Saturday, January 30, 2010

Eyesores in the neighbor's yard

We live in a tightly-packed working class neighborhood on the Northwest side of Chicago. The narrow city lots mean we really rub elbows with our neighbors - we can literally reach out and touch our neighbor's house from our kitchen window. I don't kid myself that we live in an aesthetically pleasing environment: this is a tough, urban neighborhood. Lots of fences, more cement than green space, houses in various states of upkeep and the perpetual "city mulch" of newspapers, plastic bottles and other wind-blown trash. But, a girl can fight to make her little piece of this area as productive and attractive as she can. And I have to give it up to my fellow denizens -- even the known gang member houses usually have hanging baskets and some bulbs in the front yard.

Our neighbors to the north are a young family with three kids, who use their outdoor space and garden regularly. They are of the single-plant-surrounded-by-two-square-feet-of-dyed-mulch school of gardening, but I can't begrudge their enthusiasm. Their children are also willing to eat anything I hand them through the cast iron fence that separates our two yards, be it strawberries or raw asparagus.

The neighbors to the south give me reason for garden grievance. They are a polite, elderly couple who keep to themselves. They give a wave and a "God bless you" whenever they see us, but generally stay inside. In the height of summer, the husband will putter around the yard, and he grows one or two tomato plants. Otherwise he lets weeds grow rampant in the yard, organizing them into a semblance of border beds around his yard. Now, I don't mind asiatic dayflowers, but I am tired of ripping out yards of invasive bittersweet nightshade. No matter how much I get out, more always comes through on his side. I have gently offered to help him remove the plants from his side, acknowledging the difficulty of an 80-plus year old person wrestling with the aggressive weed. He demurred: he likes the purple flowers and red berries. He likes nightshade apparently more than trees, since he also cut down a mature flowering tree in his yard and now has a sad, rotting stump near the garage.

Okay. So live and let live. This policy of course didn't stop him from coming into our yard uninvited two seasons ago and mowing down our asparagus bed because "rats might live in there". Grrr. The compost bins bother him for this reason, too. Never mind that I have assured him repeatedly that I only use rodent-proof designs approved for urban use.

Yet this is my major rant about my southern neighbors: the abundance of plastic in the yard. They have plastic poinsettias, lilies and daffodils plunged into the various garden beds to mimic real growth. All seem to have been rescued from artificial funeral wreaths and dollar-store party centerpieces. They are old and shabby, with many "petals" now shredded, yet they persist in the beds, in "bloom" no matter what the season. Last year, the husband hung several plastic Sesame Street characters on their clothesline pole near our fence. Every time we walk by, a fading, sad Cookie Monster swings in forlorn greeting. Now, I could rant about the gang tags on our garage, the sneakers and plastic bags hanging from power lines over our street, but these plastic Sesame Street characters are the things that really get under my skin. If I had more space, I would rip out the roses that currently climb the fence separating our two yards and plant some thick, evergreen shrubs as a living curtain between me and these mangy toys.

I have heard stories of aggressive dogs and the dumping of untold quantities of chemicals by neighbors, so this is a small beef in the scheme of things. But our neighborhood needs less plastic impostors of plants and more real plants. Why not hang a bird feeder instead of junky figurines? Maybe my son and I will build just such a bird feeder for them. Who can resist a gift when offered by a cherubic bird-loving toddler?


  1. I think your idea of giving a gift is brilliant. Catch more flies with honey, as my mom would say.

    But I hear your grief and second it. Nothing has the power to get to me like a pot of decent soil with *plastic flowers* in it. Why? Why?

    As a renter, I've dealt with an aggressive poisoner who wanted to even come on our side of the fence to spray into the ground to try and kill chipmunks. (Hello, get a cat. You have a toddler that walks on that lawn every day.)

    And this year my landlord dumped gasoline into a nicely prepped organic bed, just because he wasn't fond of yellow jackets and thought a nest was down in one of my rows. Now we can't use it to grow our food, as intended. Sigh.

  2. This is hilarious.

    I live south of your but it sounds like I could live next door. I have a neighbor who loves to garden with the plastic flowers. She has a few nice plants, but she can't get past adding the dollar store flowers and greenery.