The Johnny Appleseed Model

The Johnny Appleseed Model of Getting Municipal Ordinances Passed (Part 3).

By Bret Rappaport

Thi s is the third installment in a series written by attorney Brett Rappaport, past-president of Wild Ones, on the subject of getting neighbors, communities, and municipalities to recognize the validity of landscaping with native plant communities.

Now that you’ve explored how to show local governments how and why native landscaping is good for everyone, and you’ve learned why weed ordinances are generally part of the governmental rules and regulations, you might want to encourage your municipalities to consider following the “Johnny Prairie Seed Model” to promote native landscaping. The phases of this model are germination and seedling, maturation, blossom, and full bloom.

Germination and Seedling

  • An Idea Takes Root. There must be the germination of the idea, marked by a commitment by the municipality to do it. The first step is to identify a person to lead the mission. It must be only one person, and that point person will be “Johnny Prairie Seed.” As well as being passionate and committed to getting the project done, he or she must be knowledgeable about native plants and the principles involved. This first prerequisite of a point-person cannot be over-stressed. This person must know what will replace the lawn and why it is important that this should happen. It is not enough to have strong feelings about “stopping mowing and watering for the good of the environment.” These strong feelings are much more readily defended if backed by information that is presented in a non-confrontational manner. Smile and bring bouquets of wildflowers and grasses!
  • Involve Municipal Departments. The second step is to involve affected municipal departments. Find out what is the relevant process that needs to be followed. Does your town have a planning board or someone who oversees landscape ordinances? Should public safety, traffic, and public works be involved in the discussion process? An ad hoc committee should be set up to discuss the different implications of native/natural landscaping within the community. This committee should meet several times to discuss and brainstorm about natural landscaping, how it will affect the community in a positive way, and how it should be used, protected, and promoted.
  • Call the Citizens Together. Create a citizen’s advisory committee. A necessary and important component of the Johnny Prairie Seed Model, this committee will bring into the process non-governmental agencies and individuals who will be affected by the program, and who are interested in seeing it come to pass. Members of this committee should represent schools, houses of worship, businesses, and individuals. Editor’s Note: Consider also involving environmental organizations that are active in your community; they may have pertinent information to bring to the table.


  • Your Turn. Assuming that everything else is on track, the next phase is for “Johnny Prairie Seed,” the designated point person, to meet with the municipal attorney. The existing laws should be reviewed, and a model ordinance should be drafted that not only protects, but also promotes, native landscaping in the community. Although citizens advisory committees or other committees should be involved in the actual development of the new ordinance, the law must be drafted by the municipal attorney. Experience has shown that when committees get involved with the actual drafting of the ordinance, what emerges is an incomprehensible, ineffective, and complicated law. The goal is to make the law simple, and then simplify even further.
  • Meet With Your Client. The final step in the maturation process is for “Johnny Prairie Seed” and the municipal attorney to meet with local government officials to adjust and fine-tune the draft ordinance. Keep changes simple and do not engage in a comprehensive rewrite.
  • Reconvene the Committee. To allow the native landscape program to blossom in the community, the sixth step in the Johnny Prairie Seed model is to reconvene the citizens committee to coordinate (i) events, (ii) publications, (iii) short-term and long-term projects, (iv) any other aspects of the natural landscape project, such as integrating the local historical society, or other community aspects into the process.


  • Get It Passed. The municipal council should pass the ordinance as part of a ceremony that presents the concept as part of an overall city beautification and quality of life initiative.

Full Bloom
Once the ordinance is passed, the municipality must take that project – now in full bloom – and continue to promote it.

  • First, municipal properties should be naturally landscaped.
  • Second, municipal resources should be made available to homeowners who wish to landscape with native plants. This doesn’t mean that the city should pay the homeowners to plant native plants, but if the municipality has the resources for a staff botanist or naturalist, that person’s services should be made available to residents.
  • Many cities also have beautification projects where they share the cost of street side plantings or trees with homeowners. The trees offered should all be native.
  • Publications should be made available to educate and encourage others to get involved in the natural landscaping efforts. Some communities, like the city of Highland Park, Illinois, and Dane County, Wisconsin have published entire brochures on natural landscaping in their communities.

