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 Go Native, Get a Violation

The first thing that I did when I bought my house in the City of Pittsburgh 15 years ago was tear out the hideous privet (Lingustrum vulgare) hedges and boring dandelion-choked “lawn” in front of my home. My neighbors were initially appalled. By summer when plants were in full bloom, they still thought I was a bit strange, but did have to admit that they did like the “pretty flowers” in my garden. They started to complement me on it, and began asking what particular flowers were in bloom.

My garden was a shocking contrast to the vacant lot next to it. It was the typical long-neglected lot, an eyesore that had been used as a middle of the night dumping ground for tires, shingles, concrete and miscellaneous debris, including being the spot for local dogs to drop their loads. It also was overgrown with invasive plants such as Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata), Privet, and exotic bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.).

Japanese Knotweed/Garden Witch Photo

Japanese Knotweed/Garden Witch Photo

It was frustrating to beat back the invading plants constantly creeping in from the lot into my garden. Being an organic gardener, it seemed that I was spending all of my time weeding by hand and did not have much time to enjoy my garden. It made sense to get to the root of the matter by controlling the invasive species in the lot with native plant species, but I had to also have control of that property first. After going through a considerable amount of time and effort with the City of Pittsburgh to purchase the lot and fence it, at last I had a larger garden space and could hopefully eradicate or at least attempt to control the invading plants. That was about 12 years ago.

Since that time, the vacant lot has been transformed into several habitat gardens: a woodland, a wetland, a water garden, a rock garden, a wild flower garden, and a pollinator garden, with the remaining garden space resembling an English cottage garden. Because I turned an ugly vacant lot into a diverse wildlife habitat garden, my friends thought it was magical and began calling me the “Garden Witch”. So that’s where the name came from, in case you were up late at night wondering about it, now you can sleep soundly tonight.

Witchhazel is blooming now/Garden Witch photo

Witchhazel is blooming now/Garden Witch photo

My garden is my peace of mind, my sanctuary in a world that keeps me much too busy and away from it far too much. It is not work, it’s feeling better about myself and everything around me with my ever-present canine companion at my side, also starring in the role of my favorite garden pest. Most of the photographs that you see on this website were taken in my garden. Much of what I learn from experience and share in the classes I teach has been from knowledge gained in garden.

The habitats in my garden are dominated by native plants. The English cottage garden may seem like cheating, however, it actually is not. English gardeners have wryly commented that they borrow American native plants, make them beautiful and popular, then they sell them back to Americans at three times the price.NWFcert





I had intended my garden to be a wildlife habitat garden in the city. It was certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation in 2006.   When I teach wildlife gardening classes, I always say, “If you plant it, they will come.”  It’s true.  Whether you want to attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, dragonflies, frogs, or toads to eat the slugs that eat your Impatiens, if you plant the right native plants for the correct life stages of these critters, they’ll find the habitat you’ve made for them.

Any gardener knows that the secret to a great garden is to allow it to keep changing. Through the years, my garden seems to have evolved into many things. It’s a working laboratory for invasive species control experiments. It is a native plant refuge, saving plants that would otherwise be completely lost from permanent disturbance due to environmental remediation action projects. It’s also a native plant nursery, providing seedlings and seeds for riparian (stream bank) buffers, other wildlife habitat gardens, and an environmental education nature trail at a local school. My neighbors have also asked my to share that it also helps keep neighborhood kids off the streets because they enjoy helping me out in the garden.

Painted Lady Butterflies/Garden Witch Photo

Painted Lady Butterflies/Garden Witch Photo

The garden space itself has also helped to minimize yard waste by composting all of the leaves that I can possibly rake each fall. The compost has helped to amend the clay that previously lurked about 4 inches below the soil. I can now say “previously”, since the compost has proven its worth and broken up the clay while adding everything wonderful a plant could possibly ask for. I also compost all fresh produce, either outdoors in a recycled plastic container called the “Earth Machine” (so that the feral cats don’t get into it – don’t even get me started on that urban problem), or indoors in my worm composting bin.

I have also re-used all of the bricks, large stones, and even some flat pieces of concrete that were left on the vacant lot for stepping stones and paths in the garden and for facing stones around the pond. Having taught several invasive plant workshops with the Nine Mile Run Watershed, I have purchased two of their rain barrels. I use the rain water for my pond, watering potted plants, and the way a rain barrel is intended, slowly releasing the storm water into my garden rather than letting it follow its course and running off quickly into storm water sewers, eventually reaching our waterways. Even though it was not technically designed as a rain garden, (a garden planted specifically with the intent of collecting precipitation, allowing the plants to use it through evapotranspiration, slowly percolate, evaporate and slowly release it; a rain garden is dependent on native plants adapted to variable moisture periods), the native plants in my garden are drought tolerant and serve the same purpose.

I have a confession to make: everything that I have been doing in my garden has been for my own enjoyment. But it also has apparently helped out in those small ways for which I am glad.

All of my personal enjoyment must have a price to pay, so it seems. At least according to the City of Pittsburgh, my garden is in violation: overgrown weeds throughout property. The below letter of violation is dated September 29, 2009 (ironically, the date of my 21-year anniversary of living in Pittsburgh – what a wonderful anniversary present from the city!) that I received on October 1, 2009.PghLet29Sept09


I looked up the regulations cited in the letter of violation on the City of Pittsburgh website. The results are interesting.

Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances Title 10; International Building Code Chapter 1002 – upon looking up this, without the exact section being specified, i.e. Title 10, Chapter 1002, Section __ ; it cannot be determined what regulation the City is referring to. At least they must know what they’re talking about.

International Property Maintenance Code Chapter 1004 – This regulation deals with public health, safety, and welfare. How can a wildlife habitat garden certified by the National Wildlife Federation be more of a risk to public health, safety, and welfare than a vacant lot full of tires (filled with water that can breed West Nile Virus Mosquitoes), and trash (that attracts vectors such as rats) is?

SEC. 302.4 OVERGROWN WEEDS: THROUGHOUT PROPERTY – This section states that property should be free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches, and mentions noxious weed control. If the City wanted to truly enforce the free from plant growth in excess of 10 inches, how many gardeners would they enrage with this regulation???? I would like to see how this would play out. By the way, I would like to explain that by encouraging native plants in my garden, I am controlling noxious weeds. There are neighbors still living on my street that can attest to the morass of invasive species that were present on the vacant lot before I began to battle them.

Some of the "Overgrown Weeds Throughout the Property" Garden Witch Photo taken 10-01-2009

Some of the "Overgrown Weeds Throughout the Property" Garden Witch Photo taken 10-01-2009

On both October 1 and 2, I tried speaking with the City of Pittsburgh Inspector that sent the violation. On October 1, I left a phone message, briefly trying to explain that my garden was populated with native plants, not weeds, which I invited him to meet personally. When I did not receive a return call, I phoned again on the morning of October 2. I still did not reach him, but spoke with another inspector, who was able to answer some of my questions.

Does this currently blooming Turtlehead look like over grown grass to you?  Garden witch Photo

Does this currently blooming Turtlehead look like over grown grass to you? Garden witch Photo

I asked the inspector what kind of overgrown vegetation they usually sent out these violations for? He told me that violations are sent out for overgrown grass 10 inches or higher. I told him that there would be no way that even in a drive by inspection that anyone could consider my garden overgrown grass. I explained what I have elaborated upon above, and he commented that it sounded like I should be teaching them, which made me giggle. I had to explain further that I do teach people about native plants, invasive plants, rain gardens, wetlands, wildlife gardens, and pollinator gardens. As with his colleague, I also extended the invitation to him and any of his coworkers to visit my garden if they wanted to learn the native plants here, and that I could also show them photographs of others earlier in the growing season. 

Although I should probably be very specific in telling them that the Painted Ladies that are attracted to wildlife gardens are butterflies, not painted ladies of the night.  I don’t need the Pittsburgh Police Vice Squad descending on my garden next.

I also thought that in case he would like to know what some of the native plants are, the City of Pittsburgh’s website discusses rain gardens, since one is being constructed in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse. It has a link to the Three Rivers Rain Garden Alliance ( that has lists of native plants for rain gardens. A cross-check of these native plant lists with the plants in my garden yields more than a coincidentally similar list. Another great local site with native plant lists for pollinators, wildlife habitats, and riparian buffers is the Three Rivers Habitat Partnership of the Wildlife Habitat Council

The inspector I spoke with was very receptive to all of this. I can only hope that the inspector who issued the violation will hear me out and be willing to resolve this. Stay tuned.

What I find most interesting is that the City encourages the planting of rain gardens with native species, but that any other garden planted with native species may be subject to a possible violation from the City. There are much more serious problems out there with invasive plants using up the resources of native plants and having drastic impacts on our ecosystems, and the City can make a difference by encouraging greater use of native plants on a wider scale and through leading by example and education.

Memo of Violation to the City of Pittsburgh: Don’t pick a fight with native plants, join the fight against invasive plants.


 Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?


 I just spoke with the City of Pittsburgh Inspector who sent me the violation for my garden. We had a good discussion, and I believe that the violation will be considered abated.


It turns out that I am caught in the middle of a feud between neighbors. They are squabbling, and decided that they may as well drag everyone else in the vicinity into the fray while they are at it. Someone decided to complain about just about everyone’s property and/or trash management, which necessitated an inspection and response from the City.

It also caused me to wrongly suspect that my neighbors next door, who are recent additions to the neighborhood, had called in the complaint. Fortunately, we talked it over yesterday, and cleared up the misunderstanding on my part, for which I apologize.

If I have offended any of the City of Pittsburgh Inspectors, I also apologize to them. I realize that they have a job to do, and that dealing with people’s complaints every day is a very difficult job, and that they did not write the regulations, it is just their responsibility to use the regs as a framework in carrying out their duties. The offer still stands if any of them want to check out the native plants in the Garden Witches’ garden.

While I resent that neighbors who I may not even know dragged me and my garden into this, it has given me the opportunity to hopefully bring up a few relevant thoughts about management of vacant lots and invasive plants, planting native species, rain gardens, and attracting wildlife in urban gardens.

Being a good neighbor. Coexisting just as companion plants next to each other grow together. That’s what it’s all about.  Why can’t we all just get along?

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