Join our Email List!





Native garden comes under attack in Wauwatosa!

September 13, 2023  |  Topics: Issues

By Ed Sternberg

The City of Wauwatosa wants to mow down my thoughtfully planted, carefully maintained and legal native garden.

Garden styles must adapt to climate change. Natural gardens have led garden styles for the past generation or so, but people adapt at different rates. For most of the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in my modest inner-suburban home, I maintained my yard in conventional style, with a few small natural gardens tucked into lawn in the back yard. The front yard was all lawn, through lack of imagination and fear of upsetting neighbors. In spring, daffodils and tulips still line the walk to my house. Glorious 90-year-old elm street trees attracted birds, gave shade, and were beautiful.

In about 2008, my city repaved my street, and replaced its curbs, cutting off 40% of the elm trees’ roots in the process. The city also widened driveway pans, destroying more tree roots. Soon after, while the sidewalks got maintained, the gas company drilled under the trees to update gas lines, replaced soil with gravel, and seeded the gravel areas with 95% pure (5% weed) seeds. 

The gravel lawn areas never fully recovered, dying in drought, and inoculating lawns with weeds. My elm survived until the next summer’s hot day with a strong dry west wind, which so dried the elm that its crown split and the elm slumped, dying, onto my and a neighbor’s homes.

After a few years talking with neighbors, fruitlessly trying to repair the lawn without poisoning our water, working with the city forester to grow a new tree with protective gardens, and testing native plants over gas company gravel, I finally realized I could use my master’s degree for research in horticulture at UW – Madison to practice a much older tradition: let native plants sort things out, including a few near-southern implants, such as pawpaws, persimmons, and pecans, thrown in for climate adaptation. A few good friends had good plants, good seeds, and good sense, so a new garden was well planned and cost nothing. In fall of 2014, we replaced all grass between the sidewalk and the street with a native garden—a boulevard garden. Between the sidewalk and the house, for shade, we planted trees—a pocket forest.

Spring of 2015 was cold, wet, and muddy. A neighbor disapproved, and complained to the city—which resulted in our first alleged code violation. A few warm weeks later, my plants grew and flowered, and I responded with what the city regarded as a thesis. The city recognized and accepted my boulevard and yard as legal natural gardens, not just a destroyed lawn (Fig. 1 below).

Sidewalk from the north showing native gardens on both sides.
Sidewalk from the north showing native gardens on both sides.

In 2021, six years later, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF) heard of my gardens (and the unfortunate complaint and citation), and asked me to lead a charitable NRF field trip to my yard with its gardens and trees. I told them I was honored, but had only taught graduate students and postdocs in physiology and molecular and developmental cancer research kind of stuff. They persisted, and paired me with the chief curator at the Wisconsin State Herbarium. I added a meteorologist interested in native plants and climate change, and so an NRF field trip was born: Tree Sex and the City: Pawpaws, Pecans, Persimmons, Oh my! The field trip meets annually in my new outdoor front living room and classroom (Fig. 2 below).

Outdoor living room / classroom.
Outdoor living room / classroom.

Last year, the first year we taught that trip, we focused on plant sex, particularly tree sex. The response was enthusiastic, so we’re teaching it again this year. This time, the world is catching up, generally recognizing the value of these ideas, with a few opposing outliers. These adapting gardens ideas are fun, suddenly stylish, and important (Ref. 1, 2, 7): 

••  Pocket forests:

With the death of the elm, my home’s microclimate became hotter. The way the elm died, we could no longer rely only on city street trees for shade. So we planted trees, trees already adapted to warmer climates. We planted pecans, which had been native only as far north as Iowa (just south of Wisconsin), using nuts from trees raised farther north. We planted pawpaws, which were native only as far north as, well, PawPaw, Michigan, on its border with Indiana. And we planted persimmons, which used to be native as north as about the Mason-Dixon Line or mid-Indiana. We planted a butternut tree, which is now big. A small beech tree grows under hazelnut trees in case climates ever return to “normal.” As things have warmed, all these trees are fine for now.

Pawpaws have the largest fruit of any tree native to North America. Their flavor is a blend of custard, apple, banana, and mango. Yum! So far this year, my pawpaws have their biggest crop yet. A first pecan nut is growing. A squirrel nabbed my first butternut a few days ago. All of this going on around the new addition to my house—my stylish pocket forest outdoor living room.

••  Natives in a time of climate change:

Until now, natural gardens have been somewhat synonymous with gardens of plants historically native to where we plant them. This relationship made sense while our climate was stable. The death of my elm changed the microclimate of my yard, right when our global climates started to climb out of what used to be natural.

