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Landscaping Considerations When Buying a House

Warning Signs in the Yard to Recognize: Wetland Plants

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Picture of skunk cabbage.

Skunk cabbages are wetland plants.

David Beaulieu

Perhaps you've heard me say it elsewhere: "Planning before planting is the hallmark of effective landscaping." But did you know that landscape planning ideally begins even before buying a house? Yes, if you care about landscaping, then buying a house entails more than just inspecting the ceiling for leaks and making sure the basement doesn't have flooding problems. For instance, the presence of wetland plants in the yard could signal not only drainage difficulties, but also the potential for less obvious problems.

So when inspecting a property, be aware of warning signs in the yard, too, as well as other yard-related problems. I briefly explore a few such warning signs and problems in the current article, to help you avoid getting stuck with a piece of property that you may not be able to enjoy to the fullest (you may be able to apply some of these tips to the property where you currently reside, too). While none of the problems mentioned here will necessarily be deal-breakers for you when buying a house, they do pertain to quality of life and are therefore worth considering. Below and on the following pages I'll be discussing problems associated with:

  1. Wetland plants
  2. "Super" weeds, such as Japanese knotweed
  3. Living on the side of a steep hill
  4. Homeowners' associations
  5. Annoying neighbors

1. Wetland Plants

Many older houses were built before wetlands legislation began inhibiting house construction on wetland property. While such houses are themselves "grandfathered in," be aware that you may not be able to work the land they sit on in the fashion that your grandfather would have. When we, as a society, became aware that our wetland plants and animals were endangered, we decided to take steps to protect them. And that involves a sacrifice, in the form of restrictions.

Don't presume, then, that just because your name will be on the deed to such land, you'll necessarily be able to do whatever you desire there in the way of landscaping. And that's OK, as long as you've already adjusted your mentality from that of "land owner" to that of "land steward." But I just want to make sure you go into the transaction with your eyes fully open. To that end, let me relate a story....

My father had maintained a brush pile at the same spot on his small property for as long as we could remember, at the end of a path maintained for an equally long period of time. The spot for the brush pile was at the foot of the hill out back, on the edge of a swamp. It was a fixture on the property. Our family had always loved the wetland plants and animals and never imagined the brush pile could be viewed as harmful in any significant way to the natural world (brush is, after all, organic). The brush pile was a magnet for wildlife seeking shelter, and we always respected the surrounding wetland plants.

Well, when dad had a garage built, he had to clear some brush. The cut brush was placed -- you guessed it -- on the old brush pile. When the building inspector came onto the property, he took an "interest" in the brush pile and decided to walk down and take a closer look. Our building inspector, it seems, was also a wetlands officer.

Near the foot of the hill, a great mass of leafy, light-green wetland plants caught the inspector's eye. "You can't bring this brush down here," he said. Shocked, dad asked, "Why?" "See these plants here?" the inspector replied. "This is skunk cabbage. You're on wetland property. You can't have that brush pile over there." Dad had to drag the brush from the brush pile back up the hill, piece by piece. After doing so, he ended up renting a wood chipper to get rid of all the brush; there wasn't really any room for a brush pile in this part of the yard.

The moral of the story? Well, besides not building a brush pile near wetland plants (a minor issue, which I use only as an example), it is this: before buying a house, first walk the property, keeping an eye out for wetland plants -- indicators of a property's wetland status. When you buy such a property, you don't own it to the extent that you might think: someday (if not presently), there may be restrictions on what you can do with the property.

Those who already own homes should take note here, too: if you observe wetland plants on your property, be sure to check with local officials before you undertake any projects (however harmless they may seem) on your land.

It's important to understand, as well, the difference between "wetlands" and "swamps." When buying a house, you may see a swamp on the neighbor's land and be tempted to think, "Oh, I'm in the clear: the swamp is on the neighbor's side." The reality, however, is that, no, you're not necessarily in the clear. The "wetland" may not end where the swamp ends; rather, it may continue as far as the wetland plants extend. That's why it's important to be able to identify wetland plants when buying a house.

Consider, too, that laws change, and the officers who enforce those laws come and go. So just because people get the OK to do such and such on wetlands today, that doesn't mean you'll necessarily have the same right tomorrow. It's a good bet that, in some regions, wetland laws will, in the future, become more robust and be enforced more vigorously than they are currently. Again, if you've adopted the role of "land steward" (as many of my readers have gladly done), that won't pose a problem for you. But if you stubbornly cling to some old-fashioned notion of "property rights," then buying a house on dry land would seem to be a better plan of action for you.

Skunk cabbage (see photo above) is just one of the many types of wetland plants. I discuss some other examples in my article on native wetland plants in North America; the next step would be to buy a good wildflower identification guide.

On Page 2 we'll consider another landscaping-related problem of which you should be aware when buying a house....

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