We got a nasty surprise just in time to ruin our Independence Day BBQ. City of Saint Paul workers plowed through our permaculture garden with a string-trimmer on July 3, while we were at work.
They destroyed around $45 in plants (so mangled to the ground that they look like the whole shrub went through a chipper) and slashed/gouged over $300 in other plants, including at least 6 young fruit trees (all within inches of the ground so we can't even prune out the damage, just have to wait and see if disease takes hold from all the damage). Most personally upsetting was the cropping to the ground of a 16' wide row of blackberries that had fruit just starting to ripen. We won't be getting any blackberries this season, and can only hope the plants will recover (they were just planted last season). Most of this damage occurred in our backyard which is surrounded by wood privacy fence on 3 sides and a custom-built super heavy duty espalier framework on 1 side with 20 espaliered fruit trees (planted 2 years ago). Because of the arrangement of our lot, you would need to be in our yard or our direct neighbor's yard to even know we had a garden back there.
Were there some grass and "weeds" taller than 8"? Yes, though we don't have that much grass left, and right now the neighbor directly next to us has the exact same height (and mix) of weedy grass still blowing in the breeze on his front boulevard. They trimmed ours right up to the property line, leaving his equally-overgrown grass standing tall, though on our boulevard they had to go around the $150 of newly-planted junipers (and $42 of russian almond shrubs we planted 2 years ago). All of our neighbors have spent (from what I can see) close to $0 in the past 3 years on making their boulevard look nicer because it's all just grass (except the second house west of us where the entire yard and boulevard are planted day lilies and other clumping perennials and tall weeds).
Did they give us written notice? Yes, but we don't think it was sufficient notice to actually address the problem. The notice was dated 6/23 informing us that someone complained about grass and weeds taller than 8" on our property. It gave us 72 hours to weed everything before an inspector would come and authorize the city workers to come whenever (there was no report from the inspector or notice of when the city workers would come). Now, for someone who just has to pop out after work with a lawn mower and plow everything to the ground on a tiny city lot, this is probably a reasonable request, but we have a ton of raised beds and most of our paths/areas without plants are well under 3' in width. We MUST hand-trim and pull weeds. We don't use commercial herbicide for weed control. We don't use a mower, and we barely have any use for a string-trimmer due to the amount of planting we have done. Our focus is edibles and native plants to support beneficial wildlife, and we have invested well over $3000 in our garden since we moved here just 3 years ago.
A little background: I love the eastside. This house was a cat 2 vacant property that was formerly a rental and it took several months of work and tens of thousands of repairs before the city let me move in. It cost less than $40k (the typical home in our neighborhood is between $110 and $160k). We consider ourselves some of the "good guys" in the neighborhood for rehabbing a blighted property AND moving in (not flipping or renting) AND investing in long-term landscaping.
Also, I am a certified permaculture designer (the Geoff Lawton online course) and I plan to open my yard for community ed classes in the future (once we have finished installing everything, have mature systems to demo, and have tested/proven methods to share). I spend many hours every week, even in the winter, doing something for my garden, even if it's just research and planning. I am not neglecting my yard because I don't care, don't know any better, or am too lazy (though not that it matters under normal garden circumstances, I have a disability that limits my stamina so I can only do physical labor in shorter bursts, not all in one big marathon session).
There is actually good reason our weeds and edge areas are overgrown (yes, present tense, because the city workers spent so much time completely cutting down raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, leadplant, oikos less-sting stinging nettle, dandelion, white and red clover, borage, asters, milkweed, roses, strawberries, horseradish, and dozens of herbaceous natives we got from Prairie Moon Nursery last year, they had NO time to cut the actual, unwanted, volunteer weeds that are like 6' tall outside our fence in the back alley). Ironically, our garden time lately was spent building, staining, installing, and planting up over $600 in new raised cedar beds and trellises (this year's "infrastructure" upgrade, along with a new second set of deck stairs once we get the permit). We prioritized the raised beds over the weeds because we wanted to get the growies in early enough for a good harvest this fall. With this much work and expense, it really sucks to get a letter from the city scolding you for not making your neighborhood a better place.
