A widowed grandmother is defying an order to trim shrubs in her front yard after her local council ruled they posed a “health and safety risk” because they clogged the sidewalk.
Becky Curtis, 84, regularly receives admiring comments from neighbors and passers-by who are impressed by the plants outside her 18th-century Grade II listed home in the Constable Country village of Dedham, Essex.
But copious amounts of rain in recent weeks has meant that foliage has been dumped over its 30-inch wall and onto the sidewalk, more than in previous years.
Green-fingered Ms. Curtis insists there is still a three-foot gap clear of obstacles, allowing people to walk past with ease.
Ms Curtis received a letter from the parish clerk telling her the shrubs (pictured) are “blocking the sidewalk for pedestrians”.
Becky Curtis, 84 (pictured), says there’s still a three-foot gap for pedestrians to cross the sidewalk unhindered – and the shrubs are only slightly further out than in previous years
But Dedham Parish Council has decided that her balotta, acanthus and choiysa plants pose a potential hazard and urgently need pruning to clear the footpath in front of her south-facing garden.
Ms Curtis was shocked to receive a letter from the parish clerk telling her that “various complaints” had been received about vegetation “encroaching on the pavement”.
It said: “Could you please cut back the overhanging vegetation so that the sidewalk is not obstructed for pedestrians. Thank you for your collaboration.’
Ms Curtis, who trained as a horticulturalist in the 1950s, is resisting the call with the support of many villagers.
She worries that a large-scale pruning will deprive local bees of their annual feast on the pink flowers of her two giant balotta plants when they bloom later in the summer.
Ms Curtis said: “I always prune the balotta back as hard as I can without killing it each autumn and I don’t see why I should do it before it has even flowered. We must do what we can to help the bees.
Ms Curtis’ daughter-in-law wrote a poem in support of the plants, which features on a sign outside her mother-in-law’s house
Mrs. Curtis’ home (centre) is a Grade I listed 18th century building. She was born in the house she now owns and carefully tends the shrubs every year
“I was quite surprised when I received the letter saying the Council had received complaints. They didn’t say how many complaints. It was probably just one person.
“I spoke to a lady from the council and she told me that I had to comply as it was a health and safety issue.
“I’ve been told that someone with two children and a stroller and a dog might have trouble getting by.
“But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to do it because it’s going to look just awful if I cut it back now, so I’ll leave it for now.
“I don’t want to do anything unless I’m absolutely forced to. I don’t want to make the village look dreary.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to absolutely supports me and believes the Council is talking nonsense.
“People are not sure if the local council really has the power to force me to do anything.
“The woman from the community told me that there needs to be room for people with strollers and dogs, but there is still plenty of room on the sidewalk.
“I’m a bit stuck because the council will be angry if I don’t do anything, and if I cut it, people will be like, ‘Why did you do that?'”
Ms Curtis, a widowed mother of two with five grandchildren, was born in her historic family home in the village of High Street before moving out and then returning some 50 years ago after being married for five years.
She planted her shrubs in her front yard 30 years ago alongside plants that have been growing around the house for more than 100 years.
She is a longtime member of the Dedham Horticultural Society and said people often stop by her house and ask about her garden.
“The plants have always grown over my wall, but this year they’re only six to seven inches out on the sidewalk because they’ve only gotten bigger with all the rain we’ve had.”
Ms. Curtis received an anonymous message from a visitor in support of her plants, which read: “The world [is] sometimes less neighborly. Don’t take it to heart
Ms Curtis’ daughter-in-law wrote a poem on a sign in support of her plants and placed it in her garden for it to be read by tourists, who are drawn to Dedham and the surrounding countryside, which features in works by artist John Police officer.
One visitor to the village even stuck a napkin through her door with a handwritten message and said: “We passed your beautiful house and enjoyed your front yard. It brings joy and beauty to the road and supports our air quality.”
It continued: “The world [after Covid is] sometimes less neighborly. Don’t take it to heart.”
Ms Curtis’ neighbor Lucy Casey, 45, said: “The plants are beautiful and are not causing any problems at all.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to thinks the Council is crazy. It’s ridiculous that they are so pushy.
“Several people complained about the lack of parking for residents who don’t have driveways. The Council didn’t seem to care at all, but they do like to make a fuss over a few harmless plants.”
Mary Jones, 63, from Purley, Surrey, who was visiting on the day, said: “It’s a stunning performance. The balotta looks lovely and it would be a shame to destroy it by pruning it back now.
“There is a lot of space on the sidewalk. You could easily come by with a wheelchair or a mobility scooter.”
Dedham Council Secretary Carol Harbach insisted the council was entitled to take action against sidewalk blockages in some cases, but could not comment on what enforcement action might be taken.
The council said in a statement: “We have received a number of complaints from other residents and we are not asking people unless it is a health and safety matter.
“We have a duty as Council to comply with these requests to cut back vegetation where it is overgrown.
“It’s something that impedes the footpath and we have a duty to deal with hedges and keep the footpath safe.”