California neighbors clash over one man’s ‘habitat restoration’ in their trimmed surbuban environment.

ORANGE, Calif. – The neighbors call the explosion of growth on Joel Robinson’s property “weeds.”

Robinson calls it natural habitat.

When the confrontations boil over on this otherwise quiet street, Valley Forge Drive, tempers flare, harsh words are traded, and city code enforcement is called in to referee.

The house on the corner, it seems, has gone back to nature. And the neighbors are up in arms about it.

“We pull weeds, and he’s growing them,” said neighbor Joanne Woltz, 82, who, like others on the block, has a manicured lawn and carefully trimmed ornamental plants. “We just look the other way when we drive by. We just don’t like what he’s done.”

Robinson, 31, who grew up in the home where he now lives with his wife, daughter and parents, says he’s received anonymous, threatening notes and even had some of his plants killed with herbicide. He says the situation in the neighborhood has become so tense he is thinking of moving away.

“I’m trying to do something of benefit to everybody,” Robinson said. “I’ve cut fossils fuels almost to zero, created habitat for native plants and animals – and I’m doing something wrong?”

Woltz said she had one conversation with Robinson about his yard, but has since “given up.” Other neighbors, however, have taken more direct action, including complaining to city code enforcement officials.

Gary Redfern says he keeps a file on the yard, but so far left it to other neighbors to call the city – although he might make a call of his own in the future.

“I am totally opposed to it,” said Redfern, who has lived on the street about four years. “It’s been a pet peeve for the neighbors around here. It just doesn’t belong in the neighborhood. It just does not conform to the usual neighborhood landscaping.”

Robinson says he is tired of being “harassed.”

“My whole family is just sort of miserable,” he said.

It started about two years ago, when Robinson, a naturalist who leads interpretive hikes, organizes cleanups and arranges his life to release as little carbon dioxide as possible, decided to try for certification of his property as genuine backyard habitat.

The certificates are issued by the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation group, if homeowners meet certain criteria: native plants at the required density, a water source, suitable nesting sites.

At one point, Robinson put up a sign in his yard saying, “Habitat Restoration in Progress,” with his phone number at the bottom. Someone scrawled across it, “Why?”

Later, he received a note that mocked the wording of his sign: “HABITAT ELIMINATION IN PROGRESS!! YOUR WEEDS ARE GOING TO DIE!!”

The writer apparently made good on the threat, Robinson said. Despite his success in growing native species elsewhere in his yard, one row of plants, just purchased from the Tree of Life Nursery near San Juan Capistrano, Calif., suddenly and mysteriously expired.

“All those plants died,” he said. “Someone sprayed them.”

It wasn’t long before Robinson began receiving notices from city code enforcement officials. Robinson kept the notices and said he’s tried to comply, whether it was with a requirement that he have more ground cover or that he trim back his plants. But the notices kept coming.

Orange city officials did not offer comment on Robinson’s yard last week, but said they were readying a response to inquiries by the (Orange County, Calif.) Register.

A new sign in the yard proclaims his certification by the wildlife group.

Robinson’s yard has a rank, even disorderly appearance, much like Orange County’s natural lands themselves.

The native plants of Orange County, Calif., have always had a public relations problem. That’s especially true during summer; one adaptation that helps them survive the arid months is to go dormant.

To the untrained eye, some look dead – brown or gray and withered – and they stay that way until the return of rains in winter.

“I try to explain the dormancy part of nature, drought tolerance,” Robinson said. “The impression I’m getting is that is unacceptable.”

But a walk with Robinson through his “habitat garden” can work a kind of transformation.

He ticks off the native species that he and his parents have spent about $2,500 to put in place, and that appear to be thriving: coyote brush, lemonade berry, black sage, white sage, goldenbush, giant wild rye, needle grass, wild onion – even a coast live oak sapling, complete with tiny acorns.

He’s planted some evergreens as well. And the goldenbush plants burst into bloom in late summer and fall.

“It’s sort of exciting,” he says. “I tried to mix it up with a season of color type thing. Those are the sort of things I hoped would please people.”

In the backyard, the growth is even more overwhelming: towering mulefat, native grape – with tiny grapes on the vine – stinking gourd, a small native walnut tree grown from an actual walnut, elderberry, more black sage, toyon.

The plants use far less water than a typical lawn, he said, and he has no need for noisy, polluting lawn mowers.

“I didn’t feel like I was breaching any boundaries,” he said. “I was going with the eco-flow.”

His next-door neighbor, high school science teacher Carter James, said he understands Robinson’s efforts, and even grows a few native plants himself.

“Probably a compromise could be reached with Joel and the other people in the neighborhood,” James said. “I think maybe he’s gone a little too far one way, and the people opposing him have gone a little too far.”


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