Many parts of the city are manicured. Huge planters line Michigan Avenue, overflowing with seasonal color. Neighborhoods have sidewalk planters and baskets of flowers hanging from street light poles. Any restaurant with outdoor seating surrounds their patrons with colorful plants and trailing vines. Chicago is the city in a garden, gloriously on display all summer, but there are still corners that defy landscaping efforts.
Most city properties leave no room for grass. Buildings reach to the edges of their lots, and paved patios cover the areas in front and behind. Yet, somehow, grass wants to poke up between the bricks; and roots, reaching from an isolated tree, will exert their power to lift a sidewalk, buckling the cement. Occasionally a grassy strip is left between the sidewalk and the street, but it won’t look like a Scott’s ad. Instead, it becomes a magnet for dogs whose ammonia leavings are not the best fertilizer. These areas degrade to a muddy mess, never looking like a putting green.
Condo and apartment buildings will have decorative planters in front, and if they’re lucky, they’re maintained by building management, because if left to the efforts of the residents, the results are variable. Plantings that once were fresh and beautiful decline to a few overgrown items, with the spaces filled in by volunteers – dandelions, crab grass, and the occasional beer can or cigarette pack to add a spot of color.
When untended, things certainly get messier. Plants spill over their boundaries onto the street and poke through cracks. Ivy that seemed like a good idea once upon a time has grown over a home, covering all of the windows. Greenery sprouts from gutters filled with leaf litter, and dirt that has accumulated around the sewer grate.
We used to have a suburban house with a big wooded yard. I learned first hand that it takes constant vigilance for your yard to look anything like a Better Homes and Gardens picture. Bushes and flower beds that were so beautiful when you moved in seem to go wild when you turn your back. That small bush has now grown to block the garage door, the sharp edging between the grass and the impatiens has blurred, deer have mowed down all your tulips, and bunnies are feasting on the herb garden. Trying to keep up with fall leaves finally broke us down and we engaged professional landscapers to help us retake the yard.
One of the undeniable draws of city life has been not having a yard to take care of. I keep a few potted things alive, but I don’t have to haul mulch, fertilize a lawn, or rake anymore. I can enjoy the beautiful plantings all around the city, and the only price I’m paying is, literally, my taxes. I recognize plants I used to grow, and see that professional and constant care helps them stay lush. But against all the landscapers’ efforts, one can still find nature gone wild.