The idea of natural gardens started in the 1860s, when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, and later, Milwaukee’s Lake, Riverside and Washington Parks. Olmsted’s idea of natural gardens freed landscapes from old royal box-garden type designs, but with minimal attention to native plants. Sixty years later, Aldo Leopold began teaching how certain aspects of wildness are required to maintain real forests, while Curtis and others at UW – Madison’s Dept. of Botany were figuring out how to restore prairies. Lorrie Otto learned from them in Madison, and around 1980, concerned about dying birds in Milwaukee, founded “The Wild Ones,” now a national organization whose members have fostered natural gardens. With climate change, what’s native also is changing. Whether we want them to or not, our gardens and trees will change with the changing climate, and that will affect the comfort of our homes. Climate change makes the natives restless.

••  Living mulch:

In my boulevard garden, I had to figure out which plants would grow in or near gas pipe gravel patches, where I couldn’t predict what would survive, while keeping a new kind of city tree alive, which in growing would gradually change the habitat. The solution, once you see it, is obvious: Plant a wide variety of native plant seeds and let them sort it out. After all, that’s what a prairie is. Except use more forbs, fewer native grasses, and skew toward short plants, to keep the neighbors happy. And be sure to plant a few mature plants that flower prettily in the spring, so even the slowest adapting neighbors know it’s a garden while the seeds grow (Fig. 2 below).

Street and sidewalk from the south.
Street, driveway and sidewalk from the south.

There are lots of ways to plant a garden. Traditional gardens tend to be collections of prima donna specimens, each in glorious isolation, spatially and biologically, separated by mulch to keep out weeds, and bordered by grass for reasons I don’t know. Prairies create their own living mulch, maintaining soil moisture through their deep roots and collective shade. Living mulch is also getting its day in the sun (Ref. 3). Reasonable communities are adapting such practices into their municipal codes (Ref. 4-6). Wauwatosa already does, and usually honors its own code (Ref 8).

••  The administrators get restless:

By now, you know all this is too good to not interrupt. However, these gardens are now under order from the City of Wauwatosa to be mowed. The City is now, again, ruling that this natural garden and pocket forest at the peak of style, fruitfulness, and municipal service functionality, must be mowed to six inches or less. In spite of what you see in these pictures, all of which is explicitly allowed in municipal code, and prior recognition, the city now alleges these gardens to be lawn grass and weeds. As such they illegally exceed six inches in height, obstruct foot traffic on the sidewalk so you can’t pass without getting scratched, and prevent access to my front door (Fig. 3 below). You be the judge.

Walkway to the front door.
Walkway to the front door.

Planting my gardens and pocket forest has been free. Trips to these gardens are raising funds, all donated to the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. But defending these gardens is now costing thousands of dollars in legal fees, and will cost tens of thousands if the city in its wisdom “mows” my pocket forest and natural gardens.

Editor’s note: Updated 9/15/23

This matter was to be addressed by the City of Wauwatosa’s Board of Public Works on September 18 but the hearing has been delayed. If you live in Wauwatosa, please contact your alderperson and the mayor and express your support for native yards.

Updated 12/17/23

Update on Wauwatosa’s Attack: Natural Gardens in Changing Times

Related story:

Native Species: Our Home is Their Home


1.  Buckley, Cara. 2023. “Tiny Forests With Big Benefits.” New York Times, Aug 24, sec. Climate.

2.  Roach, Margaret. 2023. “Replacing Your Lawn? Instead of a Meadow, Consider a Food Forest.” New York Times, Jul 26, sec. Real Estate.

3.  Roach, Margaret. 2023. “More Plants, More Life, More Pleasure: What Sets the Best Gardens Apart.” New York Times, Aug 9, sec. Real Estate.

4.  “Goodbye to Grass? More Americans Embracing ‘eco-Friendly’ Lawns and Gardens.” 2022. PBS NewsHour. May 6.

5.  Thiele, Rebecca, dir. 2023. “Why Some Homeowners Are Choosing to Replace Their Lawns with Native Plants.” NPR | Morning Edition. Indiana Public Radio: WUWM 89.7 FM – Milwaukee’s NPR.

6.  Ingraham, Christopher. 2023. “Minnesota Cities Can No Longer Mandate Turf Grass Lawns.” Minnesota Reformer, Jul 28.

7.  “Homegrown National Park.” n.d. HOMEGROWN NATIONAL PARK. Accessed May 17, 2022.

