Habitat Landscape: Is This Garden Illegal? (PHOTOS)

07/28/2011 05:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

I was intrigued by the story of award-winning landscape designer Margie Ruddick, who received a summons from the City of Philadelphia for violating property maintenance codes. Why was this remarkable? Because her yard was a well-managed, naturally-growing habitat of gorgeous native plants rather than an unkempt mess.

So who's to decide what's unkempt and what isn't? I chatted with her to find out more-and learned that letting your yard go natural can be a beautiful thing in more ways than one.

What's the difference between an "unkempt" yard and a "natural habitat"?

A yard that has just been "let go" does not necessarily promote habitat. It can attract invasive plants with low wildlife value, such as barberry. But if you manage the landscape- weed invasive species and plant new species that attract wildlife - it's possible to increase the wildlife value. Another answer would be, however, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; some people consider a fenced-off area, completely unmanaged, to be "natural habitat."

What made you let your yard go natural? (I'm finding it funny that I chose the word "let" here, as if the yard had to ask for permission.)

The idea that I inherited a totally empty rectangle of grass, one third of an acre, was really scary, not least because there was a big sign on the lawn for a nationally known turf company whose name sounds like an industrial cleaner. My friends and colleagues were pretty shocked when they saw it - one of the only amenities hanging out there on the lawn was a blackened barbecue fashioned out of an old oil drum. It really was a little post-nuclear for me. Toxic - I had been working on a project in India where conventionally maintained rice fields were being transitioned to organic farming, and the theory was that it takes seven years for the chemicals to dissipate at least enough to grow untainted plants. I didn't really think it through as a clear strategy, I just a. didn't have a lot of money to do the total overhaul it needed; b. didn't know what I would do even if I did have the money, and c. I think I intuitively sensed that the place needed to lie fallow after all those years of fertilizing and pesticiding.

How did your neighbors initially react to it?

Well, it ranged from skeptical to appalled to angry. One of my neighbors, however, drives home with the director of a local arboretum known for its wild areas, and he watched the process over the first couple years, and through my generous neighbor he gave everyone on the block some language: "It's a meadow," he declared. I would never have dared to tell them it was a meadow, looking the way it did, I think that would have made the situation worse. "She says it's a meadow," I could hear them saying, not blaming them at all for their skepticism.

Should more people re-think the way they approach their lawn and yard maintenance?

YES. From an environmental standpoint, it is "greener" on many levels. Not only does it promote habitat, it reduces the amount of storm water you are sending out into your creeks, streams and rivers (lawn absorbs less water than meadow or woodland); you are sequestering more carbon (so reducing the amount of carbon escaping up into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming) because there is more biomass, more leafy material, processing that carbon; you are using a mower less (and I learned the hard way that old-fashioned hand-pushed mowers do not work as well as powermowers, which contribute to greenhouse gases). If you are not maintaining a perfect lawn you are not raking or blowing (ditto about greenhouse gases on the blower) the leaves and bagging them and sending them away, but letting them mulch in - they disappear during the spring, as the plants leaf out and as the leaves decompose. From an aesthetic standpoint, having paths and meanders actually makes your landscape look bigger, and there is actually something to look at as you move through it. From an experiential standpoint, it just feels better - more crickets, more birds, more leaves moving in the breezes.

I loved this quote from you, which appeared in the story about your yard in The New York Times: "You have to allow a certain amount of mess to create a habitat," But "it also pushes a boundary that's very uncomfortable: the sloppiness and the ugliness, the awkward moments when things are cut" before "it starts to get its own shape." Why do you think it's a boundary for us/why does it make us uncomfortable?

We are transgressing a bunch of social norms. I would venture that for most Americans, keeping one's lawn cut is just one of the cardinal points of being a good neighbor and a good citizen. Then there are my own norms - I am a designer with rigorous design training, not to mention the natural control-freakiness of a designer, which is necessary and good in terms of quality. Having an out-of-control-seeming landscape half of which can flop over (pokeweed in particular) and fall apart from one day to the next is a little anxiety-producing. When you begin to manage the landscape as a woodland, and cut plants back hard, they can look stumpy and awkward for a while. The whole thing takes a strong stomach, but the rewards are immeasurable.

I wish I had a [big] yard, because I was so inspired by your story. I would love to let things go and see what grows there, and nurture plants that are completely native to my area. I feel many readers feel the same way...what advice do you have for them on creating their own natural habitat yards?

I really want to stress the design aspect of this - it is a design assignment that should be taken as seriously as a Japanese garden. My place started to look acceptable when I began to place planters around and the flowering shrubs and perennials I planted at the edges and within the meadow/woodland really started to take off. If you don't know that much about plants or this process, hire someone. Hire a landscape architect! Or ask a friend to help you. It's a long row to hoe doing this alone, and not nearly as much fun.

Margie Ruddick is an internationally known, award-winning landscape designer. She is recognized for her environmental approach to urban landscape design. To see more of her work, visit margieruddick.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.