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To Maintain, 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 said property."


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.

And, 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 leaves.

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 natural vector.

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 Nazis".

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 his advice.

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, when dealing 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 neighborhood rifts.

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.


The botanical images on this site were produced by The Photon Hunt.

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Copyright at Common Law by Manuel Flores