Sunday, May 12, 2019

Am I my neighbor's gardener?

"Their yard is always a mess," writes a reader we're calling Christina. "Overgrown shrubs. Grass out of control. Stray flowers popping up. Just a mess."

Christina reports that the "mess" is contained to her neighbor's yard. If anything expanded out to block the communal sidewalk, she is confident the city would have issued a ticket to her neighbors, as it has done to others in the neighborhood. "I bet a ticket from the city would wake him up," Christina writes.

But Christina has had enough. As a start she wants to dig up some of the random flowers or smaller plants and find them a new home in her or other neighbors' yards where they will be better tended to.

"Since my neighbor has simply let his yard go, is it OK for us to go over and rescue some plantings?" she asks. "He's got some rogue peonies, random daffodils, a handful of tulips, and assorted other stuff. I doubt he would even notice."

About a decade ago, I wrote about a reader from Cypress, Calif., who had a similar question.

She regularly walked by a house whose lemon tree branches spread out across the sidewalk. She wondered if she would be breaking the law or if it would be wrong to pick the occasional overhanging fruit from the tree.

Back then, I responded that it was not illegal to pick the overhanging fruit and that, in fact, her neighbor might be running afoul of the law by violating an ordinance that "disallows vegetation to grow into or over the public right of way -- including alleys, sidewalks and streets -- to the extent that passage of pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles is impeded."

Regardless of the fact that it was likely legal to pick lemons overhanging a public sidewalk, I told the reader that the right thing was to ask the tree's owner permission to pick. And that the owner of the tree should keep his tree pruned to avoid blocking pedestrians and facing the possibility of a fine from the city.

But Christina's case is different. While the neighbor's yard might look unruly, because it's unruly within his private property, it would be wrong for Christina or her neighbors to take matters into their own hands by rescuing anything from the grounds without permission.

Without agreed-upon neighborhood covenants or local ordinances that require residents to keep a tidy yard, what her neighbor decides to do is up to him as long as he doesn't put anyone in danger. It may be un-neighborly to let a lawn go to seed, but it's not Christina's place to remedy the situation by trespassing with shovels and spades in hand.

If Christina or other neighbors want to rescue any flowers or plants, the right thing is to approach their neighbor and ask him for permission. If he agrees, then Christina and company can proceed with their rescue mission. In a perfect world, her neighbor might decide it's time to care for the nature that surrounds his house. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Grandma Bee said...

Question for Christina: How well does she know this neighbor? The neighbor may be having health problems or other things going on, that make it hard to find time for the yard. Even before Christina talks about the yard, maybe she should invite the neighbor for coffee, and just chat. Not even talk about the yard. Find out who this person is!

If the neighbor is a known grump, or otherwise is not open, then just plant morning glories along the fence and you won't have to look at the mess.

Anonymous said...

Turn the matter around. What if Christina's comment went like this: "Since my neighbor keeps an excessively tidy and manicured yard, is it OK for us to go over and tear out some of the plantings?" she asks. "He won't let any of the plants grow the way they're supposed. I need to teach him a lesson."