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Why some homeowners are choosing to replace their lawns with native plants

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Native plants aren't just good for birds and bees. They also make the land more resilient to the effects of climate change and can even help prevent it. But cities and homeowners associations don't always like the way they look, putting them at odds with residents who want to grow native plants in their yards. However, some cities and homeowners associations are working with homeowners to encourage these plants. Here's Rebecca Thiele with Indiana Public Broadcasting.

REBECCA THIELE, BYLINE: Aja Yasir's yard in Gary, Ind., is full of flowers, food and medicines. Many of these plants are indigenous. She picks some herbs and nettles in the yard to feed to her ducks.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUCKS QUACKING)

THIELE: Yasir and her husband bought this once-vacant lot in 2016, just a few months after her youngest daughter passed away. Before they even moved in with their two kids, Yasir would travel to and from Illinois every day, building up the sandy soil with leaves, cardboard, compost and woodchips.

AJA YASIR: That was the only way I can get through it. And so it's been like an asylum for me. It's been an emotional release. It's also been a way to feed my family. It's been a lot for us.

THIELE: But not everybody liked the look of Yasir's yard. She got a citation from the city in 2017 and another the following year. After a yearlong court battle, the last one was finally dropped.

YASIR: It's been exhausting. The whole thing has been absolutely exhausting.

THIELE: Yasir isn't alone. Homeowners with native gardens from Florida and Maryland to Missouri and Kentucky have gotten slapped with fines or even have their yards mowed without permission. The reason - taller native plants can get mistaken for weeds. Many cities don't allow weeds to grow above a certain height, and they don't have the time or staff to find out what's what. But native plants have a lot of benefits for the planet. For one, they keep the land cooler. Indiana University biology professor Heather Reynolds says they use heat from their environment to pull water up from the soil and out their leaves.

HEATHER REYNOLDS: It's a process that actually removes energy from the system, thus cooling the air. It's the exact same principle as sweating.

THIELE: Native plants also do more to prevent flooding than a lawn. They have longer roots which keep the soil in place and help it absorb more water. Those roots also trap more carbon dioxide, too. Then there's all of those high maintenance things you need for a lawn that you don't need for native plants.

REYNOLDS: They require little, if any, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation. And, of course, they aren't going to require mowing. All of these inputs generate greenhouse gas emissions.

THIELE: Because of these benefits and others, some cities have started to work with homeowners to encourage native plants.

LINDA THOMPSON: This one is an example of a yard that's actually in compliance, yet we get a lot of complaints about it.

THIELE: That's Linda Thompson, a senior environmental planner for the city of Bloomington, Ind. If the city gets a complaint about weeds but the homeowner says they're native plants, it's Thompson's job to go find out. She says she can identify a lot of plants already, but when she's stumped, she uses an app.

THOMPSON: Looks like it is a Chinese clematis, so I'll have to go back to the office and look that up.

THIELE: Bloomington changed its ordinance to define a weed as an invasive plant, a plant that can spread out of control and prevent other plants from growing. Thompson says homeowners in Bloomington can plant almost anything they want in their yards as long as it's not invasive and doesn't block traffic sightlines or sidewalks.

THOMPSON: I searched all over the place for a definition for weed, and there isn't one except a plant that's growing somewhere where you don't want it to grow. It's all a matter of aesthetics, and the city does not enforce aesthetics.

THIELE: But even if your local government allows it, your homeowners association might not. Homeowners that want to plant natives may have to negotiate with their HOA or even join the board to change the rules.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Thiele in Bloomington, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rebecca Thiele