“Growing Not Mowing” is somewhat our family motto when it comes to gardening—and has been since 1995. This philosophy is likewise true for many other Ann Arborites. After all, it appeals to Ann Arborites because they generally have a healthy concern for the environment as well as a keen aesthetic sense.
In the name of open transparency regarding easement gardens, a little bit of self-disclosure about my own gardening experience, to make you aware of my personal bias when reporting.
About 23 years ago, when my husband and I moved into our Ann Arbor home, we dug up all the grass in our easement, front yard, and backyard and replaced it all with mostly perennials. We did this in part because we didn’t want to lug out a dirty lawn mower regularly, but more so because we knew flowers were both beautiful and good for the environment – bees, birds, critters, rain drainage, etc. We also thought people walking by on the sidewalk would enjoy the gardens and maybe speeding cars would tend to slow down to take a gander.
Later, our gardens became an educational setting for our son, and others— prompting learning about the various plants, observing the insects, and playing a role to take care of Mother Earth. In addition to being a published journalist/writer since 1989, I am also a certified teacher (since 1993), and I find gardens are an outstanding venue for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary studies. For instance, we have studied the Fibonacci sequence in the spirals of coneflowers and sunflowers when meandering in the gardens. Observing the behavior of bees, birds, rabbits, and other creatures roaming in the garden continues to be a joy of science and leisure.
Some of the greatest thrivers in our gardens over the years has been the lavender-colored Russian sage, the bee-loving echinacea, magenta yarrow, almost tropical-like hibiscus, fuzzy lambs ears, hardy daisies, shade-loving hostas, spicy Greek oregano, multiplying mint, and ready-for-fall golden rod. Most of the plants initially came from relatives, friends, and neighbors. Likewise, I gladly divide and share many perennials when I am able.
Furthermore, I have written numerous articles about the “Growing Not Mowing” movement, for such publications as “Ann Arbor Observer” and the now defunct Heritage papers, particularly when it applies to easement gardens. I have reached out to many neighbors, community members, and even a professor over the years about their views on easement gardens.
So I wanted to be upfront about my own personal bias on easement gardens, I think they are generally great for our world and wonderful to gaze at.
Lawn Extension or Easement Garden
A “lawn extension” according to the Ann Arbor city ordinance refers to the property between the sidewalk and the the road, which is owned by the city, but is maintained by the adjacent property owner. Owners are allowed to maintain vegetation, flowers, gardens, bushes and trees there for their own and onlookers’ benefit. People have also referred to this area as easement gardens, or e-gardens.
Ellen Banta is a math teacher who retired from the Ann Arbor public school system in 2016. She has lived in Ann Arbor for 36 years, since 1982. She decided to create an easement garden for practical and artistic reasons.
“In 2006 my partner, at the time, Joel Geffen and I decided to create a rain garden to collect the water from the sump pump that was flooding the front yard,” Banta recalled. “This also entailed regrading the front yard. Since we were changing the rest of the front yard we decided to take on the easement. It was our plan to eliminate as much grass as possible. Joel is an artist and was heavily invested in making the house and grounds more aesthetically pleasing. I on the other hand had a very clear understanding of the tremendous amount of initial work that this would require.”
Flowers that Banta has cultivated over the years in her easement garden include lily of the valley, trillium, bell flowers, rose campion, cone flowers, black-eyed susan, irises, hostas, astilbe, coreopsis, tulips, and hyacinth.
Banta said she had some important considerations to keep in mind when planting the garden.
“They (the flowers) were chosen to try to provide color and visual interest/texture throughout the year,” said Banta. “Most of the plants were split from flower beds that were in the back yard, a few were purchased to round out the beds. Some of the plantings have come from friends and neighbors. Sometimes it takes a village to make a garden. I divide and share what I have when I can. It is a joy to see plants from my garden thriving in someone else’s garden.”
Banta spends time relaxing and enjoying her garden regularly.
“I have two white rocking chairs in the front yard and often sit out there and read a book,” said Banta. “The garden is a wonderful conversation piece, neighbors will stop and talk as they take their walks. I have included a few pottery birds in the garden and children enjoy those. “
The easement garden has largely been a labor of love for Banta, and many other gardeners.
“Initially removing the grass and preparing the soil is a lot of work but after that the care is minimal and the joy is tremendous,” explained Banta. “ My gardens in the past had been in the backyard and were private. The easement garden is a very public garden and it feels like a way of giving back. Gardens can bring a sense of peace in a chaotic world. As I drive around town and see the tremendous variety of easement gardens I am thankful to all who have taken the time to plant and maintain a garden. My mother used to say, ‘one is never closer to God then in a garden.’”
This is Part 1 of a three-part series from WeLoveAnnArbor by local writer Donna Marie Iadipaolo focusing on the growing number of easement gardens proliferating around Ann Arbor.
Donna Marie Iadipaolo (M.A., M.S.) is a professional educator and journalist and a regular contributor to WeLoveAnnArbor.com.