The New Home Whisperer Column: December 2018

By Sarah Kinbar Ristorcelli

Join us as we discuss the challenges and opportunities that come with HOA-compliant gardening.

Photo: GettyImages/deimagine

“I have been gardening for ten years, and I’ve always done whatever I wanted. Now that I’m moving into a new home community, I’m worried that HOA rules about what can be planted and what can’t are going to stifle my gardening creativity. Will I still enjoy gardening?” -Brianna J.


Let’s talk about poetry for a minute. Like gardening, poetry is a creative endeavor. When Giacomo da Lentini originated the sonnet, he introduced all kinds of rules. The sonnet must have 14 lines. There is a strict rhyme scheme. The structure is immovable. Did poets everywhere throw up their hands and refuse to participate? They did not. The challenge of writing a good sonnet attracted creatives of all kinds, even Michelangelo.

Why some plants are banned

Growing a garden on homeowner’s association territory can be challenging if certain plants are on the blacklist. But before your hackles are raised, consider the reasons some plants aren’t allowed.

In my HOA community, invasive plants that spread too quickly are banned. One neighbor disregarded this and planted fast-growing bamboo. The bamboo sent out runners and son culms emerged throughout the neighborhood. Those unwieldy bamboos were on a rampage. They had to come out. Six years later, they still turn up from time to time.

Some plants are so thirsty that they drink gallons to the cup in comparison with their water wise counterparts. Often, HOA rules will ban planting such plants to keep water usage down. We can all agree that using less water is a good thing.

Eco-friendly gardening

HOA gardening is not unlike eco-friendly gardening. While one is mainly about creating uniformity and preserving home values, the other is mainly about protecting natural resources. Now step back a bit and notice how both involve restrictions, limitations, and boundaries.

Some gardeners have resisted adopting the lessons yielded by environmentalists, but many have not. Perhaps because we are lovers of the earth, we are willing to adapt and grow as we learn gardening techniques that leave less of a footprint.

This usually includes a tailored plant list, similar to what you’ll see in your HOA rules. If a gardener can make room for eco-friendly ways, is it out of the question to hold space for your HOA?

Plants you can have

Considering the flip side of this issue -- what about all the plants that ARE permitted? Obsessing about the plants you can’t have leads to a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction. I do realize that by nature, gardeners suffer from more of their fair share of obsessions. Collecting, observing, discussing, revising: These are all hallmarks of the gardener’s identity. What if you can redirect that energy into making the most of the plants you’re allowed to plant?

Container gardening

Read over your HOA rules carefully and see if you have more latitude with container gardening. You likely do. Plants in containers interact with the environment differently than in-ground plants. Their impact is substantially less, and in many cases the rewards of container gardening come as a welcome surprise to those who are new to it.

For example, larger, more elevated containers give your back a big break. For decades, I’ve watched my mother huddled close to the ground as she weeds her flower beds. There she is, crouched down, deeply engaged in the business of weeding, getting up-close-and-personal with the soil. It looks painful, though I understand the allure. Compare this visual, however, with my mother standing upright as she tends to tall planters. Definitely more comfortable.

Some HOAs are especially strict about gardening with edibles, and in many cases growing in containers is a perfect solution. You can also look into training edible plants on trellises, or replacing standard hedges and bushes with things like rosemary or even blueberries.

Growing indoors

Not everyone is crazy about houseplants, but houseplants are a thing. A big thing. I did a happy dance when I saw a Curbed article in my Apple Newsfeed listing the most interesting and creative Instagram accounts about houseplants. Due to space constraints and other practical issues, some garders have taken to the indoors, and they have a lot to show for it on Instagram.

It’s hard to pick a favorite. @thejungalow and @thewhiitehouse are picture-perfect and magazine-ready. What’s not to love about about the swoon-worthy vignettes pictured there? Check out all nine on the Curbed list. You’ll quickly convert.

Indoor gardening is about having clear awareness of how indoor climate conditions will affect your plants. It is about pairing your plant with the perfect container. It is about getting an eyeful of your plants because they are always at arm’s reach. Know your plants! They are your brethren.

The indoor gardener must be up for a challenge, which is perfect for us obsessive types.

Circling back to the metaphor I began with, the sonnet, look how easily we moved from considering the restraints of gardening under the jurisdiction of an HOA to pondering the opportunities. I have only scratched the surface!
nlc author image

Sarah Kinbar Ristorcelli is a writer and former magazine editor with a focus on the way people experience designed spaces. Her stories for national and local publications feature the innovations in technology, materials, and design that shape the way we live.

Related Articles