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Smokin’ the Weeds

City tries new strategies to deal with overgrown weeds.

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There's a new weed in town with a stalk as thick as cane that can shoot up a foot per week in the right weather conditions. No one knows how it got here, but deputy director of Community Enhancement Onzie Horne has a theory.

"I call it the Weed from Mars. It's the first phase of an alien invasion," Horne jokes.

Experts from the Agricenter have identified the weed as a strain of Johnson grass new to the area. When it reaches a certain height and thickness, the weed can only be cut with a Bush Hog. This new weed and other more common strains have sprung up in record numbers this year, thanks to spring flooding followed by a dry summer.

This problem plus a rising number of unmaintained vacant lots due to the housing crisis have created a big problem for the city's grounds maintenance crews. The crews are charged with cutting vacant or neglected overgrown lots, and there are more this year — many overgrown with the new, thick Johnson grass — than in years past.

"The problem is huge. It's horrendous. It's something we weren't prepared for," Horne said. "But we've developed some strategies to help mitigate that."

For starters, the city has upped the number of city grounds crews from five to 23, with about five members per crew. They also went from working with four independent grounds contractors to nine. These crews are responsible for maintaining yards belonging to negligent owners and city-owned properties, as well as public right-of-ways and thoroughfares.

In years past, the city provided workers with a list of yard complaints recorded at the Mayor's Citizens Service Center, but crews often zigzagged across the city going from one call to another. This year, the Division of Community Enhancement is adding a few new methods to be more efficient.

One of those is "25 Square," in which neighborhood association members walk 25 blocks in their neighborhood and identify the worst yard offenders.

"On the following morning, we generate a notice to the owner of those properties and demand they do something about the problem within seven days. After eight days, we know that we can go into that 25 square blocks with absolute confidence that any owners with overgrowth detected have been properly notified," Horne said.

At that time, crews cut overgrowth, and if a property owner is found to be negligent, they'll receive a bill from the city for their services. Crews also address code violations at that time, such as towing cars parked in yards and citing for broken windows. So far, the city has targeted Westwood, Mitchell Heights, and Frayser through the "25 Square" plan.

This plan allows some crews to cut multiple lots in the same area over a few days rather than running around town from call to call. But complaint calls from other areas of the city aren't being ignored. Horne said some crews will continue the older method of driving to multiple locations across the city based on complaints received.

Community Enhancement is relying on citizens for another strategy, in which 10 Community Development Corporations (CDC) have been asked to identify the 50 worst overgrown lots in their areas. Once identified, the CDCs will recruit volunteers from their neighborhoods to help maintain those lots.

In some cases, Horne said city crews may be needed to cut down the thick Johnson grass with a Bush Hog first, and citizen volunteer crews can follow up with regular maintenance.

Horne said the city will continue these initiatives throughout the end of the growing season, and they're already thinking of how to deal with next season's weeds.

"We're working with a couple of private contractors to design a plan for suppression to kill overgrowth over the winter," Horne said. "This way, we'll have a jumpstart next spring."

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