12 ways you could be breaking the law in your garden

Your fruit or mine? How to avoid fines and unnecessary neighbour disputes in your own back yard

With autumn in full swing, it might be that you want to do some final sprucing of your space before winter sets in. But before you whip out your saw to cut back that branch overhanging your garden or put up some new fencing for extra privacy, take a minute to check that you are aren’t breaking the law.

We asked James Forrester of Barrows and Forrester what is the biggest cause of neighbour disputes in the garden. He tells us that one of the most common issues is to do with boundaries, and often involves fences and hedges.

So can you safely go ahead with those seemingly harmless garden jobs? We did some digging to give you the facts on what you can and can’t do in your own back yard.

A couple on their knees doing the gardeningCredit: Shutterstock/Wavebreakmedia
Gardening is an enjoyable hobby – but be careful you aren’t breaking any laws

Gardening expert Peter Ivanov of Fantastic Gardeners, tells us: “Maintaining a back garden in the UK, naturally comes with certain legal responsibilities and regulations that gardeners should be aware of to make sure they aren’t breaking the law.”

“To avoid any issues or associated fines, it’s very important to do research and be knowledgeable of both local and national regulations, as they can vary by region.” 


1. Removing or pruning trees 

It is an offence to damage or carry out work on protected trees without authorisation

Half, if not most, of the fun of gardening is the act of getting on your gloves and working with the soil. But what you might consider light landscaping of your property could land you with a fine if you’re not careful.  

Many trees are protected by tree preservation orders (TPOs). Ivanov notes: “TPOs are put in place to protect important trees, and, in such a situation, you would need permission from your local council to carry out any work on them.”

Failure to gain permissions could subject you to a fine of up to £20,000, according to the Woodland Trust.   

TPO or not, be sure to check what plants you will be able to take with you when you move, as it’s not as straightforward as you may think. 

2. Cutting back tree roots and branches

You should be safe provided the tree doesn’t have a TPO, and it’s done with care

The same goes for tree roots and branches. You can cut those within your garden’s boundary, provided the tree at hand is not under a TPO. Furthermore, the RHS notes that you should make sure that you are well-equipped to do a decent job, as if any damage is caused to the tree by your pruning, you could be in trouble. 

“Branches should be OK,” says Forrester.

As for the roots, he highlights that it depends on where they are coming from and on what the outcome will be. Cutting roots from your neighbour’s tree could redirect the growth of that tree, or cause damage.

“If it falls down or dies, for example, they could put in a costly claim for a replacement tree of the same age or size,” he adds. The solution? Speak with your neighbour(s) beforehand. 

What is the primary cause of arguments in gardens?  

Forrester says it’s probably garden additions, like walls and outbuildings, as these can impact a neighbour’s view quite significantly.  

Start with having a conversation first but to be on the safe side of the law, Forrester says: “The easiest way to do it, say with putting up a garden wall for example, would be through your title deed and then to get a surveyor in.” 

They will be fully insured, take all the measurements and check it all. “Yes, you’ve got to pay for another professional to come in, to give you the reports that you need, but at the end of the day that’s what you have to do.” So it can be worth it, advises Forrester.  

3. Trimming your neighbour’s hedge or creeping branches

This is safe, so long as you don’t cross your garden’s boundaries 

You are within your rights to trim back branches of unprotected trees – without a TPO – or plants that come into your garden from a public road or your neighbour’s. However, you don’t want to take it too far. Don’t go over the boundary line, otherwise your neighbour will be able to file a complaint against you.

Property boundaries might be a little unclear according to GOV.UK, with no record of who owns what between two homes.  

If you can’t find your records, your best bet is to look at your property’s ‘title plan’, which you can find on the Land Registry Services website. Alternatively, you can make a friendly and informal boundary agreement with your neighbour. 

Talk to your neighbour to avoid issues

It’s crucial to communicate with your neighbour when planning work near boundary lines, advises Forrester: My advice is not to go and carry out work if youre unsure, but to go and speak with your neighbour.Even if the work is legal, informing your neighbour is a common courtesy.

If you think that a neighbour’s hedge is too high (typically more than 2m, or 6.5ft, tall) and blocking light to your home or affecting your space, GOV.UK recommends you try to settle this with your neighbour ahead of contacting your local authority.  

Ivanov further notes that should a hedge be growing along the shared boundary, both you and your neighbour are legally responsible for trimming it. “So if your neighbour’s hedge grows into your garden, you’re allowed to trim it, but you’ll have to return the trimmings.” 


4. Trimming your own hedge

You can tend to your own hedge by all means, but make sure you are protecting wildlife

Shaping your own hedges is safe, but you always want to keep in mind that hedges make fine homes for nesting birds, and intentionally encroaching on their habitat is an offence.  

