I was recently watching YouTube looking for new and interesting garden practices and heard a very popular gardening content creator say that having a garden is a privilege. I was very bothered by this statement. So bothered that I ended that video and moved on to something else. Since then I have thought long and hard about why that statement caused me so much annoyance; I’m not certain that I have the answers, but I hope to share my thoughts and concerns with all of you.
One change I faced moving from rural Texas to the front range of Colorado was the fact that so many of the properties that were available for purchase came encumbered with a Home Owners Association. Since I studied Land Use Planning in college I was very familiar with arguments for and against HOA’s, but personally hoped we would find something that suited us and was HOA free. We looked at several homes that had incredibly restrictive covenants, including restricting or eliminating gardens, and quickly eliminated those. We also looked at several that had no HOA, and offered on four of those (at different times). Unfortunately the real estate market was so competitive while we were looking that our offers were not accepted on any of those properties. The home we selected and were able to purchase did come with a HOA that was and is considered very easy to work with.
Starting my garden this spring ended up bringing me a fair number of headaches due in no small part to the HOA covenants that I had to work within. We moved in May of 2019 and while I was motivated to start a garden immediately, there were plenty of other activities and property improvements that took precedent. The process of making an improvement to the property starts by submitting a request through an online property management site that details what improvement you want to make, what materials you will use, and an approximate timeline. Our first request was to install an interior fence for our dogs. The second request I made, just days after the dog fencing, was to begin putting in fruit trees, shrubbery, and a vegetable garden. After the request is submitted an Architectural Review Team is supposed to review it and reply within thirty days. Our covenants say that the goal of all of these requests is to approve and not otherwise. If a response is not received at the end of the thirty days then the project is approved by default.
Thirty five days after the first request was submitted we had received no response. Wanting to be especially cautious, we sent an additional email to the head of the Architectural Review Team attempting to verify our approval. That person responded saying that we could go ahead with our plans to build a fence; the trees and garden were not remarked upon. By this time it was well into August. I was determined to get a few fruit trees in for fall planting to allow strong root development over the winter months while accepting that the timing was wrong for starting my garden and chose to wait on that for this spring. We immediately went to work on the dog run and door, so they had more freedom.
This spring I ordered twenty yards of compost and set about creating a no dig vegetable garden. This was at the same time that our state went into Safer at Home mode. With the significant changes to household life, the new assistance my children needed to adapt to school via Zoom, and all of the rest of the disruptions from this pandemic I moved more slowly than I would have liked. That means that some of the mound of compost has been in the same place from March on through this first week of November.
Also this summer our HOA renewed their association with the property management company that reviews our subdivision for violations of the covenants. For the company that meant that they became more ardent in their desire to send out violation notices. They made more drives through the neighborhood and began sending out violation notices.
My compost pile and our fence became points of contention without my household being aware or prepared. Additionally, several of our trees died during the extreme drought of this year and I chose to have them cut down and chipped with the plan of using those wood chips as mulch. Now there was a fence that not everyone thought should exist and two large piles that could be called unsightly were very visible on our property.
One morning the secretary of our Home Owners Association knocked on our door and told us that she did not feel we were following the covenants. She stated that we had not gotten permission to make any of these visible changes. Additionally, she was uncomfortable with the incomplete projects on our property. Days after that we began to get notices of fines from the property management company.
My husband and I did not expect these actions, but we were able to pull together the documentation from our previous requests and subsequent fencing approval as well as the non-reply approval for the other concerns. This was then directed to the President of our HOA, who showed up at our home to discuss the situation. For me this was an oppertunity to get the information on how the process should work.
Everything was hashed out and, due to the previous problems of information sharing, the HOA president asked me to submit an addtional request on the gardening and landscaping plans. Under duress, I did.
My garden was about half of what I wanted it to be, but was growing tomatoes, chard, squash, beans, beets, and so much more, as they were wanting to go through the approval process again. The privilege they felt they had in being able to dictate where and how I spent my time and effort on my own property was galling, or that was how I felt about making what was in my eyes a third request for something that was already approved by their own indifference.
I went through the process again, including the documentation for my previous requests. I will admit that I was not nearly as polite in my third request as I was on the two previous. I also joined the Architectural Review Team with the determination that no one else would need to deal with the frustration that I had just gone through.
In September I received an approval specific to my garden and fruit trees. The qualifier that the Review Team added was that all piles of materials must be used by the end of November. As the temperatures were dipping, I had already been hard at work on these projects. The wood chips had already been spread as mulch around the property. I had added several compost beds for next spring’s planting. Very little of the mounds still exist, however, that is still a regular part of my weekly projects.
After all of this drama, I hated to think of my garden as a privilege.
Under normal circumstances my garden is a space of quiet joy. It is a place where I experiment with new plants or techniques. It is a place where I share the excitement of growth with friends and children; where we can all learn something every day. For those who are less interested in the plants but willing to do something “gross” (my nephews), my garden is where we go bug hunting, both during the day and at night with a black light flashlight.
The neighborhoods surrounding ours developed after and are very clearly suburban. They have yards, fences, and landscaping that is very comparable to each of their neighbors. I regularly walk the dogs through these neighborhoods. Very few houses have vegetable gardens. One set of townhouses has a community garden that I love to walk by.
Our friends in the area have not been gardeners, though three households started this year. Before the pandemic we had volunteered to allow the any family with our girl scout troop to plant and grow their gardens here. I have offered seeds, seedlings, compost, worms, books, and any other resources available to me to anyone interested. I know this is my lifestyle and I am more than happy to share anything that will bring others to it.
I don’t want gardens to be a thing of privilege, but instead to be places of joy, health, and community.
Tags: garden, HOA, lifestyle