Gardens Becoming Battlegrounds

Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...


Who knew gardens could be such a contentious issue?

Well, when the space getting planted is in the front yard, neighbors and city officials have plenty to say.

Steven Kurutz looked into the struggle for homeowners using their front yards as gardens in his recent New York Times article “The Battlefront in the Front Yard.”

Discussing several cases from the past couple of years, Kurutz examined the conflict between city zoning laws and folks wanting to grow food on land that is traditionally (and by law) reserved for grass, shrubs and flowers.

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.

Some neighbors consider these converted front yards as a major handicap to property value, while the gardeners themselves feel they are acting fully within their right as the owner of the house and its environs.

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.

It seems the problem is rooted in fairly strict zoning laws that are intended to protect areas from unwanted pests and pre-date the recent boom of alternative landscaping. But, some homeowners want more out of their property, whether that’s supplying some of their diet or creating mini-habitats for various local wildlife like butterflies.

Jon Ippel, sustainability director for the city of Orlando, said the list of approved and prohibited plantings is intended to create permanent landscaping that survives Florida climate and keeps out invasive species. As for the enforced homogeneity, Mr. Ippel said, the code was written in 1991 and reflects an era when “the aesthetic was more of a formalized thing. Organic, natural planting was out of vogue.”

I personally love seeing the unusual gardens and landscaping in my neighborhood in Nashville, but this aesthetic is obviously not for everyone. I wonder how long it will be before we begin to see a shift in zoning policies and public opinion.

Click here to read the article in full.

Are there front yard gardens in your neighborhood? Do you like the way they look?

Photo Credit: Todd Anderson | The New York Times