This is a garden, even though nothing is planted in neat rows.

There are a few carrots over here, a few more over there. Some turnips and a bed of garlic in the front yard between the sidewalk and the street.

Two neighbor ladies, born in Vietnam, harvest the garlic chives for their soups.

Raspberry bushes are scattered around the front and side yard, whose leaves can be made into teas and tinctures that help balance estrogen levels and relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

Anyone can pick fresh berries off the bushes on a walk past the house at 11th and Rose streets.

Though the yard may appear uncared for, some thought went into the plants. 

Nettles, known by most for their stings, grow in the front yard and are used in stir fries by the folks who live in the house. Nettles can help with thyroid issues, allergies, arthritis. Just Google it and you’ll find many uses, says Hana Zara, one of the eclectic group of artists and environmentalists who call the house with the wild lawn their home.

The group harvested and cooked asparagus for several months this spring, then allowed the plants to grow up and go to seed, so there would be more asparagus next year.

However, some of the neighbors — particularly those with green, crew-cut front yards — aren’t enamored with the corner lot, filled to the brim with plants of various sizes and shapes, and have complained to the Lancaster County Weed Control Authority.

Last year, the Weed Control Authority had the yard cut back and sent the owner a $475 bill after about a dozen people complained and no one at the house answered official letters.

Weed Control Authority Superintendent Brent Meyer said the yard "was out of control" last year.

This year, Weed Control Authority staff were able to contact residents of the house, who gave them a tour of their yard last week. This time, the yard got a reprieve from the city's weed ordinance.

"It is borderline, but they are managing it," said Meyer.

In fact, the yard — which draws complaints every year — looks better than he's seen it in his seven years on the job.

The folks who live there now and care for the yard know what the plants are and make use of them. "And they firmly believe in what they are doing,” said Meyer.

The garden plants — from asparagus to wild spinach and basil — are intentional. And as long as the residents continue to manage the vegetation, keep the sidewalk and intersection views clear, Meyer is semi-comfortable it's a garden.

"I'm willing to work with them as long as it complies (with city ordinance)," he says.

What isn’t allowed, Meyer said, is vegetation that isn’t being managed and maintained. “You can’t just let your yard grow up in weeds and call it a yard. You can’t just quit taking care of your property.”

On Monday, the Lincoln City Council is expected to approve changes to the city’s zoning ordinances to expressly allow community gardens in front yards.

The ordinance changes are minor, says George Wesselhoft, a city planner.

There are already several community gardens — where a number of individuals have plots as part of a larger garden — with front-yard exposure, including one on land owned by First Presbyterian Church at 18th and F streets.

The ordinance is intended specifically for urban community gardens, operated by a church, a nonprofit organization or neighborhood associations, to make sure there are no issues with the location of community gardens in the future, Wesselhoft said.

Private gardens, like the one at 11th and Rose, are already allowed in the front yard based on a weed ordinance that bans only ”weeds or worthless vegetation” more than 6 inches high in yards.

But what is worthless vegetation is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

Corn is considered a weed in a bean field. So any plant that hasn’t been planted or maintained is considered a weed, says Meyer.

In recent years there have been more conflicts involving people with different definitions of what is an appropriate yard, said Meyer, who negotiates these disputes as part of his job.

There are yards with low-maintenance vegetation, which uses less fertilizer and less water and no mowing. And these can be allowed under the city weed ordinance.

But you can’t just quit taking care of your property, he says.

He encourages people to talk to their neighbors, educate them about the plants, maybe put up a sign.

It's helpful when people have a map of what they have planted and where "to help us understand what is going on."

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These lawns often take more work than running over the lawn with a mower, he said.

The weed authority takes around 2,000 complaints and does about 8,000 inspections for people who don’t like the way their neighbor's lawn looks, he says.

Ninety-nine percent of the time the issue is a home in foreclosure and the yards are in total disarray, he said. However, other complaints are a difference of opinion about what should be grown around a house.

"We respect people's right to do what they like, as long as they are not infringing on or devaluing the neighbor's property," he said. 

Alan Morris, who owns the house at 11th and Rose, started the unusual lawn in 1999 when he covered much of the grass with horse manure and began growing other plants, he says.

“This whole house represents freedom and what this country is about,” he says.

Neighbors and friends drop by on Saturday mornings to share in the feast and the elderberry syrup. The house residents are planning a midsummer event to educate and bring the community together to eat food grown in the yard, said Zara.

Zara, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, has become an expert on the uses of many plants. Motherwart can treat anxiety. Lemon balm is great natural bug spray.

And she's a defender of the yard.

"Within a mile of this house are six places where you can buy cigarettes and alcohol and not one place to get homegrown produce," she says.

Gabriella Parsons, a UNL journalism student, posted pictures and a defense of the yard on her Facebook page.

Ryan Labenz, a UNL graduate, gardener and philosopher, loves it when parents with a child walk past and the little one stops to touch things.

Growing your own food is a different experience, Labenz said. Picking berries from a bush and scooping vegetables into a plastic bag at the grocery store are not the same.

"This yard represents many things, including freedom of choice," he says.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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