Gardeners at risk of committing criminal offences

Britons are a nation of gardeners, but how many of us know the laws and regulations related to garden use?

wheelbarrow by a veg patch in garden
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

The sun has been shining in the past week (although that's quickly disappeared for the weekend, obviously), and many of us have begun looking forward to enjoying our gardens once again, when spring gets truly under way. 

A private garden is a boon wherever you live, but the fact that your garden is private and not communal doesn't make you exempt from garden-related legal responsibilities. In fact, research by outdoor experts has revealed that some of us may be unwittingly committing criminal offences while using our gardens. 

We wondered what those could be. So, to help you bear these rules and regulations in mind, and to avoid potential legal disputes with your neighbours (which may, in some cases, lead to prosecution and fines), we thought we'd look into them. 

Picking neighbours' fruit? That's technically theft

Does that old apple tree lean into your garden, with most of the harvest falling on your lawn? Before you make that apple pie with their apples, ask their permission. Otherwise, you will technically be committing theft. The same applies to gathering branches and twigs for firewood. If they have fallen off a neighbour's tree, ask them if you can use them. If they say no, you are obliged by law to return them to their owner. 

Fed up with your neighbour's rubbish and throw it back over the fence? That's fly tipping

Perhaps you're resentful of the fact that you have to keep picking rotten fruit that falls off your neighbour's tree into your garden, or that their cat is driving you crazy by using your garden as her toilet, and you are tempted to toss the foul evidence right back over their fence? Resist this kind of behaviour, as legally it could be interpreted as fly tipping, especially if you can't prove the items' origin. Instead, have a polite chat with your neighbours and try to come to an agreement. Or just resign yourself to doing that extra bit of tidying in your garden, if your neighbours are unfriendly. 

Leaning into their garden to trim an overhanging tree? You could be trespassing

Try to put yourself into your neighbour's shoes: if you woke up one morning to see you neighbour right outside your bedroom window, you would probably be a little uncomfortable. Some people are very private, and may be sufficiently put off by you pruning your trees on their side of their garden to complain that you are trespassing (legally, they would be right). So, as a bare minimum, leave a polite note for your neighbour, explaining what you'll be doing and when, and leave contact details should they want to discuss it further. 

Planning a massive shed that will block their sunlight? You are violating their right to light 

Not everyone knows this, but the ancient Right to Light law, now normally acquired under the 1832 Prescription Act, stipulates that if a window has received natural daylight for two decades or more, the owner of that building is entitled to forbid any obstruction to their illumination.

So, if you are planning to install a tall outbuilding, or plant a mature tree in your garden, it's best to be certain that it won't be blocking your neighbour's access to daylight. If you think that it will, it's best to consult them, or go for a lower structure instead. You'll save yourself much trouble (and money), since your neighbour could request that your shed/tree be removed.

Use your petrol-powered leafblower all the time? That's noise pollution 

Using noisy equipment in your garden isn't a criminal offence per se, but if you produce excessively loud noise regularly, your neighbour could complain to the Environmental Health department of their council about you. Be reasonable: pruning a tree with a chainsaw once a year is fine, but if you use it (or any gardening tool with a high noise level) every weekend, that's not fair on your neighbour. 

The same rules apply to having guests and parties: most neighbours will tolerate a noisy birthday party that runs late a couple of times during the summer, but if you are blasting loud music late into the night every Saturday, your neighbour would not be unreasonable to complain about the noise pollution you are creating. 

Burning bonfires every weekend? You could be fined up to £5,000

Love a barbecue? Try to position it in a way that won't blow all of the smoke into your neighbour's garden, as they could complain about smoke pollution. You are allowed to burn a chimenea, pizza oven, or outdoor fireplace without restrictions, provided that you are burning them outdoors. If you keep any such appliance in your garden room or summerhouse, and the smoke comes out of a chimney in the outbuilding, you will have to follow strict government rules on what materials can be burned in smoke control areas

There are no specific rules on burning a bonfire in the garden, apart from not being allowed to burn food waste in your garden (all food waste must be collected and composted by the council). However,  there are rules on the nuisance the smoke from your bonfire may cause, and the key thing to know about here is again frequency. A couple of bonfires in the autumn are fine, but if your neighbours are breathing your smoke every weekend, you could be fined as much as £5,000.

Tempted to check out their living room through the window while painting your roof? That's snooping

Human beings are naturally curious, and you may be tempted to see what your neighbour's interior looks like while giving your house a fresh coat of paint or pruning. Resist this temptation, as you are technically violating their right to privacy. The same goes for your children: if you have a trampoline in your garden, try to position it in a way that will prevent your kids from checking out the neighbours' house. 

Thinking of painting their side of the fence? That's vandalism

Think your neighbours' shabby fence is cramping your style? Don't paint it along with yours without seeking their permission, as this could technically make you culpable of minor vandalism. And be very careful about attaching anything to someone else's property, even if it's just a nail for your washing line. Always ask them first. 

Need more gardening advice? Head to your dedicated garden pages. 

Anna is a professional writer with many years of experience. She has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. She covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design.