It’s a decent West Side location, but with no lawn and no garage, the house is not the typical realtor’s “hot property.” Yet even amid our slumping economy and housing crash, it moved in just hours, without ever hitting the open market.
Built in 1895, Doug Hawes Davis’s 1,244 square foot railroad house near the Scott Street Bridge features 3 bedrooms and multiple updates, but no grassy yard to speak of—so little in fact that he hasn’t mowed in a decade. And while a recent appraisal said the house is worth $219,900, a local realtor and many others say the house is probably worth a whole lot more.
Why? In large part it’s because Hawes-Davis has spent the last 12 years methodically converting his lot and a half into a personal farm and orchard. Today, the cheap, local, organic food he grows makes up a significant portion of his diet.
“I’m not completely sure about percentages, but it’s in the neighborhood of 50 percent, maybe 70 percent, if you include elk, deer and swapped goods,” he says.
Hawes-Davis has planted apple, peach, plum, cherry and pear trees, along with raspberry, strawberry, honeyberry, thimbleberry, elderberry, blackberry, grapes and currant bushes. Combined with hunting, the pickled, dried, canned and otherwise preserved bounty from his gardens meets most of his needs.
Sound like a lot of work? Perhaps, but it’s not as if Hawes-Davis is dedicating his life to growing and preserving food. Many will recognize his name as the founder of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, as well as a cofounder of High Plains Films. Many of his movies, including “Libby, Montana,” This is Nowhere and Killing Coyote have won international acclaim. In other words, he’s been busy, and not in his yard.
To keep weeds and invaders at bay, he’s fenced his property completely and covered the ground with landscaping fabric. To save time and water, soaker hoses irrigate the trees, shrubs and other plant. This built-in efficiency, says Hawes-Davis, makes his urban orchard easier to manage than a conventional yard.
“I don’t know what it takes to maintain a manicured grass lawn but I see the mowers out there all the time,” he says. “I haven’t owned a mower in 12 years.”
Owners of non-conformist yards have a history of drawing fire from value-sensitive neighbors and the city government, which steps in to regulate things like slope angles and fence heights. Plantings on city land, like the 12-foot by 45-foot swath of boulevard separating the sidewalk in front of Hawes-Davis’s home and Cooper Street, can be subject to additional scrutiny. So far, however, he’s avoided trouble.
“There’s a permit process involved when putting trees in the boulevard, and fruit trees are not really desirable,” says Scott Stringer, Urban Forester for the City of Missoula. “There’s no ordinance that particularly prohibits them, but they’re not recommended.”
While fruit trees can promote any homeowner’s food independence, they can also cause headaches, says Springer. They attract wildlife and their branches are prone to break when loaded with heavy fruit or when climbed by kids. And if they’re planted in the boulevard, fruit fermenting on the ground can force the city’s hand on cleanup. In other words, he says, they can turn a boulevard into a nuisance.
Hawes-Davis sees it differently. He has carefully cultivated 11 dwarf peach, apple and cherry trees in the boulevard, regularly drawing compliments from neighbors and other passersby. “I can’t tell you how many people walk by and say, ‘I just love this stretch of boulevard!’” he says.
When Hawes-Davis moved into the house, three giant box elder trees loomed over the boulevard, shading his entire front yard and limiting his garden to the back yard. When a couple Missoula Parks and Recreation trucks showed up, cut down the trees and hauled them away, Hawes-Davis couldn’t have been more pleased. “I’d been conspiring about cutting them down anyway,” he says, adding that he planted fruit trees immediately and has yet to receive a complaint—certainly not by the potential buyers of the property. While Hawes-Davis intended to list his home through Prudential Missoula Realtor Mike Schmitt, a pre-selling agreement e-mail to 30 friends elicited multiple rapid responses, including an offer for his asking price.
Hawes-Davis says that the property’s potential for food production proved a major attraction for the current buyers, but Schmitt points out that agricultural use remains outside the scope of standard residential appraisals for urban residences.
“This is obviously an attractive property, but it’s value would go right over most appraiser’s heads under the old-school way of appraising,” says Schmitt. “They would rather see a double car garage than raised beds.”
However, says Schmitt, some homebuyers have strong personal preferences that defy convention, such as growing food instead of tending a lush, immaculate lawn. “The manicured-lawn crowd would consider it unkempt,” he says. “But I was really going to hammer home the yard as a selling point, and that includes the boulevard.
“In light of food prices, growing what you can just makes sense.”