Agriculture, Ari Armstrong, Aurora, Pueblo, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Low-water lawns without the yard police

Decades ago my grandfather would “ride ditch” in Palisade, meaning he would check out the complex irrigation systems that pulled water from the Colorado river and distributed it to people’s agricultural lands. Sometimes I would help him irrigate his own fields, which involved clearing pipes and ditches to direct the water to the peach trees. I learned viscerally the truth that water is life.

Now about all I farm are sunflower seeds, a favorite for the local finches and squirrels. I have struggled for over a decade to bring order to my large suburban yard in a water-friendly way. By way of background, the yard was an absolute weed pit when we bought the house in the aftermath of the Mortgage Meltdown.

The problem with river rocks, I found, is that certain weeds absolutely love them. It doesn’t matter if you put weed guard beneath the rocks; soon enough compost will collect to feed the weeds. These weeds are practically impossible to pull by the roots, because the rocks protect them. Then you’re tempted to spray the weeds. But spray is hard on pollinators, including bees and butterflies. So I’ve chosen to keep a spray-free yard.

Mulch also has problems. About a week after I laid expensive mulch in my front yard, most of it blew away in a heavy wind. Later a heavy rain washed more of it away. And, by the way, the neighborhood cats love to dig up mulch to crap in it. A certain thistly weed, I found, thrives in mulch. I’ve pulled hundreds.

You can lay concrete—weeds won’t grow through that!—but that’s expensive. Besides, who wants a yard full of concrete? At most that’s a partial solution for most yards.

That leaves a choice of high-water, high-maintenance grass or low-water alternatives. Personally I do not enjoy spilling money on the ground just so my neighbors can appreciate the greenness of my lawn. We live in a relatively dry climate. There’s a reason we don’t call it “Colorado Bluegrass.” Between climate change and a growing population, pressure on the Colorado River and other water sources is only growing. So I favor low-water plants.

I’ve done pretty well getting some low-water flowers going, and now we have several varieties that reseed themselves year to year. Getting low-water grass to grow is harder. I have several varieties of such grasses going in my front yard, but getting them to take over and push out the weeds has been a struggle. I’m hoping I can get a lot more to come up from seed in the Spring.

Having a wilder, more-natural yard brings a lot of benefits. I’ve much enjoyed observing the various species of bees and wasps, butterflies and moths that unknowingly participate in our flowers’ reproductive cycles. From our north-facing window I’ve seen birds of all varieties, including hawks and owls. We even saw a fox trot through the yard once.

Government gets involved

As you can imagine, governments are not just going to sit back and let you grow whatever you want in your yard. Some government oversight is warranted; noxious weeds can affect one’s neighbors. But the “yard police” sometimes are overzealous.

It turns out that Colorado has a “Noxious Weed Act” beginning at 35-5.5-101 in state statutes. I know about this because Westminster’s rules refer to it. The problem is that one person’s weed is another person’s flower. Statutes unhelpfully define “weed” as “any undesirable plant.”

A bit later the Act (35-5.5-108) grants power to the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture (DOA) to create three categories of noxious weeds, with “A” being the worst and “C” the less-bad. The “A” list published by the DOA contains such transgressors as purple loosestrife and tansy ragwort (I’m not making this up!); the “B” list, absinth wormwood and and hoary cress; the “C” list, field bindweed and puncturevine.

Some cities go beyond the state’s list. Pueblo, for example, includes not only bindweed and Canada thistle on its list of “offending vegetation which is regarded as a common nuisance,” but common sunflower (Helianthus centicularis) and dandelion (Leontodore taraxacum). Sunflowers and dandelions, public offenders? Give me a break.

Wild sunflowers are awesome, and they grow without any extra watering. Obviously the city of Westminster doesn’t have a big problem with them; they grow all over city open space lands. As mentioned, these are a favorite not only among the birds but among honey bees, bumble bees, and mason bees. Why do Pueblo officials nurture such hatred of the birds and the bees?

Although I’m not overly fond of dandelions in the yard (Ray Bradbury’s story about dandelion wine notwithstanding), I’d hardly call them noxious or offensive. As my son points out, you can eat them (and he does). Dandelions too draw in various pollinators. I think they’re pretty. Anyway, is that really something city governments need to fight people over? As Radley Balko points out in the context of Nashville, such petty city codes can become a tool of racism and oppression.

At the same time, other cities such as Aurora are restricting Kentucky Bluegrass. That’s not the way to go either. If people want to pay to water and maintain such grass, what business is that of city officials? If the problem is a water shortage, the simple answer is to use pricing to encourage economic use. Market pricing beats command-and-control approaches.

I understand the need to control truly noxious weeds. Beyond some essential, commonsense guardrails, though, the basic attitude that Coloradans should maintain toward bureaucrats and elected officials is this: Get off my lawn.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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