Tag Archives: environment

Punished for growing native plants in Chicago

December 30, 2012

Why is the City of Chicago fining people for growing native plants?

I got a couple of surprises last week. The first was when the Fastest Talking Woman in Horticulture, Jennifer Brennan, walked into the studio with her world famous Grandma’s Cinnamon Sour Cream Coffee Cake, which is her great grandmother’s orginial recipe that Jenn has refined over the years. Of course, in addition to being horticulture information specialist from Chalet in Wilmette, Jennifer is also co-host of our local gardening and cooking TV show, Dig In Chicago.

Jennifer sat in with me for all of last week’s show, and she got to hear the second thing that surprised me, which was my last-minute guest Kathy Cummings. You might be interested to know that in 2004, Kathy’s garden in the Humboldt Park neighborhood was the recipient of a first place award for “Most Naturalized City Garden” in the Mayor’s Landscape Awards program.

And then, this past Halloween, Kathy was fined $640 by the same city for apparently being in violation of its Rules and Regulations for Weed Control…by growing native plants.


It’s bad enough that, under the Rahm Emanuel Administration, the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program seems to have been elminated. That’s a shame in itself. But to start fining people for growing natives in their yards? Yes, I’m not unaware that a lot of people consider native plants “weedy.” Personally, I think that’s because they’ve been brainwashed by the “lawns are the only proper landscaping for a front yard” propaganda machine. But that’s just me.

Here’s what the ordinance states:

1.0 Scope and Purpose. The purpose of these rules and regulations is to provide guidance on determining whether vegetation is a “weed(s)” within the meaning of Section 7-28-120 of the Municipal Code of Chicago, and as such is subject to the restrictions and abatement measures set forth in Section 7-128-120.

2.0 Definitions. As used in Section 7-28-120 of the Municipal Code of Chicago and in these rules and regulations: “Weed “or “weeds” means vegetation that is not managed or maintained by the person who owns or controls the property on which all such vegetation is located and which, on average, exceeds ten inches in height.

It’s interesting that the ordinance states that the vegetation cannot be on average, more than ten inches high. That seems arbitrary in itself. How many plants in your garden are under ten inches high…and that includes vegetables. I’m also interested in how an average height for plants in your yard would be determined. More than likely, it would be up to the discretion of the inspector, which, in this case are from the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Consider that at the same time, the City is promoting its Chicago Sustainabile Backyards Program, which promotes growing native plants by stating that

Native Midwestern plants have evolved to thrive in our natural conditions and once established, require little maintenance. Native plants are deep-rooted plants and help direct rainwater into the soil. If planted in a rain garden in conjunction with a disconnected downspout, native plants are especially effective for managing stormwater. Native plants are ideal for rain gardens because many can withstand a range of wet-to-dry conditions, and their long roots absorb more water. Plus, they are beautiful and attract birds and beneficial butterflies and insects.

Not only that, but the program explains how Chicagoans can obtain forms that will allow them to get up to a 50% rebate for native trees and other native plants.

Kathy has the option to appeal the fine but she must make that decision by January 3. The appeal process would cost another $317, with no guarantee that she would prevail. And that might take total costs up to nearly $1,000.

By the way, if you’re wondering if Kathy has good intentions but doesn’t follow through, please remember that her garden won first place in the Mayor’s Landscaping Program in 2004. And here’s what a neighbor wrote about her garden on December 22 of this year:

As a neighbor living directly across Thomas St. from Ms. Cummings, I can say that I have never thought that her property has in any way appeared neglected or dilapidated. I have often seen Ms. Cummings working in her front yard maintaining its appearance. In addition to maintaining her own property, I have witnessed Ms. Cummings picking up litter all along our stretch of Thomas St. as well as on nearby blocks of streets she does not live on such as Haddon…The city could scarcely have selected a more inappropriate citizen to cite for this type of violation. In a city filled with abandoned homes, unfinished construction projects and homes generally falling into disrepair, to single out Ms.Cummings for her choice of plants that grow in her front yard is scandalous.

Proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

Kathy joins me again on the show today, along with environmental expert Suzanne Malec-McKenna, former commissioner of the former Chicago Department of the Environment, also dismantled by Mr. Emanuel. (Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here.) It is Malec-McKenna’s signature on that 2008 weed ordinance, and I suspect that she’ll have some insight as to what the law was intended to accomplish.

