or Not to Maintain,
and Who defines "Maintain"?
How to maintain a landscape
and its trees and shrubs should not be a subject of contention or debate.
However, the greatest foes of landscape innovation, the "Yard Nazis" of
Homeowner's Associations or the management companies employed by Homeowner's
Associations, have made it so.
This author knows the
difference between an abandoned lot or landscape with tall weeds and
trash, versus a landscape designed and installed at great expense. I'll
be defending the latter. The the former is indefensible.
Having dealt with
landscapes since the early 1980s, I have seen the rise of the HOA and
the increasing restrictions and demands made by their covenants and
especially how they are interpreted by the board of the HOA. I have
declined on several occasions to design a landscape
for a client because neighborhood restrictions, covenants and conditions
were onerous. In the worst local situation, an automatic sprinkler
system is mandated by the HOA even for drought-tolerant plantings. In
areas with slabs of rock on the surface,
the trenching and installation of an automatic sprinkler system can
consume almost the entire landscape budget. Thus one sees homes valued
from $600,000 to over $2,000,000 with landscapes of puny plants spaced
very far apart. But the developer justified the restrictions,
covenants and conditions because they are, "for the purposes of
enhancing and protecting the value, desirability and attractiveness of
The typical "Yard Nazi"
has no problem with a boring "firing squad" landscape consisting of
shrubs planted against the wall of the house and a plain lawn filing the
space between the house and the curb. However, the
"Yard Nazi" will not know what to make of a cottage
garden, naturalistic landscape, or a wildflower meadow. His small mind
will see chaos instead of floral beauty and the myriad butterfly and
hummingbird pollinators. He will assert, with no proof, that it is
overgrown and repeat the tired canard that such a landscape is filled
with rodents and snakes.
After a long career designing landscapes, as
well as doing landscape consultations for hundreds of homeowners, I have news for you: the best
place to find rats, mice or snakes in a suburban setting is under a
wooden deck slightly elevated from the ground. But, facts do not matter
to some people. Even if the residents of a home have never
seen a rodent in their yard, the
"Yard Nazi" will still claim a lush landscape must be filled with
vermin - for them it is an act of faith. Perhaps someone familiar with Freudian analysis can tell me what
such a phobia reveals about the "Yard Nazi's" mind.
Curiously, all the "Yard Nazis" I've met always claim the joint presence of rodents
and snakes in lush landscapes. It is never rodents or snakes
separately. Anyone familiar with wildlife knows that snakes eat rodents,
and the presence of snakes will assure few if any rodents survive.
Mammal behavior experts tell us that rodents in the wild or in suburban
settings are primarily nocturnal to avoid predation. So, a "Yard
Nazi" telling you he has seen rodents is admitting to lurking about
your landscape, or its periphery, at 2 or 3 in the morning while
stalking them. That sounds really creepy to me and I might suspect such a
person could also be a voyeur or peeping tom.
Regarding the ludicrous assertion that a landscape is overgrown, or, "has too many plants," the "Yard
Nazi" will never believe that a lush landscape always has significantly
fewer plants per square foot than a lawn. I have never heard of an HOA
demanding a lawn be thinned because it has too many plants, but they
demand that drastic step when confronted with a non-traditional
landscape. I have suspected that a "Yard
Nazi" calls a landscape overgrown because he knows what plants cost at
the nursery, has tallied the sum you spent, and is envious.
Pity the poor "Yard Nazi" who is a modern
incarnation of a Puritan, and is certain that somewhere in his
neighborhood is a landscape teeming with illicit and abundant life. He
must put an end to that fecundity by demanding the penitential rite of
pruning. The salvation of the subdivision can only occur if everyone
spends Saturday mornings with pruners in hand, and the blessed state of
landscape conformity reigns throughout the subdivision.
speaking of Puritans, enforcement by an HOA waxes and wanes.
Enforcement tends to increase as real estate bubbles collapse at the
start of an economic recession; as well as in a neighborhood in
transition where delinquency, vandalism and drug dealing are increasing.
At such times when property values are falling, the populace clamors
for witches to be burned.
A shrub that has been selected
with much thought, and planted with care, need never be pruned. That's
right. If you planted the right plant in the right site, it should require
no maintenance once established. But tell that to the "Yard Nazi".
However, if you selected your
plants carelessly, or ignorantly, and installed a specimen that matures
at over 25 feet high (Red Tip Photinia, for example) under a low window
or under the eaves, keep those pruners sharpened!
The horticulturally ignorant
often believe the way shrubs are maintained in commercial landscapes (offices,
malls, theme parks) should serve as a guide for residential landscapes.
The horticulturally ignorant must also believe plants grow excess leaves
on superfluous branches. Their magical thinking might also include believing
there are no adverse consequences to removing a large percentage of a plant's
The constant clipping, shearing
and cutting of shrubs in commercial landscapes results from poor plant
selections and the trend of landscape maintenance companies conspiring
to create more work so they can charge more for their services. What they
do and how they do it should NOT serve as a guide for those who want to
keep plants healthy. Horticulturally, they truly do not know what they
are doing. Though they do know how to make money.
