John Doe thought he was doing the right thing. He was sent to my house to “clean it up” since maybe it looked a little unkempt to some. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In my opinion my house was beautiful and natural. To John it needed to be cleaned up.
One day I called my wife and said, “Did you mow the lawn?” She laughed knowing that question was an oxymoron, and replied with a giggle, “No.”
The next day I called her again and asked, “Did you trim the trees?” I had just planted three redbud, a black oak, a ninebark shrub and several service berries and they were cut along with numerous Norway Maples. She more tentatively giggled and said, “No, what’s going on?”
We hypothesized John was with the City since it says in ordinance 4066 — an ordinance regulating rank vegetation and noxious weeds — “WHEREAS, each real estate owner in the City of Goshen has the responsibility to maintain his or her real estate in a manner which does not detract from the appearance of the neighborhood and the value of real estate in the vicinity.”
Ten years ago we had the zoning police knocking at our door stating that we would have to mow our yard or they would. My wife, with my brainwashing, quoted Ella Wheeler Wilcox when she told the city employee that “A weed is but an unloved flower.” He wasn’t very happy with that comment.
Recently, our friend Jennifer was visiting and Cappy, our dog, was barking out of control. She stepped out on the front porch and met the aforementioned John Doe. “What are you doing,” she asked. John had hedge trimmers in his hand and replied, “Making your place nicer. Do you like what I’m doing?”
Confused Jennifer replied, “This is my friends’ house. I don’t live here but I know for sure they have a mortgage and they don’t rent this property.”
John asked “Isn’t this 311 W. Douglas?” Jennifer said “No, it’s 311 E. Douglas.” John said “Oh.” And turned red.
John, a property management contractor, was told to go to the property and clean up the premises. Too bad he went to the wrong address.
The mowing and pruning wasn’t all that bad, but when I started seeing the death yellow color of Roundup on my garden I started tearing up. Since I purchased our house I had been completely organic. No herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers in 13 years. John sprayed my cucumbers, butternut squash plants and my black-eyed susan.
My friend Matt thought it was incredibly ironic — since I write this Shades of Green column — and possibly a conspiracy.
I call my house the 1/64th of an acre farm where I have gooseberry, rhubarb, serviceberry, crabapple, transparent apple, walnut, wild grape and raspberry.
The ordinance says “Rank vegetation shall mean any plant exceeding 6 inches in height. Trees, shrubberies, flowers, ornamental grasses and agricultural crops exceeding 6 inches are not to be considered rank vegetation unless they constitute an extreme deviation from the aesthetic appearance of the existing neighborhood.”
It also states noxious weeds shall include: Canada thistle, Johnson grass and Sorghum album, Bur cucumber, Shattercane, poison ivy, poison sumac, Poison oak, quackgrass, Carolina horsenettle, cocklebur and wild mustard.
I had none of them on my property.
I tell people I practice permaculture, a type of ecological design, ecological engineering and environmental design that develops sustainable architecture and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled from natural ecosystems.
I was growing certain things so I didn’t have to mow, so it would block traffic noise and so it would block summer sun, I wanted to eat whatever was in my yard, I wanted to offer respite for things other than humans and I wanted my family and neighborhood to enjoy the beauty.
I wanted to have my house surrounded by the core tenets of that Bill Mollison came up with when he wrote “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.” He said we must think about “Car(ing for) the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
Car(ing for) the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.”
Instead of thinking of pristine lawns without all those great wild edibles (dandelion, plantain, chicory, etc.) we need to think of how our property — be it owned or rented — is part of a community. What we do to our yard affects something somewhere.
So sayeth Wendell Berry, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
We need to change our definition of rank and noxious. We also need to think about beauty of a house by how much it conserves, produces and adds to the community instead of how much time it takes to mow or how much Step 2 Weed Control Plus Lawn Food we apply to get rid of our broad leaf plants (which most truly are delicious).
If a plant is causing harm or is injurious to agricultural and/or horticultural crops, natural habitats and/or ecosystems, and/or humans or livestock it should be addressed. But cucumbers and butternut squash?
So thank you John Doe for giving me this opportunity to think about the importance of where I live, what I do to “better” my home and how we use words to define our home because what one thinks of as rank can be another person’s garden that is food and life.
Thank you John for also giving me another realm to educate about stewardship and the care for the earth.
What did you grow in your “garden” this summer?
Paul Steury is education coordinator for Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. His Shades of Green column normally appears every other Sunday.