Couple faces jail if they don’t plant grass in the front yard

Big Grass has won again.

In St. Peters, Mo., a couple could go to jail for refusing to plant grass in their front yard.

Jan Duffner pulled her front yard out because she’s allergic to grass. She planted wildflowers and a garden instead.

But nothing — except for, perhaps, a hockey rink — can stir up neighbors like someone who challenges the norms of the front yard lawn.

The city has a grass turf ordinance requiring homeowners to plant lawns, so the Duffners sued in federal court, claiming the law “imposes a permanent obligation on the owner to cultivate and maintain that unwanted physical presence on their property for no reason other than that the government commands it.”

On Thursday, a judge threw the case out, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Judge John Ross said “aesthetic considerations constitute a legitimate government purpose.”

Dave Roland, a Freedom Center of Missouri lawyer representing the Duffners, says he’ll appeal the ruling.

“If a city can compel citizens to devote half of their property to growing a plant that the citizen does not want and that makes them sick, there is no longer any principled limit to the government’s control over private property,” he said in a statement.

The Duffners say they face jail time or fines of $7,490 to nearly $188,000.

  • Rob

    Nature abhors a monoculture; small-minded local governments embrace it.

    • Bob Sinclair

      is that the same thing as a vacuum?

      • Rob

        Hoover. : )

    • Kellpa07

      This is correct. Decades ago, many local municipalities dictated that elm trees would line all the streets in their neighborhoods. While they looked wonderful, once Dutch Elm disease came, it took very little for all of that to be destroyed. In my area, the vast majority of those elms were replaced by a single kind of tree, now being removed by the thousands due to the Emerald Ash Borer (or at least that’s how it’s being treated, I think the jury is out on whether that’s the best solution, but I don’t pretend to know). Had they planted a bunch of different kinds of trees, the streets would not be so bare. I am hoping they figure it out this time around, but I’m not counting on it.

      • Jeff

        I think Urban Forestry has gotten a lot more sophisticated in recent years and aims for diversity. This is from the Pioneer Press:

        And residents can expect to see a wide variety going up this spring. The city is selecting no more than 30 percent of one family, 20 percent of one genus, or 10 percent of one species of tree in an effort to protect against invasive pests and improve climate resiliency, according to Clare Cloyd, spokeswoman for the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

        So, what exactly will the city be planting? This year, expect to see fewer maple trees and more Kentucky coffeetree, river birch, hackberry and non-fruiting ginko trees than in years past, Cloyd said.

        At 15 percent, oaks will take up the largest segment of new trees, and honey locust, Japanese tree lilac, apple, linden, Dutch Elm Disease-resistant elms and some other varieties will be lining St. Paul streets, too.

        • Rob

          As long as the ginkos are truly non-fruiting, I’m OK with them. In my hood, there are several ginkos that produce berries, and the smell they generate as they drop and decay is very akin to that of vomit.
          I call them barfberry trees.

          • emilyb2

            Gingkos have male and female trees. You can only plant the males to avoid the stinky berries. Someone mis-sexed the trees!

        • Jon Karner

          I’ve heard that rule too. But look at the park board trailer full of trees sometime. There’s a mix of trees on there but it’s all oak, then ash, the maple etc, not mixed every tree.
          The reason that’s important is if your replacing a whole street it won’t vary tree to tree more like block to block when the next disease comes.

  • Here is Washington County we can get government help and advice on replacing front yard turf with rain gardens.

    • I did that (just the very front of the lawn). A neighbor went full prairie and it looks great now. Takes a few years before it doens’t look like a weedy lot.

      • PartlyCloudyGrandma

        Who do I contact for information?

      • MrE85

        Your rain garden looks pretty good, i’d say. We have one in our hood that is a head-turner. Lots of purple coneflowers.

  • MrE85

    When our city ordinances (Blaine) were written, it was just assumed that everyone would have turf grass in their yards. As chairman of the city’s Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee, I drafted an ordinance that would allow for “naturalized” yards and other plantings. It wasn’t an easy sell, but the city adopted it.

    • Rob

      I’m guessing they balked at the marijuana-centric part of your proposed ordinance.

    • Moose4Peace

      We did the same thing in Coon Rapids.

  • Down with lawn tyranny! We have a diverse array of native plants, flowers, and vegetables. The amount of grass shrinks every year.

