HOA Madness – or – Just Another Pleasant Valley Sunday

Yeah. This’ll get the clipboards out.

Now I have definitely heard everything. Whilst chatting with a friend the other night over landscaping and other related topics that make others at the table suddenly realize they need to get up and refill their glasses, I was told that a local subdivision homeowners’ association board will very soon be presenting a proposal to further regulate the types of perennials and annuals a homeowner can plant on their property without being clapped in irons.

That is to say, fined. But I exaggerate only slightly. Setting such limits shackles the passionate, spontaneous gardener – restricting creativity and ensuring boring, passive, tidy little landscapes, the examination of which works better than a Unisom for inspiring deep REM sleep.

Obviously I find this news disturbing. I am a spontaneous gardener. The projects I undertake over a weekend usually involve about five minutes notice, a pile of old rocks and the clearance plant racks at my local Big Box. Though I don’t live under the jurisdiction of the clipboard police, by my reckoning I break at least five standard HOA by-laws an hour, and that’s on a slow day. I’m a gardener. Dirt happens. And it very rarely happens within accepted parameters, at accepted times, in accepted ways.

But that’s not why I am disturbed. The underlying reason is far more complicated than being fined for putting an unapproved gazing ball in one’s front yard, and has its roots (ahem) in fear.

Fear. When I was a child it used to be accessed in a more immediate, reactionary manner. i.e. “I’m going too fast on this skateboard” which, in my early adulthood morphed into thoughts such as “I probably shouldn’t be walking home from this club at 4am” to “How long can labor go on for anyway?”

september 2011 011

Peeling Paint??!? Infraction!!

Now fear is different. Protected by the name of Safety and her disapproving sister, Prevention, it infiltrates every part of our lives. Fear of our children falling off their scooters without a helmet on their tiny heads. Fear of celebrating a big event in a big crowd. Fear of offending someone unintentionally. Fear of terrible illness. Fear of speaking up. Fear of three teenagers sitting on a curb in a neighborhood, and now, fear of…well….somebody else’s petunias.

Fear of one’s neighbor – or potential neighbor – is at the core of each of these Homeowners’ Associations, and the successful (and subtle) marketing of such fear makes it that much easier to sign on the dotted line.

City ordinances are just plain not enough! What if your neighbor paints their house red? What if she decides to have a compost pile, or (horror upon horror) wants to stop wasting electricity and hang her clothes up to dry? What if she’s just plain crazy and wants backyard chickens? Well, sadly for many people living in these subdivisions, by-laws might protect against compost, chickens and gazing balls, but they don’t protect against ‘crazy’ – I’ve listened to too many first-hand accounts of wackadoo neighbors inhabiting tasteful homes with thoroughly approved siding to know otherwise.

Nevertheless, we are convinced that we can create nirvana with our by-laws, eliminating any variables that make us uneasy (referred to in previous generations as “the spice of life”). Consequently, it’s no longer enough to give your neighbor a list of the paint colors that won’t offend you and won’t inspire her, but now we’re going to make sure her floral life resides firmly within established parameters.

So what are we giving up in return? For if you support such petunia policing, do not kid yourself my friend, you will give up something in return. Here’s a list just off the top of my head:

1)   The stifling of creative energy when a homeowner sees a beautiful plant in a nursery and finds that it’s not on the list of approved flora. Enter resentment stage left. Exit homeowner stage right.

2)   The establishment of mini-monocultures which are particularly vulnerable to pests and disease (sure hope Impatiens walleriana is not on that list of ‘approved flora,’ eh?).

3)   A severely impacted nursery trade as this practice (inconceivably) continues. You think the Great Recession wiped out choice at nurseries? Just wait till everyone is planting begonias. Only begonias.

"Ma'am, Hemerocallis fulva is a non-conforming, technically invasive plant, and you should be ashamed of that crown vetch.  I'm going to need to cite you on multiple counts."

“Ma’am, Hemerocallis fulva is a non-conforming, technically invasive plant, and you should be ashamed of that crown vetch. I’m going to need to cite you on multiple counts.”

4)   A growing group of the voting public who is less and less physically connected to the incredible range of plants that nature provides us, and to the earth itself. The awareness of which – Pinterest or no – just doesn’t translate the same way through a computer screen.

5)   A neighborhood that looks like Disneyland, without the rides and definitely without Sleeping Beauty’s castle (pink is never an approved color). Probably without gardeners.

6)   The desensitization of the public to similar standards of uniformity, and with desensitization, a growing unease of ridiculing such practices or holding them up to scrutiny – or indeed, contrasting them with the unique mix of cultures, practices and people that have, and do, make up this country.

Whew – all because it’s just more comforting to know your neighbor can’t go off the deep end and plant garish, hopelessly vulgar and completely lovely sunflowers in his front yard. And if he does, you’ve got the power to stop him – and even make him pay for his transgression.

I understand. It’s safe. It’s easy. And for some of you, it’s power. But I promise you, no matter how many variables you remediate against in this life, there are hundreds more for which there is no answer. And if there is, you’re living in a totalitarian state. Countries don’t get there overnight, it takes time, growing consensus, and a willingness to accept ever more ridiculous regulations. According to the Community Associations Institute, just under 20% of Americans currently live under the power of a homeowners association. That’s a lot of begonias folks.

By | 2018-02-20T20:41:10+00:00 August 6th, 2015|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. DC Tropics August 12, 2015 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    Don’t worry, when everybody is planting begonias, I’ll be there. It’s all part of my master plan…

  2. Anita August 31, 2015 at 11:11 am - Reply

    I was not aware of bylaws till we moved to the US two years ago. I was disappointed to find out that we cannot put up a laundry line on our .5 acre suburban property, nor raise chickens. Fortunately, I did not find any restrictions on perennials or vegetable gardening so I am gradually transforming parts of our garden into an edible landscape and a square foot garden. People using the public path at the back of our garden often stop and comment, usually about how they look forward to walking past our garden and admiring the vegetables and perennials as they change throughout the season. So no begonias here!

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      Marianne Willburn August 31, 2015 at 1:47 pm - Reply

      It’s wonderful to hear that you are transforming your garden. Years ago when my husband and I lived in Pasadena, we’d walk by the gorgeous houses in San Marino with their often beautiful, always manicured gardens. One of the front gardens was completely given over to vegetables, and was so incongruous, yet so beautiful. I’m sure it caused quite a stir with neighbors, but today, it is the garden I remember the most.

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