Stories I missed (or didn’t get to) in 2012

On the final show of each year, wetry to list a few news stories that cover the environment, gardening or green issues that, for one reason or another, I didn’t have time to get to during the year. They are stories that I noticed while looking up other things, or that were sent to me by listeners and friends. Here are a few, with no guarantees that I will get to them on this show, either:

Happy New Year, y’all!

Keeping natural areas safe and your holiday plants alive

November 25, 2012

Illinois environmental issues: the good news and the bad news

First, the bad news…

I received notices about two environmental battles this week–all on the same day, ironically. I’ll start with the bad news first.

Tracy Yang at the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and Elliot Brinkman with the Prairie Rivers Network wrote to say that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Mines and Minerals approved Phase I of the Starved Rock mine on Tuesday, November 13th. Here’s part of the press release:

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Mines and Minerals (IDNR – OMM) has given the go-ahead to a controversial open pit mine next to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County, despite objections from local residents and thousands of Illinois residents.

“Starved Rock is one of Illinois’ most special places, and we are disappointed that IDNR is approving a project that puts it at risk,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The 80-acre open pit sand mine will be located at the east entrance to Starved Rock State Park. There is great concern about its impact on the park, one of Illinois’ top tourist attractions. Noise from nonstop mining and sand processing operations, water pollution from the mine into the park, silica sand dust in the air, the potential loss of Native American artifacts due to mining and the increased truck traffic on the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway running past the mine site and through the park are among the many issues cited by local residents and park advocates.

An additional permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is still needed to allow the release of wastewater from sand processing. The Agency has not yet made a decision whether to allow the new discharge. Wastewater from the mine would be dumped in Horseshoe Creek, which runs from the mine site into Starved Rock State Park.

“The proposed mining operation will be pumping millions of gallons of wastewater into Horseshoe Creek, which flows through the park before reaching the Illinois River,” said Elliot Brinkman, Habitat Conservation Specialist with Prairie Rivers Network. “We are concerned that these increased flows will contribute to higher levels of sediment and erosion in this small, vulnerable stream.”

Impacts to the historic, aesthetic and ecological integrity of the Starved Rock area are another issue. A recent Archaeological Survey confirmed the presence of no less than four sites containing Native American artifacts located on the mine site. The project is also near Plum Island, where in 2004, then-Lt. Governor Pat Quinn led efforts to stop commercial development of the 55-acre island, home to nesting and roosting American bald eagles.

For those of you who are regular listeners to the show, this is nothing new. The IDNR has been moving inexorably toward approving the open pit sand mine on the eastern entrance of Starved Rock State Park ever since the LaSalle County Board approved it last year. However, an additional permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is still needed to allow the release of wastewater from sand processing. The Agency has not yet made a decision whether to allow the new discharge.

We’re getting closer and closer to the time where Governor Pat Quinn might become the only firewall between protecting the most beloved state park in Illinois and allowing this travesty of greed and capitalism run amok to go forward.

There’s still time to write the governor, so click on this link and DO IT TODAY!

Now for the good news…

Thanks to the work of a group called HOMES (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) and other environmental organizations, including Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water (ICCAW) and Prairie Rivers Network (PRN), a proposed megadairy in Jo Daviess County that would have generated an estimated 200 million gallons of manure annually has been forced to close, after a five year battle.

Matthew Alschuler, Press Agent for HOMES, who is on my show today, sent me the press release from HOMES announcing their victory:

On November 15, 2012, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) announced a proposed settlement agreement between the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Traditions megadairy owner/investor, A.J. Bos of Bakersfield, California. According to the terms of the settlement, Bos will abandon the site in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, where the Traditions facility was being constructed. Workers are already land-applying the remaining liquids contained in the partially constructed manure ponds and digester pit to prepare the land for sale.

“Stopping this dangerous project would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of HOMES and their supporters. Never before in my work in Illinois and across the country have I witnessed a community succeeding in halting the construction of an industrial livestock production facility after groundbreaking,” says Danielle Diamond, Attorney for the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water and Executive Director of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

The five year, multi-million dollar battle that pitted Bos against Jo Daviess County farmers and other residents, also saw agencies like the Illinois EPA, the national EPA, Illinois Farm Bureau, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture embroiled in the procedings. The Rock River Times gives a pretty good account of the bitter fight.

