On the wall outside her front door, Kathy Cummings proudly displays the plaque she received in 2004 for her natural garden.
Accompanied by a picture of her front yard, the plaque, presented by the city of Chicago, congratulates Cummings for winning first place for naturalized landscapes citywide.
"I was elated," Cummings said, recalling the award. "It was exciting, beautiful. They had a ceremony. Mayor Daley stood with each one of us in front of the camera and we had our pictures taken with him."
In the years since, her natural garden has grown and matured, her yard populated with sunflowers and horsehair plants, goatsbeard, blue aster, clematis and papaw trees.
A stone path cuts through the plants, and she uses twigs and branches collected during dog walks to build short, natural fencing. Wooden stakes identify some of the plants, although in many instances the writing has long since faded.
Cummings views her yard as the city once did: an example of natural beauty.
At the bottom of her award, the city inscribed "in recognition of your effort to help Chicago live up to its motto, Urbs in Horto — city in a garden."
If the city still believes that, it has a funny way of showing it.
On Oct. 19, the city ticketed Cummings for having weeds in excess of 10 inches, which it said could provide shelter for rats, and for harboring an accumulation of debris or junk.
The West Town neighborhood resident was dumbfounded. How could her award-winning natural garden be considered a nuisance?
She fought the ticket in court, arguing that her plants were not weeds, but a garden.
"I thought I had stepped into another world," Cummings said of the Nov. 29 hearing. "It got very surreal. (The administrative law officer) questioned some of the plants. He said, 'What's this?' and I told him. 'What's that?' and I told him."
Then the hearing officer pointed to another picture from her yard, which Cummings said she couldn't quite make out.
"I was disoriented. I thought it was in another part of the garden. I said I thought that was goatsbeard," Cummings said. "He said, 'It doesn't look like that.' He said, 'In my experience, that looks like a weed.' He was talking about milkweed being a weed. That's how he got me, I guess."
The hearing officer threw out the citation for accumulating junk but ruled in the city's favor on the weeds and fined Cummings $640.
Cummings considered appealing, but to file an appeal would cost her an additional $317, she said.
So she emailed What's Your Problem? saying the city was, at best, sending mixed signals, since it offers rebates to residents who purchase native plants through the Chicago Sustainable Backyards Program.
"There's a problem there," she said. "It's not fair."
Her alderman seems to agree. In a letter dated Dec. 13, Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno, 1st, wrote to the city's Department of Revenue on Cummings' behalf, asking the city to dismiss the citation.
"As you may know, monarch butterflies, Illinois' state insect, have an essential connection with milkweed, for food and laying their eggs," Moreno wrote. "Please give this request all due favorable consideration."
Cummings said she doesn't know what else to do.
"They're native plants. They don't require water like grass does or a lawn does. You don't need to use any poisons on them or fertilizer," she said. "I use composts that I make myself. It's all about sustainability, really."
The Problem Solver called city spokeswoman Kathleen Strand, who looked into Cummings' case.
"This is a tough one, but the administrative law officer at Administrative Hearings looked at all the evidence, heard the case and made a decision," Strand said in an email. "If she does not agree with the hearing decision and fine, she can go to circuit court for an administrative review of the case."
Strand said Cummings was given the minimum fine for her infraction.
"It doesn't surprise me, but it's very disappointing," Cummings said of the city's response.
She isn't sure whether she'll appeal the ruling to the circuit court, but she does plan to put a sign in her yard alerting people about what happened to her.
"I'd sure hate to have people uproot their native plants and/or not grow them because the regulation is so vague and making everyone so vulnerable," Cummings said. "The regulation is just way too subjective, and if someone can call a milkweed a weed like (the hearing officer) did, and then the city stands with that, where are we in Chicago? Where are we for helping Mother Nature?"