In many cases, mediation callers admit they might have been OK with a neighbor, say, cutting off a tree branch, “but they wish the neighbor had talked to them first,” Kidde said. “That’s when you end up with a dispute. Once the action is taken, it’s harder to resolve the issue.”

Trees account for many of the program’s garden-related complaints: Blocked views, limbs and roots crossing property lines, leaves clogging drains and gutters.

“People will say, ‘My neighbor wants a big tree but I get the work of cleaning it up,’ ” Kidde said.

Other common issues include messy yards, shrubs along the property line and dumping of garden clippings over boundaries or in ditches.

Mercer Island gardener Karen Cleghorn’s pet peeve is homeowners who don’t remove invasive plants such as ivy, Himalayan blackberry and holly. Many are a “devil to uproot” once they’re established.

Often, conflict arises when a “gardener” lives next to a “homeowner with a yard.”

It’s all about respect

“Gardens and yards are extensions of our homes,” King said. Just as everyone has different standards for cleanliness and decorating styles for their home, so too for their gardens. Expecting a perfectly manicured, weed-free yard or beautiful flower garden is unfair, King said, but all homeowners need to respect neighborhood maintenance standards.

Neighbors aren’t all bad, of course. One gardener, Candace, who asked to use her first name only, wasn’t pleased when bark chips from a neighbor’s pile washed downhill into her driveway. Or that a third of the chips are still on the parking strip more than a year later.

But when the neighbors covered their lawn with the chips and mushrooms popped up, Candace still offered some cautionary advice. “[The neighbor] thought they might make interesting eating ­ which I advised her against doing.”

Some neighbors share extra produce, seeds and plant divisions. “My small, overly filled suburban collector’s garden has spilled over to three neighboring yards,” said Lake Forest Park’s Mary Ellen Asmundson. “So far my neighbors have welcomed my extra perennials and shrubs.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or sdunnewind@seattletimes.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

You have rights, but … 9 ways to avoid a fight.

Be considerate. Do at least the minimum maintenance, including mowing the lawn and keeping down weeds.

If necessary, hire a yard service or neighborhood teen. Don’t use loud equipment, such as lawn mowers or leaf blowers, early in the morning. Keep children and pets out of neighbors’ yards so plants aren’t trampled or vegetable gardens used as litter boxes.

Be neighborly. Greet new neighbors so you “start off on a positive foot instead of waiting until there’s a problem,” advises Deborah King, president of Final Touch Finishing School. Offer to water their outdoor potted plants while they’re on vacation. You don’t have to be friends, but set a foundation of cooperation just in case issues do arise.

Don’t start with a proposal. Many people approach a neighbor with specific plans: “I’m going to prune your tree to the property line,” for example. Instead, focus on what you want to accomplish, such as less maintenance or more light, recommends Andrew Kidde, manager of the Bellevue Neighborhood Mediation Program. This way you can work out a solution without your neighbor becoming defensive and countering with a different idea. “It allows a conversation to take place instead of a debate,” he explained. Otherwise, “you may win your proposal but you’ll end up in an alienated relationship with your neighbor.”

Go neutral. When it comes to pruning that tree, consider splitting the cost of a professional service with your neighbor. That way no one gets upset with the other over too much (or too little) pruning.

Use diplomacy. A gardener can’t force a neighbor not to use herbicides, or cut down their weeds. But you can politely request. King suggests, “You might say to your neighbor, ‘You probably didn’t remember I have a vegetable garden. The wind is blowing that weed killer over here. I’d love to be able to share some lettuce with you but I’m afraid it’s all going to die.’ If you take it from that approach, you’ll likely be more successful than coming across as the neighborhood garden police.”

Be judicious with chemicals. If you do use pesticides or herbicides, be aware of what’s going on nearby. “If your neighbor is outside having a nice barbecue and you’re spraying while the wind is blowing, their meal is now coated with pesticides,” King said. Also warn neighbors if children or pets are outside next door.

Get rid of eyesores. “A real irritant is people leaving things in their yard, like tools or a pile of rubbish,” King said. “What was a day turns into a week and so on.” She advises folks to stop in front of their house once a week and assess it objectively.

Scale back. Common problems such as overhanging limbs and leaf/flower litter can be avoided by choosing plants that won’t outgrow their spot, said Polly Hankin, a landscape architect who teaches at Edmonds Community College. Sub small trees or pruned shrubs for large, fast-growing conifers.

Seek help. Gardeners may fall back on city ordinances (usually relating to health or safety, such as fire hazards); neighborhood association covenants (which may cover landscaping); or as a last resort, civil court.

In most cases, homeowners have the legal right to do what they please in their garden and yard, said Andrew Kidde, manager of the Bellevue Neighborhood Mediation Program. “You can do what you want, but you also have to live together with neighbors,” he said.

That’s why communication is key, right from the start. In many cases, mediation callers admit they might have been OK with a neighbor, say, cutting off a tree branch, “but they wish the neighbor had talked to them first,” Kidde said. “That’s when you end up with a dispute. Once the action is taken, it’s harder to resolve the issue.”

Trees account for many of the program’s garden-related complaints: Blocked views, limbs and roots crossing property lines, leaves clogging drains and gutters.

“People will say, ‘My neighbor wants a big tree but I get the work of cleaning it up,’ ” Kidde said.

Other common issues include messy yards, shrubs along the property line and dumping of garden clippings over boundaries or in ditches.

Mercer Island gardener Karen Cleghorn’s pet peeve is homeowners who don’t remove invasive plants such as ivy, Himalayan blackberry and holly. Many are a “devil to uproot” once they’re established.

Often, conflict arises when a “gardener” lives next to a “homeowner with a yard.”

It’s all about respect.

“Gardens and yards are extensions of our homes,” King said. Just as everyone has different standards for cleanliness and decorating styles for their home, so too for their gardens. Expecting a perfectly manicured, weed-free yard or beautiful flower garden is unfair, King said, but all homeowners need to respect neighborhood maintenance standards.

Neighbors aren’t all bad, of course. One gardener, Candace, who asked to use her first name only, wasn’t pleased when bark chips from a neighbor’s pile washed downhill into her driveway. Or that a third of the chips are still on the parking strip more than a year later.

But when the neighbors covered their lawn with the chips and mushrooms popped up, Candace still offered some cautionary advice. “[The neighbor] thought they might make interesting eating ­ which I advised her against doing.”

Some neighbors share extra produce, seeds and plant divisions. “My small, overly filled suburban collector’s garden has spilled over to three neighboring yards,” said Lake Forest Park’s Mary Ellen Asmundson. “So far my neighbors have welcomed my extra perennials and shrubs.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or sdunnewind@seattletimes.com