Chemical-free gardening? Not if the city opposes it

Chaya Tabak's front yard viewed from her porch.  Photo by Tonya Gibson.

Ah, the warm breezes, fragrant lilacs, blooming crabapples. At this season, we eye our garden plots and vegetable beds and plan for a crop. While I gaze admiringly at some of my neighbors’ gardens, I heave a sigh of despair over my front yard. We have trimmed and tamed the bushes, yet the ground is rather weed-ridden. A lawn it is not, and though I enjoy its feathered and furry visitors, I cringe with embarrassment at the bare spots and weeds.

Long ago, I concluded that digging out the weeds would be a thankless, endless task. However, I really did not want to use chemical herbicides to get rid of all the growth, and sought a better method. Research suggested the following: smother the growth with material that blocks sun and air, such as black garbage bags, then place layers of wet newspaper, peat moss, compost, mulch, and topsoil on the ground. I borrowed several tarpaulins from a supportive friend, and, after mowing the herbage, set out to smother what was left.

Just as hormone-free cattle take longer to grow, but are probably more healthful for us, getting rid of weeds without using herbicides takes time and patience. Over the course of the summer, the weeds slowly turned white under the tarps and began to shrivel. The next summer, I began the task of laying out newspaper and soil amendments, section by section. In the meantime, filial piety beckoned: a trip overseas to visit my elderly father. When I returned after several weeks, I was able to continue for a brief time before a return to the classroom comanded my attention. Then autumn set in.

In March of 2007, the city of Cleveland Heights sent a notice instructing me to get rid of material stored on my property such as the tarps and boxes. I scheduled an appointment with an inspector so that I could explain the purpose of the items. During our meeting, the inspector nodded, mumbled “uh-huh,” looked around, and told me that a neighbor had complained (no surprise). I told the inspector that a week—the allotted deadline—would not be nearly enough time to complete my project as there was still the potential for snow. His response: To ask again what I was doing and give me an end-of-the-month deadline. Reluctantly, I removed the tarps, and moved the boxes (of soil and mulch) behind bushes. Predictably enough, the weather did turn cold and, as many of you may remember, we had that freak of continual snowfall for several days in April.

Unfortunately, because I had to remove the items prematurely, the site has gone back to square one: weedy and ugly. We cannot afford to have a landscaping company fix it up, so I now have to choose among three options: Place the tarps back and risk the ire of the municipality, simply cut the growth every few weeks and never expect to beautify it, or use herbicides.

We ought not try to recreate English country gardens of the eighteenth century; we ought to be promoting the use of native plants and of sustainable gardening methods. Given the opportunity to improve my small lot, I could have provided such an example to my puzzled neighbors. In a time when society is becoming more conscious of the need to reduce the poisoning of our environment, it behooves the city—and the community—to recognize the value of alternative methods of controlling unwanted plant growth.

Chaya Tabak is a local high school biology teacher who volunteers during the summer at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and is dreaming of having her own.

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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 5:44 PM, 05.21.2008