Veggies, Lawns and Sustainability

September 5 , 2010

Veggies v. Lawn in Northbrook, Part Deux
“Mr. Lyakhovetsky Goes to the Village Board”

It hasn’t taken long for Alex Lyakhovetsky and his mother Dora to become poster children for the suburban Locavore movement. It all started with a complaint from one or more neighbors about the vegetable garden that Dora planted in the front yard. Her reason? The backyard has too much shade, thanks to a maple in their yard and other trees in surrounding yards. The Village of Northbrook responded by citing Lyakhovetsky for “accessory use” on his property. The citation requires him to remove the garden by November 1 and replant turf grass next spring.

But an interesting thing has happened. Many of their neighbors seem to be unconcerned that the Lyakhovetskys want to grow their own food–even in the front yard of a typically lawn-dominated sub-division. One of those people is Lee Goodman, a Northbrook resident and community activist. He began circulating a petition in support of the vegetable garden and says that about 75% of the people he aproached have signed it.

Earlier this week, Alex called me to let me know that Northbrook Board of Trustees would be meeting and that he had been asked to show up–not by the board but by supporters of his “cause.” I wasn’t going to miss that for the world, so I trundled out to Northbrook to sit in on the session. The flap over the front yard garden wasn’t on the agenda, but the board allows citizens to speak early in the meeting, and it was at this point that Goodman rose to address the board. He was brief and eloquent, saying that the issue would be better addressed as a neighborhood dispute rather than by enforcing laws that might or might not exist. He explained that the people of Northbrook “don’t want the ‘pretty police’ telling them how to live on their own property.”

But the best moment of the meeting? It was when Dora rose to present the board of trustees with a basket of tomatoes, grown in her own front yard. “It’s wonderful,” she said, and placed it on a table in front of the trustees. Priceless. The local media were there again and recorded that moment for posterity–at least in print.

After the meeting, I accompanied the Lyakhovetskys to the 2700 block of Shannon Road to see the yard.. It looked like…um…a vegetable garden. There are tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupes (Dora handed me a lovely specimen to take home with me), as well as roses, irises, daylilies and recently-added sedum plants. Not particularly unruly or unusual. Dora has put green plastic netting around the yard–something I might quibble with and which can remedied rather easily if that offends anybody’s sensibility.

Alex told me that folks who have read about the garden in the papers have begun driving by the house to see what all the fuss is about. He says that many people slow down, and if they see him in the yard, give him the “thumbs up.” While we were standing there, in fact, some guy stopped his car and asked us about something he thought he had read in the paper. He had just about everything exactly wrong, however, and after giving us some of his attitude, drove on. The public giveth and the public taketh away.

I’m not going to pretend that getting past our nation’s lawn fetish will be easy. And a vegetable garden can get out of control if not maintained properly. Sacramento, California has learned that it takes two to tango–but with good faith on both sides, it can be done. Meanwhile, the Northbrook version of this drama will continue, and I will keep you posted.

Roosevelt University leads the way with Sustainability Studies

I’m pleased to have one of my favorite people back in the studio this morning. That would be Michael A. Bryson, PhD, Associate Professor of Humanities and co-founder of the Sustainability Studies Program at Roosevelt University. Of course, I just call him Science Dude. I’m entitled, because we have spent time together on Chicago’s softball diamonds.

The person I haven’t met before today is Carl A. Zimring, Assistant Professor of Social Science and another co-founder of the program. Wrote Michael, ” Between the two of you, the comedy end will be covered; I’ll handle straight man duties.” I get it–everybody wants to be a radio show host. Who can blame them? It’s so glamorous and…uh…lucrative. But I digress.

The reason they’re here is to tout the new Sustainability Studies program at Roosevelt University’s College of Professional Studies. It’s the first degree program of its kind in the Chicago region and one of the few bachelor’s degree in sustainability programs in the country.

Straight from the Sustainability Studies website, here’s what Roosevelt University sees the program accomplishing:

  • Engages students in the pressing public policy concerns surrounding consumption, energy usage, and viable economic growth;
  • Fosters students’ environmental literacy using rigorous, scholarly-based research in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities;
  • Explores social justice issues on a range of fronts, including environmental justice, resource allocation, urban development, and social equity; and
  • Positions Roosevelt University as a leader on issues of sustainability, which has become one of the critical social justice issues of the 21st century.

Yeah, that’s university-speak. What does it really mean? Personally, I was impressed when Bryson took his students on a canoe ride down Bubbly Creek, a tributary of the Chicago River and one of the most polluted waterways in America. Now THAT’s how to learn about sustainability first hand.

By the way, they also have a blog site, and I’m please to say that I found myself mentioned in it the other day. Aww. You shouldn’t have. (Yes, you should.)

Was this a good year for tomatoes? Depends who you talk to

Take my good friend, award-winning garden writer an occasional guest-host on The Mike Nowak Show, Beth Botts. A couple of days ago, she posted a entry on her excellent blog, Gardening In Chicago. It was titled, “A sad end for the tomato season.” Seems that Beth had more than a few problems growing tomatoes in containers on her back porch.

Well, she’s not the only one. If you’ve been following the progress of what I call the “Parking Lot Farm” at WCPT, we had a number of the same problems, particularly blossom end rot and powdery mildew. On the other hand, we also harvested a lot of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil. All in all, while we didn’t set any temperature records in Chicago, it was a lot hotter than most people realize, especially if you were gardening in containers.

My containers and in-ground vegetables in my own backyard did better than the ones in the WCPT parking lot…but I wasn’t trying to make them grow on asphalt. And I still had powdery mildew and blossom end rot problems. The point is that growing things can be trying–even in the best of weather. And how often do we get the best of weather in Chicago?

My sympathies to Ms. Botts. But she’s not the only one who battled the elements this summer. In the words of Cubs fans everywhere: “Wait’ll next year!”

One thought on “Veggies, Lawns and Sustainability

  • 09/10/2010 at 12:23 pm

    Mike and Heather-
    Thanks for letting me sleep in on Sunday mornings and “congratulations” on the blog.
    Actually, I didn’t know a think about the “controversy” in Northbrook. I love that they brought in fresh tomatoes. More and more schools are ripping out (parts of) their lawn to grow food. And, our course, the new program at Roosevelt is awesome news that ought to get more attention. 🙂

    See you outside,
    Tim Magner
    Growing Green Minds

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