I understand the ordinances, and read them ALL before planning our garden. I am not mad that someone reported us because it looked weedy and messy (it did, we were neck-deep in landscaping work until last weekend, now we only have the potato boxes to finish so we have time to catch up on the weeding and pruning chores). I'm not mad that we didn't hear back from the inspector or have any way of knowing when the work crew would come out. Their notice system is probably semi-automated and the inspector didn't even have get out of the car to see we still had tall weedy looking stuff all over. The $160/hour fee? Totally fair, this is a revenue source for the city and there is labor involved in enforcing these ordinances. I am into ecologically sound gardening but I'm not anti-government hippie, I think the ordinance and enforcement was basically a fair process up until the point they damaged a bunch of non-grass non-weeds.
What I don't understand is why they did SO MUCH damage to our garden. You can plainly see we are avid gardeners. There are raised beds and fruits and veggies everywhere. There are gardening supplies and baby fruit trees and a giant wood compost bin. When you see this and then see that even the areas AROUND the raised beds have non-grass flowering and fruiting plants everywhere (recognizable stuff like strawberries, borage, clover, tons of flowering native herbs), wouldn't you stop and think before you run a string-trimmer through everything willy-nilly? Whoever did this work could not even tell a 4' tall sprawling rose bush (with hot pink 4" wide roses still hanging on it) from grass/weeds. Can't recognize a 16' hedge of blackberries with flowers and fruit all over them. Can't see that 18" is not enough room to run a trimmer past a bunch of tiny espalier tree trunks without flaying the bark right off them, etc.
But what can I do? I don't want compensation, I just want changes so this doesn't happen again. I will pay any fine and I will do the work as fast as I can (and you can be damn sure I will not let the weeds get overgrown like this ever again), but now I am scared they will see us as a cash cow. The notice said that we are responsible for more fees for work authorized by inspectors without notice in the next 12 months (hinting they will recheck us until they catch something they can bill for again). How can I comply if they say "weeds" over 8" when almost everything they consider a weed is something I am cultivating on purpose? How can I comply if the dumb shits they send to do yard work can't ID a useful plant from grass and weeds even when the plants look nothing like grass and weeds. I mean they weed-wacked a 2x2 ' highbush cranberry shrub (with the huge maple-sized leaves) down until it was just a mangled twig sticking out of the ground (not even a leaf on it)... if they can mistake that plant for an overgrown weed, what can I do to protect all of my plants that don't look like the same dozen ornamentals all my neighbors have? I feel like most of my garden is at risk and the city can show up any time and just cut down anything because "weed" is so poorly defined.
Any ideas? I called and left a message for the contact listed on the initial notice. I will definitely get on top of the weeding so we hopefully don't attract more trouble, but I am now so scared because I feel like we are now "on the radar" and they will be stopping back looking for problems. I've seen the horror stories of other cities removing entire food gardens from people's front yards and don't think Saint Paul would ever be that backwards but what happened here and the amount of damages we suffered seems really disproportionate to any problems we caused our neighbors by having weedy grass (that is actually the same height as the neighbor next door's boulevard, which we photographed today next to our bald super-short city-trimmed boulevard edges).
I feel like there needs to be a variance or something for people who are gardening in a permaculture style (like the equivalent of a religious objection to complying with mandatory health care laws, I would like to make an ecological objection to complying with the expectation that our yard contain little more than trimmed grass and obvious ornamentals). I would gladly pay an annual permit fee for a Natural or Permaculture Garden (so inspectors could come check on me, if they were EDUCATED and could recognize what was actually growing here, not just see all non-ornamentals as weeds). I just don't want my valuable food plants damaged again (it doesn't just cost us money to replace it costs us yield/grocery $ because it will now take even more years before we get yields from anything that has to be replaced).