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recommends always checking for active nests before cutting. Breeding season for birds typically runs from March to August every year, so avoid doing any work on your hedges over this period to minimise risk. 

“Certainly, with birds where it’s mating season, you need to make sure you’re checking,” Forrester adds. If you are getting a professional in, they will almost certainly make a point of checking. 

The RSPB further highlights: “It is an offence under Section 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built, or to intentionally kill, injure or take chicks or adults, or intentionally take or destroy any eggs.”  

Ivanov adds: “To avoid any legal complications and make sure your garden is also benefiting the local wildlife, it’s very important to first check for the presence of active nests before trimming any hedges you have.” 

5. Introducing new plants

Fine and dandy, so long as they are not listed invasive plants

Why someone would want to introduce Japanese knotweed to their garden, we do not know, however,  this is just one of a number of invasive non-native species covered by legislation. 

“It’s a very grey area, but it’s something you have to be careful of,” notes Forrester. “What you don’t want to do is have a certain type of plant that spreads and causes damage, which you’ve brought onto the property.”

Not only would you be liable if it spread to your neighbours’ gardens, but in a worst case scenario it could spread down the street. You might then be getting calls from a lot of different insurance companies.

Japanese knotweed, for example, will spread up and down an area,” says Forrester.   

“Introducing or allowing invasive non-native species to grow in your garden can also be against the law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Such plants don’t always look unattractive and that often makes them hard to identify as harmful,” says Ivanov.

If in doubt, check the regulations

There are exemptions as stated on GOV.UK. For instance, you will not be committing an offence if said listed plant(s) are already present on your property. This includes private collections and gardens. In the view of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DeFRA), this isn’t classed as being intentionally kept or cultivated.

However, you must not intentionally plant any. Nor should you intentionally cause existing listed plants to spread, and you should aim to safely remove and dispose of them to prevent them spreading. Be aware that there are different guidelines for removing listed plants in England and Wales. If you need help removing or containing listed plants, you can contact Local Action Groups (LAGs).

Other exemptions include if you are keeping them for educational, conservation, or research purposes, in which case you will require a permit or licence. This can be requested by contacting the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). Be sure to do your homework, as failure to play by the rules could result in a warning, fine, or even a prison sentence.

6. Planting a tree

If it negatively impacts the light on a property, your neighbours might have a case

You should always be considerate of neighbours when introducing anything large, especially near your garden boundaries. While low plants and other garden essentials might not be an issue, a tree that could interrupt light levels on a neighbouring property could.  

“If you want to plant one or more trees in your garden, you should be aware that, according to the Right to Light act, if your neighbour has had natural light accessing their windows for 20 years or more, you are legally not allowed to block it with a new tree,” notes Ivanov, who advises to plant up away from neighbouring windows to avoid issues.  

Realistically, Forrester notes, it’s normally a building that would cause issues with the Right to Light act, as trees are so slow growing. It also depends on which window you might be blocking. A bedroom window, for example, would be more problematic than blocking a bathroom window. 

Tips for keeping the neighbours sweet 

Brownies won’t always cut it, but boundaries might!

It’s much easier to keep a happy relationship with a neighbour when you both know your boundaries. Knowing those of the property will keep legalities in check, then maintaining an open conversation will help keep the peace and likely stop disputes coming about. 

“Failing to establish or maintain clear boundaries with your neighbours can lead to disputes, so it’s essential to know your rights and responsibilities to avoid potential legal issues.

“Another thing that can help avoid such disputes is maintaining clear communication with your neighbours so you’ll be sure they don’t have a problem with the way you keep your garden,” says Ivanov. 

“Such types of disputes can be very tricky to resolve, so it’s very important that your house deeds indicate who owns which of the fences and who is responsible for the boundaries. There’s also a legal obligation to keep these boundaries well-maintained.” 

7. Enjoying a late night or (very) early morning dip in the hot tub

Noise disturbances go beyond too much gassing on the patio

“Excessive noise, whether it’s from loud garden machinery, parties, or animals, can lead to noise complaints from neighbours, and local councils have the power and right to investigate and address such disturbances,” says Ivanov.

So be conscious of what could be causing a disturbance and speak with your neighbours if you have any concerns.  

For example, if you have a hot tub, there’s a chance that the hum could be bothersome at night and above permitted noise levels between 11pm and 7am.  

GOV.UK states: “The permitted noise levels of using A-weighted decibels (the unit environmental noise is usually measured in) is: 

  • 34 dBA (decibels adjusted), if the underlying level of noise is no more than 24 dBA 
  • 10 dBA above the underlying level of noise if this is more than 24 dBA” 

Your neighbour could complain, in which case you might receive a warning notice from the council. Failure to comply could subject you to a fixed penalty, prosecution or worse, to the removal of the “noise maker.”  

There are apps that you can use to measure sound levels, Sound Meter is one for Android users, and Decibel X is available on Apple. 

