Opinion: Zoning codes and pollinator gardens

A few years after relocating to Kansas from Pennsylvania, a friend of mine dove into home ownership. Being extremely knowledgeable and passionate about birding and gardening, she decided to convert part of her front yard into a native plant pollinator garden. She had no problem with the plantings, but the city codes are giving her fits.

There are numerous advantages to cultivating pollinator gardens instead of non-native grass and other decorative plantings. Plants like black-eyed Susans, Western yarrow, wild bergamot (beebalm), milkweed, and Kansas’ state flower, the sunflower, have deeper root networks, which help prevent soil erosion and reduce water runoff. They do not need to be mowed, saving energy and pollution. They are natural parts of Kansas’ ecosystem and do not spread invasively. Native plants grow well without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Many produce beautiful flowers. They also adapt better to our climate, requiring less watering.

Pollinator gardens supply food to native species, including hummingbirds, monarch butterflies and native bees. In recent years, the population of monarchs has declined alarmingly, which many experts attribute to agricultural pesticides and herbicides. All told, one-third of our food requires pollination by insects.

Unfortunately, native pollinator gardens violate many communities’ local ordinances. These old laws reflect the 1950s ideal of a suburban lawn. They incentivize the planting of nonnative grass, which is mowed short and often treated with fertilizers. They also encourage or condone ornamental shrubs, trees and other plants that are an invasive threat to our native Kansas plants. Such scourges include the Bradford pear, the Eastern red cedar, the tree of heaven and wintercreeper. I join legions of other homeowners spending countless weekends trying to remove these noxious plants. Farmers and ranchers do not like them, either.

As for my friend, she won her dispute with the city, but only after cutting part of her beloved pocket prairie and compiling a thick packet of information for her hearing. She is now working with Emporia officials to update the local ordinances. Fortunately, she has a template. Active in Kansas and western Missouri, the Metro Area Regional Council has prepared model legislation to encourage native plants and pollinator gardens while still allowing communities to clean up true noxious weeds, abandoned lots and unkempt yards.

Our sensibilities need to change, too. This past April, a Kansas family got caught between the city of Overland Park, which discourages such plantings, and Johnson County, which encourages them, and their own neighbors. Many neighborhoods in Overland Park feature neatly manicured lawns in tidy housing subdivisions along cul-de-sacs. Neighbors must adjust their expectations of what looks beautiful. Lawns should be properly maintained, but they need not resemble golf courses.

These codes also reflect the needs of agriculture. For example, milkweed is a beneficial, beautiful, easy to grow native plant that pollinators love, but it is poisonous to cattle and horses. This is fine for farmers and ranchers, but the average suburban homeowner is not going to have cattle and horses in their yard. Some local codes still classify milkweed as a “noxious weed” even when planted in town. Fortunately, some Kansas local governments have started targeting actual noxious plants such as Bradford pears, which are highly invasive. Wichita is one of many communities expanding native plantings on public land, including parks.

New codes will allow beautiful, native, pollinator-friendly yards while still requiring that yards and lots be properly maintained. The Metro Area Regional Council’s model legislation is just what you need to start working on this in your own community — and your yard.

— Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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