Attorney Danielle Diamond, who is on the show this morning, was a guest of mine at the end of September, when we talked about the fight against CAFOs in Illinois and across the nation. I was stunned when I discovered in that conversation that there is no comprehensive data base for these operations, regardless of how much they pollute our lands.

On that show, I talked to David and Renee Leifheit of China, Illinois, who had little recourse when the Illinois Department of Agriculture approved the siting of a CAFO near their home in Ogle County six years ago. Reasonably, they felt as though the value of their land had been significantly diminished and that they should be given a break in their tax assessment. Eventually, they took the issue to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB) ,where a settlement reduced the Leifheit’s property taxes by 12.5%, retroactive to the date of the CAFO’s construction.

Certainly, that would not be enough for me, but the point is that land owners often have no recourse at all when a CAFO is sited near their property.

Perhaps this agreement will give Illinoisans a little more leverage in the the fight to protect their lands against the damage caused by these inhumane operations. We can only hope.

Keeping your holiday plants happy and healthy

It’s that time of year when plants arrive in your house, either as gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives, or because you decided that you wanted to get into the spirit of the season. Some plants, like Christmas trees and poinsettias (and don’t get me started on pronunciation), are likely to be visitors to your household, only to be discarded once we move into the new year.

Others will bite the dust simply because of your own ignorance of how to keep them alive–and I say that in the nicest possible way.

Still others are plants that many people keep all year long–Christmas cactus and Norfolk Island Pine, for example.

Often, the same rules make sense for other tropicals in your home apply to these seemingly exotic plants. Which is why it’s a good idea to keep the University of Illinois Extension Houseplants like handy. U of I has also just posted a web page called Holiday Plant Selection, which you will also find helpful.

Of course, because I have a radio show, I get to bring in people with hands-on horticultural knowledge. Today I’m pleased to welcome Richard Christakes, CEO of one of my great sponsors, Alsip Home & Nursery, at 20601 S. LaGrange Road in Frankfort, Illinois and 10255 Wicker Avenue in St. John, Indiana.

The great thing about Rich is that, like many people in the industry, he started at the bottom, watering and caring for garden center plants, and worked his way to the top. He also does a little radio on the side, but I’m not going to let that intimidate me.

Get your questions about holiday and tropical plants ready, ’cause he’ll be on the show in the second hour. The number, as always, is 773-763-9278.

Bringing Nature to DuPage County

October 14, 2012

Welcome to “Home Grown National Park”

Has it really been four years since author Doug Tallamy was on my show? He and I were both pretty flabbergasted when we realized that was indeed the case. Regardless of how long it’s been, I’m thrilled to have him back.

In fact, I might ask him to write me a check. That’s because Tallamy is the author of a book that I have been promoting ever since I got my hands on it: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. He is also Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where he has written more than 65 research articles and has taught insect taxonomy, behavioral ecology, and other subjects.

He will be in town next Saturday to speak to the Greater DuPage Chapter of Wild Ones. They teamed with the Illinois Native Plant Society, Forest Preserve District DuPage County, The Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club – River Prairie Group and Forest Preserve District of Will County to make this appearance happen. However, if you’re thinking about attending the talk, you can pretty much forget about it, because all of the seats have been reserved. If you feel like taking a chance, walk-ins will be seated without advanced reservation only if seats are available 15 minutes after the start of the event. It will be held at the Holiday Inn, 205 Remington Boulevard in Bolingbrook.

If you miss this event, never fear. If you’re near Bloomington, Illinois, tomorrow, October 15, he will be making a presentation for the Wild Ones Illinois Prairie Chapter. That will be at 7:00 pm at Heartland Community College, Astroth Community Education Center Auditorium. Professor Tallamy will also be appearing at the Wild Things 2013 Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So why is Tallamy’s book such a big deal and why has it sold more than 45,000 copies? (It was updated and expanded in 2009.) It’s because he offers an entirely new way of looking at why native plants are important. Tallamy explains in his book that when we use “alien” plants in our landscapes–that is to say, plants that come from other continents–we are failing to provide nourishment for our own native insects. Why? Because insects have spent tens of millions of years evolving with the plants around them and are either incapable of or not interested in consuming the alien species. As a result, birds, amphibians, lizards, fish and mammals who rely on insect populations to thrive have less food and see their populations decline.

