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Bees and butterflies love native gardens, but Kansas City code officers want them trimmed

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Roberta Vogel-Leatung's yard teems with 10 to 12 different species of native plants that she has been cultivating for the past five years.

More home gardeners in Kansas City are deciding to fill their yards not with grass, but with native wildflowers, which are better for the environment. But that’s putting these homeowners in conflict with their neighbors, and Kansas City code.

Roberta Vogel-Leatung walks through a narrow path behind her Craftsman home in Squier Park. She pauses to identify the plants pushing at the path’s edges: wild hydrangeas, rose turtleheads, American beauty berry.

Her front yard teems with flittering birds, chirping insects and buzzing bees, all finding something to feed on.

“It's meant to be inviting to people, so it stays low, a little bit neater than the wilder areas in back,” Vogel-Leatung says. “And pretty soon I'll have signage that says, ‘You're welcome to come through,’ and it'll kind of teach people about what I'm doing.”

Over the last five years, Vogel-Leatung has converted her yard to mostly native plantings — varieties that have grown here naturally for eons, and adapted to the ecosystem.

She says she rarely, if ever, waters her yard. And, of course, she doesn’t need fertilizer or pesticides.

“I usually only water new plantings for about a year," she says. "And then I just let nature take its course because I figured if it can't survive, it's not going to like it here."

Not everyone is happy letting nature take its course. Recently, a Kansas City homeowner went viral after the city ordered him to trim back the native plants growing in his front yard. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas even got involved, visiting the man and offering to help find a compromise.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Bees "devour" wild hydrangeas like these that Roberta Vogel_Leatuung grows in her yard. She says the horticultural variety doesn't feed any insects.

Vogel-Leatuung and other native gardeners want to make sure that city officials, and their own neighbors, understand these shrubs and flowers serve a greater purpose, even if they don’t fit into tidy rows.

Native plants provide food for pollinators like bees and butterflies, which have rapidly lost their natural sources of pollen. Urban centers are food deserts for insects and birds, so adding native plants, even in small patches, creates a corridor for wildlife to travel through the city.

Native plants are also more sustainable, because they don’t need watering like non-native species. They grow deeper roots, making soil more absorbent — many native gardeners like to point out that conventional lawns are almost as bad as concrete when it comes to soaking up rainwater.

Flora Mahaffy runs Bread and Roses Farm, off 23rd Street in Kansas City. She grows native plants at home and at her farm, but acknowledges they can pose a conundrum for gardeners.

“When you leave your plants that are kind of drying and dying down, they’re full of seeds,” she says. “Some of these things are really great for birds if you just leave it even into the winter. But that’s not a look that everybody loves.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Flora Mahaffey trims some of her tomatoes at her Bread and Roses Farm recently. Mahaffey says she has received warnings from code enforcement officials about some of her native plantings outside her greenhouse and at her home. She says she tries to educate the code enforcement officials to educate them and also work within the system.

Mahaffy has also received letters from Kansas City code enforcement in the past, alerting her to the “rank” weeds on her properties. In her mind, the wildflowers she’s growing don’t qualify as weeds.

But not everyone agrees.

“It really depends on the inspector. Sometimes when you can get them out and talk to them and say, 'This is this,' and they’re really nice and work with you,” she says. “And then a couple of months later the inspector changes and you get the letter again.”

The community liaison for Kansas City’s Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, John Baccala, says the city is sympathetic to people wanting to grow native plants.

“There has been such a, for lack of better word, growth in the number of people who are putting native plants in their yards for really, really good reasons — whether it's soil conservation, water, preservation, whatever," Baccala says. "I think we are continuing to refine what those codes are and what they will be.”

Baccala says there’s a misconception the city is against native plants — they’re not. But he says it can be a slippery slope between someone trying to do the right thing for the environment, and someone just trying to skirt the rules.

“All we want to do is have some uniformity to make sure that they fall in line with what our codes, which are also recognized by cities and municipalities across the country, to make sure that they fit within those guidelines," he says.

There's the challenge, though. Kansas City code requires that grass and weeds should be limited to 10 inches in height along public parcels, alleys, and walkways. But most native wildflowers need to grow beyond that to reach maturity and serve their purpose for pollinators.

Alix Daniel, a native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, says the most powerful thing a gardener can do is show intent — make it clear their plantings are purposeful.

“If you have a lot that you just sprinkle some seeds in and just let it go forever and never did anything else to it, it would quickly get taken over by mostly non-native invasive species,” she says.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A monarch rests on a blazing star at Anita P. Gorman Discover Center. The blazing star is a native wildflower and also a favorite for monarch butterflies.

In other words, gardeners should demonstrate the yard is being cultivated, and not just allowed to run wild.

“Native plant gardens are a lot less maintenance, but they are not 'no maintenance' by any means,” Daniel adds. “It does take effort to make sure you’re keeping the right species in your garden happy."

Daniels suggest that, to keep neighbors happy, native gardeners should keep plantings contained and trimmed in straight lines whenever possible. Native plants should be shorter if they're growing near a sidewalk or street, while taller plants can be placed further back.

That way, those clusters of milkweed and coneflowers are only attracting pollinators, not code enforcers.

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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