In this meritocratic and
technocratic society, the false belief that a license, degree or certification
guarantees competence is rampant. Very few landscape architects know plants
well. Judging by the results, even fewer of them know the mature sizes
of the plants they specify. Also, the fees charged by architects are based
on the estimated cost of the project. That might account for the overcrowding
of plants in architect-designed landscapes and the frequent corrective
thinning necessary for years
There was a time when commercial
landscape maintenance firms were known simply as the practitioners of mow,
blow and go. Now, the more industrious ones have branched out (pun intended)
and become self-styled sculptors of shrubs. They maim plants with frenetic
abandon while wielding hedge clippers so carelessly they sometimes sever
the electric cords. They also spread fungal and bacterial diseases from
plant to plant, and landscape to landscape, more efficiently than any known
The landscape architects,
landscape contractors, and landscape maintenance
companies all have no clue
that plants maintain a constant equilibrium between photosynthetic surface
area (leaves) and the nutrients needed for growth and the absorption of
food and water. It is as though an accountant with a green visor and sharp
pencil were present within each plant, balancing income (the products of
photosynthesis) and expenses (growth and absorption). The wanton removal
of leaves by an herbivore or a human severely stresses a plant.
We now return to the "Yard
While I despise their often
selective and vindictive persecution of homeowners, I must admit that helping
individuals deal with "Yard Nazis" constitutes a large share of my consulting
time and income. While I would never again buy a house, or any property,
within a Homeowner's Association, I do understand some of you had no choice
or had no idea how bad things could get.
If the "Yard Nazis" were horticulturally
competent and operated impartially, there would be very few, if any, problems.
However, we do live in a postlapsarian world and "Yard Nazis" tend to be
compulsive-obsessive horticultural morons with pretensions of knowledge
and they enforce covenants very selectively.
If you have just received
a missive from the HOA, demanding that you "maintain" or "maintain properly"
or "prune" or "prune into shape" your plants, contact
me to schedule a landscape consultation. The first step would be to
assess your situation and then to educate the HOA. Some "Yard Nazis" do seem
to understand that the faux-topiary look of "poodle-izing" every shrub
damages plants and is unnecessary.
I also recommend that you
immediately walk around your neighborhood and photograph (from the sidewalk)
all examples you see of plants that are maintained in the manner the "Yard
Nazis" found objectionable in your own landscape. In all the time I have been
doing this, we have never failed to find many examples within a two block
radius. Of course, none of the others had received a notice from the HOA.
Most HOA boards or management companies back off when presented with proof
of selective enforcement of
the covenants. The recalcitrant
ones cease and desist when the members of the board are informed of the
legal theory that they could be held personally liable.
Every letter sent to the
HOA or its management company should be sent by Certified Mail since they
have been known to misplace correspondence. However, years ago, a brilliant
attorney told me never to accept Certified Mail. I have not regretted following
In almost every case, you
have been singled out because of a neighborhood feud, or because a new
management company has been hired by the HOA board, or because some retired
individual with too much time on his hands has volunteered for a position
on the Landscape Committee of the HOA and he intends to go to great lengths
to, "protect property values."
If you are dealing with one
of the last two situations above, where covenants have not been enforced
for some time, and a "new sheriff is in town," there are judicial precedents
(case law) that basically state that once a provision of a covenant is not enforced by an HOA, it
cannot be enforced in the future. Contact an attorney to learn if such
precedents apply in your jurisdiction.
If you are being singled
out because of a neighborhood feud, use your best detective skills to find
out who is responsible. It is widely reported that assertive individuals
have been quite successful using social media to expose and shame miscreants.
If the HOA does take you to court, it is apparent that jurors despise "Yard
Nazis" as much as the rest of us do, and that juries almost always side
with the homeowner, and the HOA then has to pay all your legal expenses.
Though you should always weigh all your options with an attorney and not rely on the results of others. If you saw the movie, Over the Hedge,
in a theater, you no doubt recall how your fellow theater-goers howled
with laughter at the antics of the president of that fictional Homeowners Association.
If you meet with the HOA management company or members of the board, record the entire interaction. Sometimes you get lucky;
very lucky. I recently met with HOA board members to discuss a
landscape I had designed and installed years ago. I suggested to one of
the board members that his interpretation of the Covenants was
subjective, not objective. Astonishingly, he agreed with me and said he
was indeed being subjective. If the HOA does take that homeowner to
court, this admission, recorded on video, will likely destroy their case.
Also, it certainly doesn't
hurt to be familiar with Saul Alinsky's, Rules for Radicals,
with an HOA. The battles to create and preserve landscape diversity in a
vast sea of suburban sameness are part of a war, and war is never
pretty. The tactics necessary to succeed will often create enemies and
Manuel Flores is a Horticultural
and Landscape Consultant
in San Antonio and surrounding areas. His expertise and services are not
available to Homeowner's Associations, or the management companies employed
by Homeowner's Associations. He is not able to give you legal advice.