Residential meadow grows controversy

July 11, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

SHARPSBURG -- When critics imply that Deane Joyce is growing a meadow on his lawn because he is too lazy to mow his grass, he can't help but laugh.

Joyce and his wife, Jennifer, estimate since buying the land in 2000, they have spent more than 10,300 hours cultivating, planting and maintaining the grassland habitat that fills most of their three-acre property off Mondell Road near Sharpsburg.

"It's a lot of work," Deane Joyce said. "You're taking three hours a day. It's like going out into your garden and gardening. You have to constantly maintain it."

To dispel misconceptions about their property and explain their reasons for opting for the tall grasses in place of a traditional lawn, the Joyces said they have decided to open their yard to the public and provide tours to anyone who is interested.


Their property has been at the center of a debate since last summer, when neighbors complained the 7-foot grasses violated the height limit in the county's weed control ordinance and asked the county to force the Joyces to trim them.

Now, the grasses are growing back in and neighbors have renewed their protests, just as the Washington County Commissioners are considering potential revisions to the weed ordinance that could exempt projects such as the Joyces' from height requirements.

Facing strong opinions on either side of the tall-grass debate, the commissioners decided at their June 23 meeting to hold a workshop to get additional feedback before deciding what course to take in regulating tall grasses in subdivisions.

The meadow grows

Deane Joyce, 40, a native of Australia, said the idea for the meadow grew out of his love of the Australian bush and his desire to create a similar atmosphere for his new home.

"It was a part of me looking to find security, really," he said.

So the Joyces searched the country for land that would be appropriate for the project and decided on the Mondell Road property, a former cornfield about a mile north of Sharpsburg that had been fallow for about 10 years.

There were few other houses on the road when they moved in, Deane Joyce said.

The Joyces began preparing the land for the meadow before they moved in, but it took years to get the desired plants to grow properly because of the prevalence of thistles, Deane Joyce said.

After a first failed attempt, he sought help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which accepted him into its Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, a five-year program that would help him establish a grasslands habitat.

The USDA provided seeds and specific instructions, but after two years, the grasses still hadn't taken hold, so they cleared the land and started over. Their third attempt succeeded.

Wandering through the field in a floppy wide-brimmed hat one afternoon in late June, Deane Joyce pointed out different grasses and flowers, stopping periodically to cut down thistles with a pair of clippers.

Clipping is only part of his strategy against the unwanted weeds, Deane Joyce said. He also relies on three types of beetles that eat different parts of the thistle plant. He pays $100 for 100 beetles and releases them into the meadow.

Deane Joyce said he has learned about many of the environmental benefits the meadow offers.

The roots on some of the grasses extend 10 feet into the ground and penetrate the clay that lies below. That allows rain to drain down through the clay to a limestone rock layer, which filters the water before it eventually reaches the Potomac River, Deane Joyce said.

He said he can taste a difference in his family's well water because of the purification process facilitated by the roots.

If there is sulfuric acid in the rain, it dissolves the limestone and produces carbon dioxide, which follows the root back to the surface and is absorbed by the plant, making it grow more vigorously, Deane Joyce said. With more land, he said, that process could qualify for emission reduction credits, which can be sold to businesses seeking to offset their emissions of certain pollutants by paying for the reduction of those pollutants elsewhere.

'Peaceful and harmonious'

Deane Joyce said the meadow has deep aesthetic value to him.

"I feel really close to God when I walk through it," said Deane Joyce, who said he is a Mennonite. "It's very peaceful and harmonious, and it gives me a sense of harmony in my life. I meditate on it."

He said he recognizes that just as he gets comfort from his meadow, his neighbors derive comfort from maintaining their shorter lawns.

"I honestly believe that my neighbors, they love mowing," he said. "That's a source of recreation for them."

The Joyces don't expect to convert those who prefer short lawns, but they do hope the county will craft an ordinance that protects the freedom of those with other preferences, Jennifer Joyce said.

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