Defendant gardener – Green thumb meets red tape
Ray McGrath normally volunteers at the Georgia Perimeter College Botanical Gardens on Wednesdays, but on April 9 he had court.
McGrath waited quietly on a bench outside of the courtroom in downtown Atlanta, his hands folded in his lap, clutching an envelope containing details of his case. He faced charges of having a “premises covered with high weeds and overgrowth.” He was threatened with a fine of $250, reduced from the $1,000 he was threatened with back in September 2013.
That premises is his Kirkwood home on Howard Street. He’s lived in Kirkwood since 1982. The high weeds and overgrowth mentioned in the citation is his English Country Garden, which is a style of gardening that follows no rigid pattern and contains plants of varying height. McGrath works in the garden every single day.
His front yard is different than the other manicured lawns on the street, but that’s what McGrath finds so interesting about it.
“One of the things that really interests me about gardening is the fact they’re always changing,” he said. “What you see in the morning and what you see in the afternoon is not the same.”
Someone didn’t see McGrath’s garden the way he sees it, and filed an anonymous complaint with the city’s code enforcement office. That’s when McGrath’s legal troubles began.
Mike Ayling, a Kirkwood resident who showed up to McGrath’s court hearing, remembers when the local gardener received his citation. His wife is a member of the Parent Teacher Association at Toomer Elementary, and she often walks past the garden with their children. Sometimes they stop and McGrath teaches them about the plants he’s growing. On that particular day, he was upset, Ayling said.
“He felt like somebody was trying to get rid of him,” he said. “He’s concerned that some newer residents aren’t interested in diverse people and gardens.”
He’s retired now, but McGrath spent 18 years teaching drafting at Atlanta Technical College. He majored in architecture at Ohio University. He’s originally from West Virginia. He speaks tenderly to his plants and even when he’s frustrated, there’s softness in his voice.
McGrath’s interest in the subject of gardening is infinite. He’ll talk anyone’s ear off about it and wants to ultimately convert them. He loves to look at the flowers in his garden and takes note of all the local specimens, like the blue-eyed grass and azaleas.
“They’re also critically important to the environment,” he said. “That is the only food supply. Only plants make food.”
The plants have also made a lot of trouble for McGrath. He said he could never get city code enforcement officials to explain to him how he could bring his yard up to code. After several months of haggling, he attended a hearing on Feb. 26, also a Wednesday, and was at the courthouse from 8 am to 1 pm trying to argue his case.
“I pleaded guilty to having an English Country Garden,” he said with a smirk.
He didn’t bother to get a lawyer, reasoning that he would spend more than $250 on his defense.
“I felt like I was throwing good money after bad,” he said.
After his hearing on Feb. 26, his neighbors got together and started reaching out to the city solicitor’s office on his behalf. They bombarded solicitor Lauren Clayton with emails. The messages got through. While McGrath was waiting outside the courtroom on April 9, Clayton stopped to talk to him. She told him the charges would be dismissed.
“My email inbox is going to breathe a sigh of relief,” Clayton said.
McGrath wore a tan blazer and stroked his long white beard as he sat in the courtroom, waiting to hear his name. Ayling sat next to him and Earl Williamson, a member of the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization, sat behind them. McGrath was upbeat.
“I can see the horizon,” he said.
About 90 minutes into the hearing, McGrath heard his name. He walked up to the podium and spoke a few words to the judge. She dismissed the case and the defendant gardener left with his two supporters from the neighborhood.
McGrath said he wanted to be sure that his case was dismissed so he could move on. Williamson promised he’d get the documentation from the hearing.
“It shows some flaws in code enforcement, and they need more training to be able to differentiate overgrowth from other styles of gardening,” Williamson said.
McGrath said he hoped his case would set a precedent for other unconventional gardeners in Atlanta. He said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“I have no remorse,” he said.
After the hearing, McGrath went back to his Kirkwood home. He put on denim, gloves and a hat. He grabbed a shovel and headed out to work in his garden.
See more: Here are some additional photos of McGrath working in his front yard.