Look at the landscapes around you and you might get some understanding of what I’m talking about. Plants like Norway Maples, Bradford Pears, privet, oriental bittersweet, burning bush, English ivy, Japanese maple and even daylilies are not native to North America, and are not valuable food sources for insects.

So individual land owners really play a huge role in maintaining insect populations. Tallamy says that the way you landcape your yard is going to determine how much life you have in your yard.

For instance, he has been studying Carolina chickadees on his own property as a way of determining how much food is needed to support certain foodwebs. From personal observation, he has determined that to feed a chickadee from hatching to the point where they can leave the nest, it takes 4800 caterpillars.

Should I let that sink in? 4800 caterpillars to bring one chickadee clutch (around six eggs) to independence–and a chickadee weighs 1/3 ounce! A chickadee takes about sixteen days to leave from the nest. If you do the math, that’s an average of 300 caterpillars per day, or one every three minutes! Not only that, but the chickadees generall forage within 50 meters of the nest (that’s about 164 feet, in case you don’t have your handy “convert meters to feet” tool handy).

The point here is that if you have a lawn–which some people consider a “biological desert”–you’re probably not providing enough habitat for even one chickadee chick to survive.

So Tallamy has hatched an idea called “Home Grown National Park.” He posits that if we all convereted 50% of our lawns to biological corridors, we would create 20,000,000 acres of viable habitat–more than three times the size of Denali National Park in Alaska. As you can see, he’s not talking about abandoning “traditional” landscaping altogether–just making room for wildlife other than your neighbor’s teenage son.

Meanwhile, Tallamy wants people to get on board with his citizen science project to determine exactly which birds are eating which insects. If you take photos of your prized backyard birds–especially if they’re in the process of eating insects–consider sending them to Doug Tallamy at dtallamy@udel.edu. Tallamy would like to establish a website based on those photos that would help entomologists determine the feeding habits of birds.

This week’s items of interest

  • Here’s a short note from friend of the show Jessica Rinks (a.k.a. SnappyJDog):

The Forest Park Community Garden (which I am involved in) is having a fundraiser on Sunday October 21st from 2 to 5pm. We’ve tried to think outside the box as far as fundraisers go so we’ll be having an apple pie bake-off being held at Molly Malone’s pub in Forest Park and will also include a silent auction (Troy-bilt snowblower, bulls opening game tickets, for example) and door / raffle prizes. We need pie baker contestants and we need people to buy tickets to attend the event (and we’re always delighted to accept more raffle/silent auction item donations). Proceeds from the event will go to help us pay for garden maintenance for 2013.

  • The City of Durango, Colorado is in the middle of a battle about using pesticides on its public lands. It led to parents canceling yesterday’s entire slate of youth soccer games because the playing fields had been sprayed with synthetic chemicals. You go, Durango!
  • Who likes organic and non-GMO foods? Rich and powerful people, that’s who.
  • Don’t forget that Green Town Highland Park, a zero waste, carbon neutral event, is later this week, October 18-19 at The Art Center in Downtown Highland Park, Illinois.
  • CitiesAlive: 10th Annual Green Roof and Wall Conference, is being held from October 17 to 20 in Chicago. And why not? The Windy City has more completed green roof projects than any North American city.
  • The Southeast Environmental Task Force and Friends of the Parks invite you to explore the Millennium Resrve/Calumet Core on their Open Spaces/Green Places Tour on Saturday, October 20.
  • Cermak Road in Chicago seems an unlikely place to show off green technology, yet Grist reports that the The Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Street Scape is blazing a green trail.
  • Hubboy, just when you thought it was safe to raise chickens in the city, there’s a new concern…lead in eggs.
  • Tweet of the week from @MaryAnn DeSantis. Who knew that LBJ was capable of such a statement?
  • And, for you astronomy fans, how about a planet that contains a thick layer of diamonds? You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Actually, you can but this appears to be the real deal.