A Snake in the Grama Grass

Weeding out the good plants from the bad can leave horticulturalists blowing in the wind.

Ironically, Hamilton did use Roundup to kill the original bluegrass on her lot, and this troubles Shellenberger: "That isn't a model I'd like to see embraced."

"I squirmed and twitched and carried on and finally decided to use it after I'd done a lot of research and stewed about it a good long time," says Hamilton. "If you don't get the root, the bluegrass comes back in."

Hamilton doesn't know who complained to the city about her garden. Her neighbors on all four sides support her right to garden as she chooses and have since signed a petition praising her diligence.

After receiving the notice, Hamilton made several calls. "I felt that the hand didn't know what the foot was doing within the City of Denver," she says, explaining that natural gardens like hers are being designed in city parks. In addition, the Denver Water Board promotes and encourages xeriscaping, and the Denver Botanic Gardens features a prairie demonstration garden.

Hamilton went to court in October and pleaded not guilty. Eventually, everyone agreed that mediation was in order. At the mediation, Hamilton says, "I was told that even if I went to court and won, the inspectors would be standing outside the courtroom and slap another citation on me the moment I stepped out the door, and another one every day after that."

Alana Smart, aide to city councilwoman-at-large Susan Barnes-Gelt, heard it slightly differently. As long as the existing ordinance is in place, she explains now, even if the city dismissed Hamilton's case, another complaint would trigger another notice.

"What really corks me is, they're saying our native landscape is inferior," Hamilton says. "The inspector would take these dreadful pictures and make my garden look as miserable as it could be. I take pictures when the sun is shining through the grass or it's sticking up through snow. She sees it one way, I see it the other. Who's right?"

This is the issue that troubles Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Gardens. "Short-grass prairie is the most beautiful biome," he says, "so simple, so human. To legislate against our natural setting seems to me an extraordinary violation. It really offends me that they can't distinguish our own natural landscape from weeds."

An agreement was finally reached through mediation. Hamilton could maintain her garden as she wished but would have to mow the blue grama grass on the easement--which is owned by the city though maintained by the homeowner. Even this requirement chafed. "I think of myself as a landscape artist," Hamilton says. "To take my canvas and hack off the end of it out there just seemed outrageous to me."

She went back to court in November and told the judge she had complied, but she complained about the city's "ignorant laws."

The case against Hamilton was dismissed, but she and her garden have drawn the city's attention to an important issue, according to Barnes-Gelt. Weed codes exist as "tools to enforce public health and welfare and standards in a right-of-way," she says, adding that they are intended to compel absentee landlords to maintain their properties.

But xeriscape is a concept that inspectors are not yet trained to understand or recognize. Hamilton's complaints led to the formation of a committee that includes landscape architects and the city naturalist, as well as representatives from the water board, the CSU extension service and the Botanic Gardens. The results of the committee's research will be presented to the city council in late summer or early fall and should ultimately be incorporated into the city's comprehensive plan. Barnes-Gelt hopes the result will be a system that no longer penalizes citizens for water efficiency and helps prevent developers from actively discouraging xeriscaping through their covenants--as some are now doing.

Other cities are facing the same issue. In Fort Collins, for example, a great deal of effort went into a plan certifying prairie gardeners and exempting them from the six-inch-high grass requirement, but the plan has not been implemented.

The word has been heard at Denver's Neighborhood Inspections Services, where the staff is currently working on new regulations and standards that separate prairie gardeners from people who simply don't maintain their yards, according to assistant director John Cohen. Inspectors will still have to assess whether a garden represents a fire hazard or attracts disease-carrying rodents.

"I feel badly for Katherine," Barnes-Gelt says, "but it's very good news about this issue coming up now."

Hamilton's prairie garden is exactly "what ought to be here," says Panayoti Kelaidis. "Come a big drought, that's what's going to survive.

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