Dennis Moriarty in his front yard filled with native plants and wildflowers. The city gave Dennis a warning for violating a city code that forbids tall grass and "rank weeds and noxious plants." If he doesn't comply, he could be fined up to $500. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Dennis Moriarty decided to kill his grass and replace it with native wildflowers last year. At 80 years old, he was finding it harder to mow his lawn, which sits at a steep angle. 

“After mowing this property for 20 years and weed whacking it, I decided I’m gonna plant wildflowers, attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds,” he said. “In June, I had abundant flowers out here.”

Now, the native plants on Colorado Avenue tower above Moriarty himself. That’s become an unexpected problem. 

Plants taller than 10 inches can be classified as a “nuisance violation” in Kansas City, Missouri’s code of ordinances. So planting native and pollinator foods like milkweed could put a property owner at risk of a court date — and maybe a hefty fine. While exceptions can be made for native plants, they’re still expected to be “cultivated and attended,” a phrasing that leaves much to discretion.

Kansas City’s neighborhoods department maintains that so long as native plants are properly managed, homeowners won’t be cited for having them in their yard. The issue, they said, arises when the growth mixes with grass and other weeds to become out of control. 

Wildflower debate spreads like a weed

In Moriarty’s yard, vivid orange, yellow and purple blooms top some plants, while others have begun dying off for the winter. The milkweed rises highest of all, sitting like small trees on the right side of the property. Monarch butterflies alight on the blooms, then flutter off, quickly replaced by bees or hummingbirds.

Bees collect nectar from wildflowers in Dennis Moriarty’s front yard of native plants and wildflowers. The garden hosts other pollinators including hummingbirds and butterflies. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

After receiving a warning from a city inspector in early September, who called his plants weeds, Moriarty took to Twitter to share his frustrations. His tweet went viral, sparking a heated debate over the city’s right to manage native plants on private properties.

“The support of so many people (online) overwhelmed me,” Moriarty said. “It caused me to cry over my keyboard. The keyboard wasn’t wet, but my cheeks sure were.”

The city said the issue isn’t as simple as it appears on Twitter.

“Could there be native plants? Maybe, but it’s overshadowed by the growth,” said John Baccala, spokesperson for the Housing and Community Development Department in Kansas City. The image shown in Moriarty’s Twitter post doesn’t reflect the overgrowth the inspector saw, he said, and Moriarty wouldn’t have been cited if it was the only growth present. 

“If the plants are 20 feet high, that becomes an issue,” Baccala said.

Moriarty acknowledged that some of the milkweed was high, but he said he plans to cut back all the plants to no higher than 8 inches once the first frost hits. He’ll allow the seeds produced in the spring and summer to regenerate the yard. He’s also planning to uproot some of the milkweed plants so they don’t overpower the other vegetation.

Native landscaping gains popularity in Kansas City

Kansas City is seeing more people planting native vegetation to reduce their water use and provide natural erosion control, particularly near the Plaza. Moriarity, who lives in the northeast area, said he hasn’t had to water his yard once since transitioning to native plants.

Urban gardening is a new craze,” Baccala said. “What looks like weeds from street level could actually be an urban garden.”

Dennis Moriarty’s front yard filled with native plants and wildflowers. The city’s housing department gave Dennis a warning for violating a city code that forbids tall grass and “rank weeds and noxious plants.” If he doesn’t comply, he could be fined up to $500. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Baccala said the department rarely cites homeowners with native plants in their yard. However, people can sometimes mistake weeds for other species, requiring inspectors to step in and further educate them.

“We have a lot of issues where people confuse native plantings with weeds,” Baccala said. “But quite frankly, we’re not gonna come down with the hammer. Generally, we take them at their word.”

Moriarty said his plants grew from seeds he purchased at Planters Seed Co. and were clearly labeled as a mix of native Missouri wildflowers. When a homeowner and the city disagree as to what the plants are and whether they should be allowed to remain, the issue goes to Municipal Court. There, a judge makes the final determination on the plants’ fate.

Moriarty would prefer to settle the issue without legal intervention. Mayor Quinton Lucas reached out to Moriarty on Twitter after the tweet went viral and encouraged him to direct message the mayor so that the problem could be settled. 

Private yard regulations offer little guidance on native wildflowers

There isn’t a specific entry in the city’s code dealing with the cultivation of native plants in residential yards. Rank weeds are defined as “thickets or any vegetation which may emit noxious odors or any vegetation which is 10 inches or more in height, including but not limited to grasses, and unattended growths of other plants, bushes and shrubbery.” That definition doesn’t apply to cultivated trees, plants, bushes or shrubbery. 

A 2013 report by the Mid-America Regional Council found that city codes governing native plants vary from place to place. In Chesterfield, Missouri, native plantings are allowed as long as no invasive or noxious weeds are intermingled. The plantings must sit 4 feet back from the property line. Minneapolis and Cincinnati both allow exceptions to their respective height rules for native plantings, and Minneapolis has no setback requirements.

Native wildflowers in Dennis Moriarty’s front yard filled with native plants. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

MARC commissioned a model ordinance in 2020, which heavily encouraged the use of native plants in private development. Its authors found that landscape regulations, particularly nuisance regulations, can inadvertently discourage the use of native plants and native landscape design styles. Communities that would like to improve their natural environment should consider changes to their weed policies. However, the model recommended allowing citations and other penalties for unmanaged plant growth, regardless of type. 

Baccala said the housing department has had discussions about the new challenges posed by native gardening but has made no changes at this point. 

Moriarty said he feels targeted because he lives in a lower-income area where blight is prevalent, and fines and citations are common.

“They misjudge people in poor areas,” he said. “There are abandoned and burned buildings in the area, and they want to cite me for this.”

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Emily Wolf was a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She was a Report for America corps member.