  • Mike Worcester

    We did a “natural” look where I work and it turned out fantastic. You know who else really liked it? The honey bees.

    I’ll say the judge was correct in noting that “aesthetic considerations constitute a legitimate government purpose.” At the same time, natural flowers, shrubs, and grasses can be both aesthetically pleasing *and* good for the local environment.

    • Rob

      Yes. If the government wanted to outlaw people putting wild-colored dyes in their hair, on grounds that it is an aesthetic abomination, I’d be OK with that.

      • king harvest

        Yes. Remember the brouhaha that ensued after the “slobs are ruining civilization” opinion piece ran in the Strib?

      • Kassie

        Will you be the decider of what “wild-colored” is? Asking for the purple haired old lady down the street…

        • Rob

          Octogenarians would be exempted : )

  • jon

    Pulled up half the front yard last year… Planted high bush cranberries, honey berries, currants, and a rose bush… All in River Rock… No mowing, little matinance and I get food…

    Grass sucks.

    • Rob


    • Kassie

      But how much time do you spend weeding? I feel like it becomes much more high maintenance than a lawn, at least our lawn which is mostly Creeping Charlie. I love the idea and find lawns that aren’t grass so much nicer, but it turns out we don’t like gardening, especially weeding, that much.

      • seedhub

        If your lawn is mostly Creeping Charlie, there’s a lot of maintenance to be done now — you’re just not doing it.

        • Barton

          I will admit that I like how creeping charlie looks. I like the little purple flower and I like how it smells of sage when you walk on it.

          That said, I am still pissed at my neighbors who just let their yard become a creeping charlie bed that I have to work so hard to keep it out of my stuff.

          • Veronica

            We moved into a house that already had creeping Charlie all over the back yard, and just haven’t been able to get rid of it. Ideally, I want to plant a drought-resistant native something to crowd it out this spring.

            I hate grass and the upkeep and I will not dump poison on the yard, period.

          • Ralphy

            There are really only two paths to eradicating Creeping Charlie.
            Poison the whole yard (( :-<
            Or excavate about the top 18”-24” of soil.
            Either choice is catastrophic.

            A third choice choice is to devote the rest of your life to pulling.
            The fourth, and only reasonable choice to me is to accept the inevitable and move on to bigger and better things.
            FWIW, landscapers in Britain install Creeping Charlie as a no-maintenance and attractive ground cover. Windsor Castle even has a lawn of Creeping Charlie.

            The “roots” of golf-course lawns being the desired model and codified can be directly traced to suburban developers in the 50’s and 60’s and grass seed / “weed” killer companies efforts.

          • Gette Jones

            Hallelujah! I have always loved the purple florals and uniform height of creeping charlie. This past year it looked like I had to worry more about gophers than weeds, though. I’d slowly like to roll over to patches of prairie pollinators and mulched walking paths and eradicate mowing!

        • Kassie

          Everyone in our neighborhood has mostly Creeping Charlie if they have a lawn, at least in the front of the houses. When we moved in two years ago, we had the only all grass lawn on the block and it is now mostly weeds and I’m not going to do anything about that. I don’t want to put chemicals on my lawn and I’m not going to weed it or water it, so it is what it is. Lawns are dumb, especially front lawns on busy streets in Minneapolis.

          • Jerry

            The two dog/badger hybrids that use the backyard are not helping anything.

      • Barton

        If you do it correctly there is less weeding over time. I spent a LOT more time weeding trying to keep that grass lawn healthy (and the creeping charlie and dandelions out) than I do with the native plantings or other landscaping.

      • Dicambra.

        Yeah I know. But I don’t care anymore.

        Besides, I live in the East metro. All I’m doing is polluting 3M’s toxic ground plume.

        • NG

          lol, that is some amusing sarcasm. 🙂

      • Jack Ungerleider

        If it’s green its good in my book. 8^)

      • jon

        At least 3 layers of weed cloth under the Rock, 4 in most places, and some corn gluten spread once a year to prevent weed sees from germinating…

        Last summer/fall I spent about 10 minutes total most of it while walking to the mail box.

        We’ll see how much time harvesting the food from up front takes… But I’m not going to complain about that.