Ordinance Guidelines
The following guidelines should be used by communities in drafting new weed ordinances that are aimed at a more benign relationship between yards and nature:

  • The ordinance should protect the fundamental right of residents to choose their own landscaping.
  • The ordinance should apply equally to all residents, as well as the municipality itself and the state, if possible.
  • Any restrictions should have a rational basis, i.e., a legitimate interest in public health, safety, or welfare.
  • The ordinance should not require the filing of an application, statement of intent, or management plan, and there should be no review or approval process, or fees assessed against residents who intend to engage in legitimate natural landscaping.
  • In order to avoid harassment of natural landscapers, the municipality’s “weed commissioners” who will enforce the Natural Landscaping Ordinance should be trained to distinguish between those people who are growing permitted natural landscapes and those with unpermitted growth.
  • Enforcement of the ordinance should be undertaken through due process of law that guarantees individuals the right to fair adjudication of their rights.
  •  The ordinance should actively address the problems of environmental degradation brought about by proliferation of high maintenance monoculture landscapes and the indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals in landscape management. It should encourage the preservation and restoration of diverse, biologically stable natural plant communities, and environmentally sound practices. This would reduce not only contaminants to the environment such as pesticides, fertilizers, pollutants, and noise, but would help reduce the accumulation of yard waste.
  1. Ordinance Model
    A model for a good, fair, and workable modified weed ordinance, one that is simple, easily understood, and allows for natural landscaping, is as follows:

    Public Nuisance: Untended, Rank, and Unmanaged Vegetation
    1. Prohibition
    Untended, rank and unmanaged growth of vegetation on any property within the City which is visible from any public way, street, sidewalk, or alley is declared to be a public nuisance and may be abated in accordance with the procedures set forth in 2-3 of this Ordinance. This prohibition shall not apply to vegetation native to [State or region], provided there is a setback of not less than four (4) feet from the front lot line of vegetation not in excess of eighteen (18) inches exclusive of trees and shrubs.2. Procedure
    The City shall issue a written citation to a Landowner whose property is in violation of Section 1 of this Ordinance. This citation shall inform said Landowner of the basis of the citation and shall include the following information:
    (1) the date of any inspection and the name of the inspector; and
    (2) the names and addresses of any neighbor(s) of the Landowner or other person(s) who contacted the City or was contacted by the City regarding the alleged violation of 1 of this Ordinance. The Citation shall be adjudicated in accordance with Art. _____ , of the Municipal Code relating to adjudication of [traffic offenses].3. Abatement and Penalty
    Upon a finding of guilt in accordance with Section 2 of this Ordinance, the Landowner shall have twenty-eight (28) calendar days in which to abate the nuisance. If he/she does not act, the City may take whatever reasonable action is necessary to abate the nuisance. The costs of such abatement shall be assessed against the Landowner and shall constitute a fine, the collection of which may be made pursuant to the provisions of this Art. – [relating to the imposing a lien on the property].

The result is a community with a landscape ordinance made for the 21st century. Natural landscaping as municipal policy is about looking forward, but it also looks to the past, and recognizes that Mother Nature knows best. Long ago, she determined what plants are best suited to a particular place. The bottom line is that natural landscaping is not only a good idea; it is a key component for creating a healthier, more beautiful, and sustainable landscape in your community. We are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Natural landscaping is a concept that manifests that ethic, and it is an idea whose time has come.


Bret Rappaport is a partner with the Chicago law firm Schwartz, Cooper, Greenberger & Krauss. A committed conservation and native plant enthusiast, he is a leading expert on municipal weed laws and natural landscaping. He is a member of Lake-to-Prairie (IL) Chapter of Wild Ones.