The delegate seemed ready to pick a fight, already having mocked a proposed plastic bag ban and other pro-environment bills on the day’s agenda. As I finished my testimony in support of wildlife-friendly plantings, I steeled myself for a heated debate.

But on that gray afternoon in February 2020, even the crankiest person in the committee hearing room couldn’t deny the bees and the butterflies. “Who wouldn’t support pollinator gardens?” he asked, portending near-unanimous approval by the Maryland General Assembly. Though stalled by pandemic delays, the “low-impact landscaping” bill—which requires homeowner associations to allow habitat gardens and prohibits them from mandating turfgrass—sailed through the legislature in 2021 and became law Oct. 1. 

Native plantings not only provide food, shelter and nesting sites, they hold ground through deep roots and absorb strong rains, alleviating poor drainage caused by patchy lawns that invite mosquitoes to breed.

Photo of Janet and Jeff Crouch
Courtesy of Janet Crouch

The positive reception was a welcome surprise, given the negative undertones of the case that started it all. For three years, HOA-hired attorneys had demanded that my sister and brother-in-law, Janet and Jeff Crouch, destroy their vibrant flower beds in Columbia, Maryland, in favor of lawn. In threatening letters, they wrote that pesticide-free, bird-friendly gardens had no place in planned communities. They disparaged the Crouches’ “environmentally sensitive agenda” and spent $100,000 in homeowner fees trying to dismantle it.

The HOA lost more than money and the case itself, which rested feebly on a single neighbor’s complaint. Their bullying ways also inspired two state delegates to introduce the bill, which includes helping wildlife as one of its goals. While public agencies increasingly support habitat gardens, many HOAs cling to antiquated notions, recycling baseless arguments to justify collecting fines. As my sister battled each outlandish demand, we learned how flimsy arguments against natural landscaping can be. For others fighting the good fight on behalf of habitat gardens, find our responses to a few of the most common myths below.

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat offering wildlife plenty of food, water and cover, plus a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS
Photo of a squirrel
Tom Meaker

Myth: Wildlife gardens attract “pests,” flooding the neighborhood with mosquitoes, mice, bats, snakes, wasps, squirrels, deer and opossums

Reality: Many of these misunderstood animals already live in edge habitats of suburbia, where turf meets tree line. Roadside oaks planted by developers in my sister’s community, along with adjacent public woodlands, offer habitat no matter what else is planted. Wildlife gardens add ecological balance, offering what retired HSUS wildlife biologist John Hadidian called “a critical community service” in the expert testimony he provided for my sister’s case. Native plantings not only provide food, shelter and nesting sites, they hold ground through deep roots and absorb strong rains, alleviating poor drainage caused by patchy lawns that invite mosquitoes to breed. Animals keep one another in check: Dragonflies and bats eat mosquitoes; opossums and birds eat ticks. Snakes prey on mice; wasps and spiders provide insect control. Far from being “pests,” wild residents who visit gardens are part of deeply interconnected communities.

Myth: Lawns are the ideal standard, and wildlife gardens decrease property values.

Reality: “When you just see bare flat turf and nothing to create a transition between yard or pavement and home, it just doesn’t show as well,” says Kristi Neidhardt, a top-selling real estate agent who also provided expert testimony in my sister’s case. By contrast, Neidhardt has seen how positively potential buyers react to pollinator gardens. “It’s just such a tremendous asset,” she says, “not a deterrent.” As homeowners discover that the great American lawn is a water-sucking, polluting, wildlife-starving sham, they’re seeking sustainable alternatives. That’s especially true in drought-prone states like California, one of the first to encourage environmentally friendly landscaping, and in areas like Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay watershed, where native plant buffers mitigate flooding. 

Photo of a butterfly on a wildflower.
Meredith Lee

Myth: Native plants are unruly or wild. 

Reality: Native plants come in many shapes, colors and sizes and have hit the mainstream in American horticulture. They can be incorporated into any design, from a cottage gardening style to a Japanese garden aesthetic. They often look like they’ve always belonged—and that’s no coincidence, given that they’ve evolved to grow well in local soils and weather conditions, unlike the imported species typically used in lawns that require pesticides and supplemental watering to thrive. 

Myth: Pollinator gardens are dangerous because bees can sting. 

Reality: This pervasive misunderstanding is based on the mistaken view that honeybees represent all bee species. But the unique hive lifestyle of honeybees, domesticated animals introduced from Europe centuries ago to pollinate crops, triggers their protective instinct when near the nest. Most of North America’s 4,000 native bee species are solitary, creating single nests of just a few eggs in the ground or in cavities, and they generally don’t sting unless they’re highly provoked. These gentle, often miniscule bees are the ones most likely to visit gardens. 

Many people said my sister would never win. But there is strength in the truth; the ethical and scientific merits of planting for wildlife are indisputable. There is also strength in numbers. If you find yourself in a similar situation, talk to neighbors, advocacy organizations and elected officials. Read your HOA bylaws carefully; they often don’t match the “violations” cited. You never know—you might save your own wildlife garden and change the law of the land at the same time.

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