My town, Bloomington, Indiana, is a little blue oasis surrounded by red state residents who (albeit grudgingly) tolerate our environmentalist leanings. For instance, Bloomingtonians fought for -- and won -- the right to keep chickens within the city limits, we have our own Commission on Sustainability, and plenty of us have chucked our lawnmowers in favor of “naturalized” lawns. It's a college town, and our well-meaning city government officials continually struggle to keep the peace between town and gown, but, with the city's recent publication of “The Natural Landscape Handbook: How to Obtain a Natural Landscape in Bloomington without Violating the 'Refuse and Weeds Ordinance' or Aggravating Your Neighbors,” things have gotten out of hand.
The handbook states, “There simply needs to be a clear distinction between an intentional, natural landscape, and an unkempt, unmowed yard,” and, yes, that's sensible enough. But my city isn't making things easy for people who want to skip the golf course look. Consider: after designing a formal, naturalized garden plan and submitting said plan along with a special application for approval, the lawnless must “meet on site with City representatives to review the plan” and “after approval of the plan sign the Natural Landscape Contract.” Oh, and there will be an inspection during installation and official inspections every year thereafter. (Hey, how about keeping tabs on the use of harsh herbicides and insecticides or whose lawnmower is burning copious amounts of oil instead?)
The most draconian bit? Residents must eliminate weeds, and the City offers a comprehensive list of what counts as a weed and what doesn't. I have no qualms with their listing of kudzu which will overtake entire subdivisions if left unattended or poison ivy for its own miserably itchy reasons. And garlic mustard and purple loosestrife -- wreaking havoc in our forests and wetlands, respectively -- but butterfly bush, bachelor's button, or Grecian foxglove? I can buy them at my favorite, local nursery, but allowing those to thrive in an officially sanctioned, naturalized garden is strictly prohibited. Dame's rocket, sweet clover, and Japanese barberry are out, too.
Covering all the bases, the City also lists marijuana. (Really? I can't grow that? Who knew? . . .)
It all makes me wonder: Who really gets to say which plants are weeds and which aren't? And when -- and how -- did going natural become so contrived?
This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2007.