Conserving Nature in the Ditches and Hedgerows of the Inner City

In Possum City by Eleanor Scottleave a COMMENT

When you champion wildlife in the city, you sometimes run afoul of codes enforcement. In late summer I received a letter from the city about the ditch along my side yard. The letter stated that I had violated Section 13-143 of the city code (overgrown lot) and ordered that I “cut the overgrowth back from the street.” 

I had been expecting this letter for a while and was surprised Neighborhood Codes Enforcement had allowed my experiment to continue for as long as it did. I am grateful for the months the city permitted an untamed hedge of mugwort and small-flower white aster to grow in the ditch between the road and my fence, along with a drift of volunteer zinnias and a clump of invasive blue dayflower sprouting from the moist soil at the mouth of the culvert. 

These low-growing plants did not pose a safety risk; the violation was a matter of aesthetics. The profusion of plants—native and imported, wild and cultivated—could not be mistaken for a formal flower garden by even the most generous codes enforcer. All summer, the hedge buzzed with a variety of bees. Butterflies floated from flower to flower, and praying mantises crept along stems. 

Emma Marris, author of The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, argues that in our humanized landscape we should expand our concept of nature to include any scrap of land where life thrives. If we want children to care about nature, they should be allowed to explore the bugs and plants that exist in small, unintentional micro-nature preserves in their own neighborhoods.

“Some of the places my kids love the most are empty lots and little unmown strips along a commercial building or along the side of the road,” says Marris in a TED Talk. According to her, an inner-city lot overgrown with invasive trees of heaven and non-native Queen Anne’s lace is a thriving ecosystem that supports life, therefore a natural area worth cherishing.

In the interest of preserving species and strengthening ecosystems, Marris suggests conservationists should divide their land into thirds. One area should be restored to pre-development conditions, planting natives and removing non-natives the way the government manages federal parks like Yellowstone. In the second area, gardeners should experiment with a variety of native and hardy non-native plants, such as blight-resistant Asian chestnuts that can take the ecological niche of the nearly-extinct American chestnut. The third area should be left alone and observed. What beautiful things will happen to an area left untended? The biggest surprise of my unmowed hedge was the large praying mantis population, and their famous courtship rituals we were able to observe up close.

Ignoring a codes violation notice from the city is expensive. If a property owner fails to cut back overgrowth, the city will, and charge you for equipment and labor. If the owner doesn’t pay the bill, the city places a lien on the property. After that, penalties escalate to misdemeanors, court costs, and imprisonment.

A neighbor who ignored the codes enforcement letters lost two young peach trees to the city’s chipper this year and paid hundreds of dollars in fees. While it lasted, that strip of sidewalk felt exciting and special. Enormous sunflowers bent over the sidewalk. The branches of the peach trees growing in the verge met above the heads of pedestrians. In the front yard, a thicket of orange cosmos stood taller than a man. 

When I got my letter, the mugwort was in bloom. Mugwort is an Old World import traditionally used in brewing. The plant is prized by herbalists as a mild psychotropic, and drinking mugwort tea is said to enhance one’s dreams. The flowers are tiny and pale. The stems are woody and ungainly. I clipped them all down with hand pruners leaving tiny stumps. 

I wanted to save the small-flower white aster, not yet blooming in September. This native wildflower is excellent for wildlife. In bloom, each plant has many clusters of small white daisy-like blossoms providing forage for orchard bees, metallic sweat bees, and other small native pollinators. White asters are late-blooming, extending the foraging season, and supplying food for bees preparing for winter. 

I staked the asters and shoveled a ring of wood chips around each plant. The ditch looked mangled, but it looked intentional, subject to human control. Codes enforcement was satisfied. The asters are blooming now.

Eleanor Scott
Contributing Writer

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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