8.  “Code of Ordinances | Wauwatosa, WI | Municode Library.” n.d. Accessed August 31, 2023.

All images courtesy of the author. Ed Steinberg is a resident of Wauwatosa.

21 thoughts on "Native garden comes under attack in Wauwatosa!"

  1. L. Lochman says:

    It’s extraordinary, enlightening and harmless. Good job! Please continue to embrace mother nature and educate our children (and the rest of us).

  2. Dave Bishop says:

    This is very unfortunate. Our society must embrace our connection to nature. The war on the natural world must end.

  3. If I’m totally honest he should be trimming the edges of the walkways, any least 4-5 inches next to sidewalks and driveway and roadway and door approach, for safety in a city environment. Some of the trees in the photos might need to be pruned back as well so that they don’t approach the walkways. That should satisfy public access needs. There is no need for the yard to be a complete wilderness to accomplish the goals. Finally, in many cities the city has technical ownership of the streetside strip and can rule what can be there. I wish him the best, hope his “oddity” can remain.

  4. Jim Toth says:

    We too have a native yard, but purposely did not extend it to include the area between the sidewalk and road due to our understanding that while we are obligated to maintain it, technically it is considered public property that could be disturbed by the city for any reason. Also, parking on the street is limited as is, and making our place difficult for passengers to exit their vehicles didn’t seem like a very neighborly thing to do.

    As to the front walk, here again it’s a matter of easy access for, if nothing else, mail and package deliveries. Trimming our overgrowth back to make for a full sidewalk doesn’t feel like an imposition. (Now, our private backyard walk is a different jungle story.)

    We live in cities in close proximity to each other. Compromise is inevitable. Small, good-will gestures can go a long way to defusing situations before they escalate.

  5. Russ Evans says:

    If you’re not retired maybe you have time to become a roving ambassador for nongrass “lawns.” You could find ample examples of what not to do in the town of Genesee in Waukesha County. Charge people for the service.

  6. Susan Knapp says:

    Ed, your yard is amazing! No doubt you have many bees and butterflies living there. Maybe you have endangered Rusty Patch Bumblebees even. Your yard doesn’t pollute the climate with unnecessary fertilizers and other chemicals that can get into our water. You’re also not using gasoline wasting, old machines to maintain a sterile golf course like yard. Doesn’t Wauwatosa have better, more pressing issues to deal with. Everyone’s yard should be more like yours. I am doing that on a smaller scale and enjoy watching butterflies, hummingbirds, bumblebees everywhere. We may be the only one on the block to have fireflies as we leave the fallen leaves in the garden areas. See you at the meeting Monday.

  7. Mary Hauser says:

    I support your garden 100%. We need more citizens who will eliminate (or curtail) manicured green grass lawns. They are totally unnatural and sterilize our neighborhoods.

    I will try to attend the zoom meeting on Monday

  8. djw says:

    I feel your pain. In 2016 I fought the same battle with the City of West Bend. After several months of haggling, the city administrator finally said, “could you just reign it in?” So for the last 7 years, I have diligently shaved the plants off so that they don’t touch anyone walking on the public sidewalk. …but every summer I hold my breath, waiting for the next anonymous complaint about my “weeds”… which are ALL native forbs…
    I’m looking forward to attending the NRF field trip to see your food forest in two weeks!

  9. Angela Raasch says:

    We live near you and my children love walking past your house to admire the plants! I appreciate your use of natural mulch and no pesticides. It would be a tragedy for the neighborhood if the city forces you to mow the garden.

    It’s frustrating that when taking walks outside I have to keep my children and dog off patches of grass freshly sprayed with poison. Walking by your house I know my kids can stop and look at flowers and bugs safely.

    My family supports you and we hope the city can see the benefit your garden brings to our vibrant community.

  10. Judy Newman says:

    Is the City of Wauwatosa aware of environmental benefits of planting native plants. They are a excellent source of food and shelter for the birds, butterflies, and many other insects which out birds need to feed their young. They are our source of food or pollinators which I needed for our vegatables and fruits.
    They help to improve the soil, prevent rainwater from going into the sewer system, don’t require watering in times of drought, no air pollution from gas engines to mow.
    Native plants improve the environment in so many ways.
    I support and planting an maintence of native plants.

  11. Susan Gundrum says:

    Leave this yard alone, it is legal, and the bees and pollinators are needed

  12. Joanne Thompson says:

    Please contact my sister, Mary Braunreiter, horticulturist at Mitchell Park Domes. She may already be aware of your situation, but if not, I am certain she would be a great ally. Her email address is

  13. Anita Hale says:

    What a great thing you are doing and providing pollination for bees as well. It’s great that it’s an educational site and as such worthy of respect. Wauwatosa DPW leave it alone.

