Prodded by a homeowner whose prairie plantings were mowed against his will, the city of Minneapolis has come up with a plan to let lawns go natural.

Some suburbs have already taken the step of allowing natural plantings in place of grass, accepting their environmental benefits over the objections of some neighbors who think they look unkempt. After working for more than a year, Council Member Cam Gordon thinks he has struck a balance that allows homeowners to use native plants and calms the fears of those who worry that their property values will plummet. A public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 22.

The "managed natural landscape" proposal by the council's only Green Party member follows some well-publicized incidents in which city inspectors ordered the scalping of native plantings or other non-traditional grasses.

Last year, the city ordered the shearing of the sheep fescue that Michael Anschel planted in his north Minneapolis yard. The prairie grass was declared a nuisance because it had topped the city's eight-inch limit.

"My yard was kind of what set it off," Anschel said. As his yard recovered, Anschel served on a task force with inspectors and landscapers who help craft the proposal.

The proposal defines the new type of landscaping as an intentional planting of native or non-native grasses, wildflowers, ferns, shrubs, trees or forbs. They're allowed to exceed the city's normal nuisance ordinance threshold of 8 inches in height, or grass that has gone or is about to go to seed. They can't include noxious weeds and have to be maintained to avoid "unintended vegetation." Unkempt turf lawns are specifically prohibited.

According to a staff report, yards of native species require no mowing and little or no watering, fertilizer or herbicides, and offer deep root systems that hold soil in place and decrease runoff. Although such landscapes have been increasing in Minneapolis, they survive at the discretion of inspectors, the report said. In 2005, a carefully tended prairie planting at the Minneapolis YWCA on Lake Street was mowed to stubble by the city.

The city issued almost 10,000 orders to cut tall grass and weeds in 2010; it has an estimated 100,000 residential lawns.

Some suburbs have long had ordinances allowing native landscaping, although some require setbacks from lot lines or approval of planting plans. "It's very rare" that such landscapes draw complaints, according to Leslie Stovring, Eden Prairie's environmental coordinator.

A key part of Gordon's proposal is periodic training for inspectors on the difference between standard lawns and the types of yards the proposal is meant to encourage. The proposal doesn't require signs signifying an alternative landscape, but the staff report says they can help reduce complaints from neighbors and give guidance to inspectors.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438