by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Like many people across the country, these first few weekends of spring I have spent in my garden. This year, my wife and I have been busy building planter beds so we can grow our vegetables. And like many other home gardeners across the country, light or space constraints (in our case, a steep hill) make growing a vegetable garden in the back yard inconvenient or impossible. Luckily for us, we have a very large front yard with ample light and nice flat grades that we can easily set the planter beds and move around to weed and harvest the plants. But for some gardeners, growing a garden in the front yard isn’t so simple. As more and more people are getting the taste for home-grown, organic vegetables, there has been a backlash by some communities to stop home owners from planting gardens in their front yards.
Among some of the more high profile cases of municipalities restricting homeowners’ rights to garden in their own front yards is the case of Julie Bass, a gardener from Oak Park, Mich. In 2011, Bass’ neighbor complained about her front yard vegetable garden to the city, setting off a chain of events that led to a very public showdown with her city. At one point, Oak Park even threatened Bass with 93 days in jail for refusing to take down her vegetable garden and replace it with more conventional ground cover like lawn.
“I felt like if I don’t stand up to this petty tyranny, it gives the city carte blanche to walk all over anyone,” she said in an interview with the New York Times.
Bass isn’t alone in her fight with overreaching city officials who demand the conformity of manicured lawns over the bounty of vegetable gardens. In Orlando, Fla., Jason Helvenston has been fighting the city to keep his front yard garden that officials claim violates an ordinance that says residents must maintain ground cover on their properties. He has refused to tear down his garden and has even begun working on a petition to change the city ordinance to allow gardens.
Gardeners who rent are even more at risk when it comes to ordinances that restrict gardens. Luckily for Furguson, Missouri front yard gardener Karl Tricamo, his landlord Jesse Brandt sided with him when city officials ordered him to rip out his vegetables. He even helped fight the order with the help of a lawyer from the Freedom Center of Missouri. Eventually the gardeners won their case and had all of their fines and citations struck down.
Front yard gardens are really nothing new, although since the rise of the Stepford-style suburban home they have gone out of fashion. During WWII, the government urged homeowners to plant “Victory Gardens” in order to keep food plentiful during the war effort as much of the commercial food production in the US was being canned and sent overseas. Many municipalities, including large cities such as Los Angeles, even still have ordinances that protect a homeowner’s right to plant gardens.
So what should homeowners who don’t live in a city that protects front yard gardens do when confronted by overzealous code enforcers? According to Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI) founder and director Roger Doiron, contacting organizations like his for support is the first step.
“I’d urge gardeners in that situation to contact us as we have some technical resources that we can bring to bear and 30,000 gardeners ready to speak up on their behalf,” he said, adding that his organization helped gardeners like Bass and Helvenston win their fights with their local municipalities to keep their front yard gardens through grass-roots campaigns that put pressure on city officials. “To change such ordinances we need to expose them and challenge them in a public way. We need to have the local officials go on record to explain why they feel vegetable gardens in front yards are less suitable than other forms of landscaping. Going public not only puts officials on the spot, but also can help front yard gardeners to galvanize support within their own neighborhoods and communities.”
Besides KGI, there are other organizations that can help as well, such as Food Not Lawns and Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights. Consulting an attorney experienced with property rights issues is also recommended, especially if there are citations or fines involved.
Front yard gardens are more than just a convenient way to grow food or to reduce the environmental impact of fertilized lawns. As Doiron points out, gardens are important to building community through sustainable and organic living.
I have a front yard garden myself and find that it’s not only good for growing food, but community. “Few people are likely to stop and strike up a conversation with you when you are mowing grass in your front yard. When I’m planting vegetable seeds or harvesting a salad for that night’s dinner, however, passersby are curious. Healthy conversations seem to sprout organically and can often lead to getting to know someone you wouldn’t have met otherwise.”