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A Snake in the Grama Grass

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

Gardeners tend to be an unobtrusive breed, most often found grubbing in soil and mumbling in Latin while presenting their rumps to a peaceful blue sky. But threaten a garden and you find in its creator an opponent as implacable, as blindly persistent, as any plant pushing its roots through the cracks in a granite mountainside.

Horticulturalist Katherine Hamilton lives on Perry Street, near the old Elitch Gardens, in a neighborhood of small, unpretentious houses. She selected her modest white home, she explains, because it constituted the least house with the most garden available, "and this place has great dirt."

She has lived here for three years and spends almost all of her time in the garden. The prairie environment she's creating consists of blue grama grass scattered with wildflowers--many of them collected and grown from seed by Hamilton. She places a sheaf of photographs on the kitchen table to illustrate. Gayfeather. Blue gentian. Pasqueflower. Mariposa lily. Harebell. Blue mist penstemon. Colorado grape holly. Whirling butterflies, which present delicate white blossoms floating over twisting stems. According to Hamilton, they will "bloom and bloom and bloom.

"I choose plants that I love," she says, "ones that seem especially sensorially rich."

At this time of year, the prairie grass outside is a mass of subtle shifting colors: beige, bronze, straw, chestnut, tan. It will green up for two short months in summer (when the Kentucky bluegrass used in conventional lawns would fade without copious infusions of water); even after it's started to brown, there will still be some green glimmering at its heart. The autumn seed heads--intricate golden blurs waving against the sun--will be borne on stems twelve to eighteen inches tall. "They look like little eyebrows," Hamilton says.

Where a visitor observes a stand of slender fastigiate English oak saplings, Hamilton sees a grove of trees that will flame red in fall. She points out ornamental pear trees; Peter Davis thyme in a stony wall; Turkish veronica; hidcote lavender. She's no purist, she remarks. Not every plant in her garden is a native.

Hamilton, who has a master's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Colorado at Denver and an undergraduate degree in art, cooks the seed she sets out for the birds so it won't sprout after falling to the ground. Unrecognizable green things popping up in her garden are not immediately pulled out but rather left until "they express themselves better."

The garden is a patchwork quilt of mini-environments, each suited to particular plants. There are hillocks, plots at different levels. A blossoming redbud tree frames the front of the house, and an old-fashioned moss rose bush stands by the gate. "I put it there for the mailman," says Hamilton, "so he'd have something nice to look at."

But for the City of Denver, those waving prairie-grass heads proved too much. Suburban homeowners are free to pave over their plots with sun-blistered asphalt, but a city ordinance forbids vegetation over six inches high in residential neighborhoods. Last August, Hamilton got a notice from the Neighborhood Inspection Services. She was to "cut down and remove all unattended vegetation exceeding six inches in height." The penalty for not mowing, she was told, could be as much as a $999 fine and a year in jail.

"I have this vision," she says of her garden. "I see how it's going to be, and then the City of Denver climbs down my throat as if it's hideous." She also noticed that neighbors whose vegetables or perennials grew well over six inches high weren't being penalized.

Hamilton phoned inspector Barbara Coffman, who had issued the notice, and Coffman brought Carl Wilson, horticulturalist for the CSU cooperative extension service, to look at Hamilton's garden. Wilson said Hamilton knew what she was doing. "I'm avid and rabid," Hamilton says, smiling. "I'm righteously wrathful."

This was an apparently minor dispute, one between gardener and city, artist and bureaucrat, but for horticulturalists, it's one with large and continuing ramifications. They see it as pitting people who desire a modest existence in harmony with nature against those who insist on maintaining the kind of preternaturally green lawn that graces aristocratic houses in rainy England--and is achieved with Kentucky bluegrass.

Jane Shellenberger, publisher and editor of the newsmagazine The Colorado Gardener, notes that for many people, there's something sacrosanct about bluegrass. She once used a quote by nineteenth-century Kansas senator John James Ingalls on the cover of her publication: "Bluegrass does more than nourish splendid horses," Ingalls stated. "It supports a whole society of muscular men and voluptuous women; upon its foundations rest palaces, temples, peaceful institutions, social order."

"It doesn't matter if you're in the suburbs of Chicago or Denver or Hartford--they all look the same," Shellenberger says. "Suburbs represent a mythical land that exists apart from the natural landscape. And I suppose for some people, there's comfort in that. It's kind of like going to McDonald's." She also notes that "people come to Colorado from somewhere else. They miss the green. They miss the trees. They re-create the whole thing here."

Denver's founders saw the city as a green oasis in a savage plain, but maintaining such an oasis has its costs. It requires huge amounts of scarce water and heavy infusions of pesticides and herbicides at a time when concern about their effects on humans and wildlife is growing.

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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