Friday, December 21, 2012

The Battlefront in the Front Yard

They had a picture of the front yard, and it looked nice. It's pretty sick when it's illegal to plant a vegetable garden on your own land.

Published: December 19, 2012

JASON HELVENSTON was at work on his second crop, spreading compost to fertilize the carrots, bok choy, kale and dozens of other vegetables he grows organically on his property in Orlando, Fla., when the trouble began.

Mr. Helvenston spent last Super Bowl Sunday planting the garden outside his 1940s cottage, in a neighborhood of modest houses close to downtown. Orlando’s growing season is nearly year-round, and Mr. Helvenston, a self-employed sustainability consultant for the building trade, said he saw the garden as “a budget thing” — a money-saving supplement to the chicken coop he and his wife, Jennifer, installed a few months later behind their house.

Since his backyard doesn’t get much sun, Mr. Helvenston ripped out the lawn in his front yard and put the 25-by-25-foot, micro-irrigated plot there. The unorthodox landscaping went largely unnoticed for months, perhaps because he lives on a dead-end street next to Interstate 4.

Then, in September, Pedro Pedin, who lives in Puerto Rico but owns the rental property next door, visited with his wife and cast a displeasing eye on his neighbor’s front yard. “All the houses are pretty much kept neat,” Mr. Pedin said, “but his house looks like a farm.”

Mr. Pedin contacted the city, which cited the Helvenstons for violating section 60.207 of Orlando’s Land Development Code (failure to maintain ground cover on property) and set a deadline of Nov. 7 to comply.

Instead, Mr. Helvenston stood outside his polling site during the last election circulating a petition to change the current code, and then appeared on a local TV news station, telling the reporter and any city officials who happened to be watching, “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”

Gardeners aren’t generally known for their civil disobedience, yet in the last couple of years several have run afoul of local officials for tending vegetables in their front yards. In Ferguson, Mo., a stay-at-home father was ordered to dig up his 55 varieties of edible plants. In Tulsa, Okla., a gardener who didn’t want to remove her veggies and medicinal herbs saw them largely cleared by the city. In Oak Park, Mich., a mother of six named Julie Bass faced up to 93 days in jail for refusing to take out the raised beds in front of her home and plant what the city deemed “suitable” ground cover.

These and other cases have drawn national attention, as well as outrage from gardeners, some of whom have begun referring to the isolated skirmishes as a broader “war on gardens.”

These and other cases have drawn national attention, as well as outrage from gardeners, some of whom have begun referring to the isolated skirmishes as a broader “war on gardens.”


Though rooted in something as innocuous as vegetables, these disputes touch on divisive issues like homeowner rights, property values, sustainability, food integrity and the aesthetics of the traditional American lawn. Ecologists and libertarians alike have gotten into the debate, the latter asserting that the codification of gardens is just one more way the government tells people how to live.

Jeff Rowes, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Va., that is advising Mr. Helvenston, is adamant. “It’s the micromanagement of land that invades your liberty in a thousand small ways,” he said.


IF there’s a Norma Rae in the war on gardens, a public face the movement has coalesced around, it’s Julie Bass, the 43-year-old Michigan mother who faced jail time for tending a front-yard garden. But as Ms. Bass tells it, she was an accidental scofflaw.

When the roots of a tree planted by the city of Oak Park cracked her sewer line two summers ago, Ms. Bass had to dig up her front lawn. She hadn’t been opposed to grass, or very eco-conscious for that matter, but replanting “a green carpet of nothing,” she said, seemed like a waste of money. Instead, she and her husband hired a carpenter to build and install five large raised garden beds that covered the yard in front of their small brick house in the inner suburb of Detroit.

First, however, she checked with officials in Oak Park, and discovered the code was vague in regard to front-yard gardens. She went ahead anyway. Soon she received warnings and then a letter from the city, citing her under the blight ordinance for failing to have “grass, shrubbery or other suitable live plant material” in her front yard.

Ms. Bass decided to keep her garden and consulted a lawyer, who told her she faced up to 93 days in prison if found guilty, a startling possibility she noted on her new blog, oakparkhatesveggies. “That’s when everything went viral,” she said.


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