8. Building a new shed or garden outbuilding

You might not be sleeping in there but you still might need planning permission

You’re getting your garden together, you’re installing a shed, but have you considered whether or not it needs planning permission?

“If you intend to make significant changes to your garden layout, for example, building structures such as sheds or extensions, you may need planning permission,” says Ivanov.  

“Failing to obtain one can lead to legal issues and financial loss in the future. If you want to add a building to your garden, a very cost-effective way to make sure you don’t need a permit for it is to make it one storey, no taller than 2.5m, or 3m (8ft, or 10ft) at the highest point, it isn’t intended for permanent residual use, or isn’t larger than 50% of your garden.” 

9. Putting up and maintaining a fence

It’s a messy and disruptive job

This is a common cause for disagreements, says Forrester. You should know your boundary lines and keep an open conversation with neighbours for best results.  

“You’ll always know from the title deed which side of the fence you’re responsible for,” he says. Again, you can refer to the Land Registry Services, where it should be clearly stated in the title deed he advises. 

“The difficulty is if you want to change the fence,” says Forrester.

If you want to upgrade wooden posts with more durable concrete frames, for example, you’ll be taking down a boundary. It’s common sense to let neighbours know what you’re planning, especially if you’re using an outside company who might need access to their land to do the work, and potentially leave a mess behind.  

When it comes to things like repairs, take care of what’s on your side. It’s your responsibility to get a fallen fence back up if it falls down, Forrester tells us, so make this a priority.   

Another common argument, he adds, is when it comes to ensuring all your fences look the same aesthetically.

“If you replace one side, you might want the other boundaries to look the same,” he says.

This is usually an issue with semi-detached or terraced houses and in is an example of where a legal agreement might come in handy – especially if you don’t particularly gel with your neighbours. You wouldn’t want to fork out only to have someone change it a year later if they are legally responsible for it.  

10. Picking up fallen fruit and blooms

Your fruit or mine? It’s less of a game than you think

“If your neighbours are growing fruit trees, the branches of which hang over your garden space and fruit has fallen in your garden, they have the legal right to ask for it back – or file a complaint,” says Ivanov. 

“If you happen to have picked the fruit from their tree yourself, that will legally count as theft,” he says.  

In fact, this is registered as a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, Sections 1-6. To avoid upset, simply return the fruit to your neighbours. Do not, however, just throw it back into their garden, says Ivanov, as this is legally considered to be littering. It could even be construed as fly tipping, which comes with a fine.   

“The same regulation applies to any flowers that may have fallen in your garden from your neighbours,” he adds.

Stay on your neighbours’ good sides and chances are they will not be upset about sharing the odd bloom or piece of fruit with you.  

11. Adding CCTV

Keep your property secure while being respectful of your neighbours’ rights to privacy 

Installing anything in your garden that might compromise your neighbours’ privacy is a no-no.

This doesn’t stop at CCTV, but could even include the likes of trampolines or outbuildings from which you can then see into a neighbour’s garden or home. 

Forrester highlights that if you are using CCTV, you should be displaying notices that you are recording.

That said, it’s a good idea to have CCTV protecting the rear of your house. And you may find that if it overlaps a little into your neighbour’s garden, they might actually appreciate it. Just let them know. 

12. Getting on top of garden waste

What’s the law on burning garden waste?

Composting is one way to get rid of garden waste and you can check to see whether your local council offers a collection service, too. However, illegally dumping or burning garden waste may result in fines – for fly tipping or causing a nuisance. 

“There’s no rules to stop you burning it,” says Forrester. The smell though can annoy people, so be mindful of this. He also notes that too much smoke can cause problems, and a bonfire could easily be classed as nuisance smoke, so always be mindful of this. 

If it’s leaves that you’re picking up in particular, make sure you deal with them correctly. 

“If you regularly clear fallen leaves during spring, summer, and autumn but you still end up with more from your neighbour’s trees, keep in mind that they are under no legal obligation to agree and assist in cleaning up,” says Ivanov.

“Besides that, you also can’t simply throw them back over the fence as this will be considered littering.

Camille Dubuis-Welch

Written by Camille Dubuis-Welch she/her


Camille is a freelance writer based in north London with her cat and two friends. She has been writing on lots of interesting subjects over the past few years, starting out with a travel blog and online fashion column when she was studying English Language and Italian at the University of Manchester.

Cam has been in love with everything interior design and garden-related since before she can remember. She previously worked for Yankee Candle, as well as Groupon, and is the former deputy editor of realhomes.com where she got to collaborate with some very inspiring DIYers and focus on small-space improvements. In her spare time she’s usually taking photos, painting, exploring art galleries – or another country – and since she completed her RHS Level 2 practical gardening course back in 2019, there is also a chance you’ll find her planting or pruning something outside, come rain or shine.