  14. Obviously you are an educated naturalist. As an original member of the first Wild Ones who was natured and nurtured by Lorrie Otto I understand your conundrum. However I would suggest considering a modest compromise.Which would be to replace the tall forbs in the spot between sidewalk and street with shorter natives and lowering the edge of the side bordering the side walk to give the appearance of a more controlled design. I think you will find these suggestions promoted by our original attorney and Board Member Bret Rapaport. Those choices will make the entire project more acceptable to the neighbors you want to enlist in your cause. You have ecological arguments on your side but making this compromise with more natives that are shorter and playing up the natural forest forbs under the the trees defining the areas as intentional, I. believe will help your cause. You can submit your compromise and buy time to do this. One bee sting walking through the tall plants near sidewalk will put the entire project in danger. Buy some time and go for a more controlled look. OFFER THE PLANTS TO WILD ONES DIG.. MY GARDEN WAS NEAR A SCHOOL STARTED IN 1974 AND I WENT THROUGH MANY CHANGES ..IE..NO TALL. PLANTS HANGING OVER THE DRIVEWAY OR NEAR THE STREET. AND ART PROJECT AS WELL AS AN ECOLOGICAL ENDEAVOR. BTW WE WERE EVEN VISITED BY ECOLOGIST CHECKING SOIL AND A WINSTON CHURCHILL FELLOW FROM ENGLAND, AUTHORS AND MANY TOURS OVER THE YEARS. I MISS MY PROJECT VERY MUCH. IT WAS 1/2 BLOCK FROM A SCHOOL AND I WORKED ON MAKING IT AN ACCEPTABLE EXAMPLE OF EARTH CARE BEING CARFUL WITH THE EDGES MOVING INTO TALLER PLANTS INto THE MIDDLE. THERE WERE MANY MICRO CLIMATES THAT I PLAYED UP..FOREST, SHORT AND TALL PRAIRE AREAS THE LOOKED UNDER CONTROL AND DELIBERATE. GOOD LUCK. write if you wish to talk more.

  15. Noor Bontz says:

    I don’t live in Tosa (I live 3 houses into the Milwaukee side of Center), but your lawn and gardens are absolutely gorgeous. Tosa needs to realize that the grass is going to die off or be a huge water waste and the best way to manage this moving forward is to do exactly what you’re doing now. Not to mention that the pollinators probably absolutely love being in your yard and it helps sustain their growth/maintenance.

    I would love to know when your next class is or where to get PawPaws and Pecans and what the best natural lawn mixes are to use so I can keep doing something similar (so far, planting clover instead of lawn, letting our vetch go nuts, and spreading pollinator seeds/swamp milkweed wherever I can get it to grow.)

    Thank you for all you’re doing for our area!

  16. Lyn Christoffersen says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and I sure hope you don’t have to mow down your native gardens to 6 inches! I’m a wisconsin transplant currently, living in metro atlanta, and for the past six years, I’ve been slowly converting my backyard and plantings to natives. It started because I learned several of the mature trees in my yard were native, And as I learned more about fruit gardening have learned how important our native plants are. I was super happy to read about your persimmons, pawpaws, and pecans, as I have the 3 same types in my backyard! The pecan was here and I added the pawpaws and persimmons. Love to see that pawpaws are growing in wisconsin! My sister currently lives in the Olde Hillcrest neighborhood in Tosa, so I am sharing this article with her! Good luck to you!

  17. Tami Roman says:

    I planted milkweed and it grew too high in front of my house and was forced to cut it down or be fined. I live in Milwaukee.

    Unfortunately, there are people that have nothing better to do than complain. Misery loves company.

    I support your beautiful garden

  18. Debora Leavens says:

    I am so glad there are people out there, who care for her environment and are willing to do anything to enhance the ability for the ability to live healthy and happy lives. We need these plants and trees to help purify the pollutants in the air that we put there on a daily basis. Thank you so much.

  19. Stan Joseph says:

    I think this garden looks awful for it to be in a city setting. Cut it down.

  20. Linda Tousignant says:

    It’s beautiful

  21. Joyce Cable says:

    Your yard and garden are just fine with me. I wish I lived closer to you so your seeds could blow over into my yard. Over the years some parks lost their beautiful bush-like plants which had become over grown and too dense. People speculated it was unsafe to have so many hiding spaces in public parks so they were sawed down and dug out.

Comments are closed.