      • emilyb2

        I love gardening and spent a couple summers ripping out the grass and planting perennials on the boulevard. It was great and the bee habitat is now awesome. I find weeding therapeutic because I get to be outside, digging in the dirt. To each their own. I get why they don’t want a bunch of unmowed grass and weeds, but this clearly isn’t that, its a gorgeous habitat.

  • Kellpa07

    Honestly, I really like a nice lawn, and do what I can to keep my postage stamp sized yard nice, without excessive watering. A few neighbors have, mostly in the boulevard areas, “gone native” or planted non-grass gardens/lawns. Some of them look fine, some look like the owners just don’t want to deal with it. My own tastes aside, I don’t like the idea of me, or anyone else dictating the specifics of a yard’s appearance, so long as the plants don’t constitute a health or safety hazard, and it’s rather difficult to think how any of those yards I’ve seen could do so. Too many people taking too much interest in someone else’s property.

    • Barton

      My boulevard is planted native. The neighbors that complained when I first had it done are also the first ones out every year to snap photos of all the butterflies and hummingbirds I get. And I OFTEN remind them that they attempted to block my ability to plant something that is giving them joy.

      • Kassie

        I’m sure you know this, but for others: it is important that people don’t put wood chips on their boulevard when doing this. They are too light and end up clogging drains during big rainstorms, which causes runoff problems. We pulled out all the wood chips from ours, planted additional plants, and put in pea rock. It looks pretty good! I hope the plants fill it in and the rock isn’t needed after a few years.

        • Barton

          I went the first two years with straw as mulch, as it was easy to get rid of at the end of the season as well as helped keep rain in and weeds out AND stayed in place during the year. It is nice and thick now (I’ve had the blvd garden for 10 years now) so no need at all for any additional covering at all. Now I spend time thinning out plants to prevent the green-headed coneflower from taking over. Let me know if you want any of those seedlings. 🙂

        • Jordan Green

          In Fargo, the Boulevard is city property, and you can’t plant anything other than grass, some people get away with small annuals or perennials at the base of trees, but even those are technically against city code.

  • Guest

    Can anyone name a limit to government today?

  • Jeff

    The deer decide what goes into our yard.

  • seedhub

    “aesthetic considerations constitute a legitimate government purpose”

    I wonder by what criteria the government establishes aesthetic preference. As an architect, I deal with these sorts of regulations regularly. Most cities’ zoning codes have relatively broad requirements for building design (ie. “Windows shall be vertical in proportion” or “Windows shall be distributed in a more or less even manner”) that have little foundation in design theory. Unfortunately, there’s been a trend recently to go much further.

    Minneapolis, for example, has been developing changes to their code that stipulate the maximum amount of different materials that can be used on the different sides of any building: the front of a building can be up to 75% fiber cement panel, for example (unless the panel is thinner than 5/8″, in which case only 30%) and the sides can be up to 75% burnished block (unless that side faces a street, in which case only 50%). And so on.

    Not only are these kinds of requirements arbitrary, they have no bearing on the overall quality of a building’s design, or they myriad ways in which buildings interact with their inhabitants and their surroundings. Good design requires weeks and months of study, testing, and evaluation. It is not capable of being codified into a table of values.

    Nor is it capable of being codified into a “turf good, shrub bad” rule like this one. I’m all for cities promoting and enabling better design, but this is nonsense.

    • I’d pretty much kill for landscaping like this.

  • Bear at EatPeople dot gov

    The fact that anyone even has time to worry about their neighbors’ front yards amazes me.

    • Rob

      First World Problems R Us.

      • They throw people in jail for trivial matters in the third world too.

  • Lindsey

    Not that this should be the measure, but can you even tell that it is not grass in those pictures? If it truly looks that nice, then I’ve seen many, many grass lawns that are far less appealing.

  • Ralphy

    Does anyone see this as being a potential 1st Amendment arguement?

  • NG

    Ya’ know, i honestly think this is something that both republicans and democrats could agree on. That level of government control is a bit absurd.

  • Teresa Kuhl

    Besides, grass, while it’s pretty when it’s green, does not really offer any other benefit. The garden, on the other hand, can offer aesthetic appeal and provide food. Methinks that judge and the ‘neighbor’ were both way out of line!

  • Kim Winter

    Is this a case of jealousy??? The yard looks beautiful; seems the people with the power are abusing their positions.