Miss Floribunda: Butterfly gardens

"Beneficials" like butterflies always improve a garden and neighboring environment.

I’m at my wit’s end. I’ve got this dippy neighbor whose garden is just a mess of weeds, and it attracts all kinds of nasty things. Well, some are nice butterflies, but others look like bees and wasps and some big blue and green bugs with wings that I’m afraid could fly over to my yard and sting me. I’ve even seen bats in the evening! I called Code Enforcement [sic], and saw their truck at her house. Then she got more visitors she took around her yard. It’s been more than a month, and the city hasn’t done anything. What can I do now? 

Butterflies in my Stomach on [name of street withheld]

Dear Butterflies,

It would be a wonderful thing if instead of having butterflies in your stomach, you had them in your own garden and joined your neighbor in her mission to provide a haven for them and other beneficials. “Beneficials” usually refers to insects such as the butterflies, wasps (which feed on the ticks that spread Lyme disease), bees and the dragonflies you describe, but birds, frogs, toads, lizards and, yes, harmless pollinating and mosquito-devouring bats are also greatly beneficial. 

You don’t need to fear any of the creatures your neighbor has in her garden, except possibly the bees if you are among those who suffer an allergic reaction if stung — but I assure you, all her charges will stay in her garden because that’s where they are finding the conditions they need to survive. As for your neighbor’s “mess of weeds,” many people dismiss as weeds any plants they’ve noticed growing wild in uncultivated places. What you are terming weeds are almost certainly plants indigenous to this area before any of us or our ancestors were born. They sustain the birds, bats, and insects that pollinate our food supply for miles around, as well as control mosquitoes and other genuinely noxious pests. 

You might be interested to know that the city code protects your neighbor and her garden under Chapter 65 Health and Sanitation, Article VI: Brush, Grass and Weeds,§ 65-25, D and E. It is true that grass over 10 inches high is generally prohibited because it could hide debris and in dry weather constitute a fire hazard, but a cultivated, well-watered pollinator garden kept within the confines of one’s property is given “favorable consideration.” I learned that the people you noticed touring your neighbor’s garden were inspectors from the city, and they approved it. The entire code, including everything pertaining to a wide variety of gardens, can be found online at www.hyattsville.org/218/City-Charter-and-Code. Just click on Chapter 65 and scroll down.

By the way, when code compliance inspectors visit a property in response to a citizen complaint, they also look around at the surrounding properties to be sure that no one individual’s property is being singled out. Personally, I think it might be a good idea to be sure that one’s own property is beyond reproach as well as to question one’s motives for making the complaint. If the complaint isn’t based on personal antipathy, it makes sense to amicably discuss the concern with the neighbor, oneself. 

It is prudent for those having pollinator gardens to be proactive by writing a letter to the city of  intention “to maintain a non-lawn use” area, and, if ambitious, attach a site map, with plants labelled. Also, it’s a good idea to provide certification from a recognized state or national wildlife or natural habitat organization. Several organizations — the Audubon Society, the Xerces Society, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) — will provide signs that indicate that the garden is pollinator-friendly.

The city code itself stipulates requirements based on those of the NWF. Both the city and the NWF require that the gardener devote a large portion of the garden to USDA-approved species, provide shelter, water and moist spots for favored beneficials, and pledge never to use pesticides. The signs, provided for a small fee, would certainly be accepted as proof these requirements were met. To register a garden as a wildlife habitat and receive NWF certification, go to www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify

In addition, the code provides for having two recognized botanical experts inspect a gardener’s property upon request, which is advisable as soon as possible if a warning letter from code compliance is received. 

Now, in a sunny backyard a pollinator gardener can plant at random without labels or signage. A board fence no taller than 6 feet high, with a formal no trespassing sign, should ensure a garden’s privacy. However, should a warning letter from the Office of Code Compliance come in the mail, do not hesitate to contact a representative from the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, the city arborist and supervisor of Environmental Programs, or the head of code compliance. Contact information is posted on the City of Hyattsville website. 

To speak to advocates from the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, just come to the next meeting on Saturday, July 20. It will take place at 10 a.m. at the Hyattsville Municipal Center, 4310 Gallatin Street. There will also be an election of officers. 

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