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!