Jail Time for a Vegetable Garden?

Earlier this month, an Oak Park, Mich., woman came face to face with the prospect of hard time for the crime she'd committed: nurturing tiny baby pea pods, little baby zucchinis, and sweet, juicy tomatoes in her front yard.

I know! Young people these days. I'm shaking my head, too. Ninety-three days in the slammer is barely just desserts for such a terrible act.

When a judge dismissed the charges recently, the mild-mannered Julie Bass was in the middle of a four-day migraine. Still, she got no relief: The city followed up by pursuing two misdemeanor charges against her for the two dogs she had initially failed to license. While the lawbreaker had procured licenses for the dogs in June after receiving a warning from the city, Oak Park, evidently not pleased with being known as the "veggie-haters" around the world, weren't about to let her get away with so much as a stray dandelion bloom.

Bass -- the scofflaw who professes to enjoy "laundry folding by moonlight" on her blog -- is about to reap the rewards of defying the Oak Park city planner with her cabbages: It's dangerous to make a point in one's own front yard.I say this and believe it to be true because I have a Facebook and Twitter friend who -- for well over a year -- went from daily interaction to total silence. The silence had been launched, in large part, because of her garden boxes. In an insular Pacific Northwest community, she and her husband had gotten complaints for the "structures" they had built in their front yard: 18" tall garden boxes.

I had been shocked, and I pressed her to let me tell her story. Cowed by the possibility of unwelcome local attention -- and perhaps even more invasive attention from local officials who would forever after know where she lived -- she decided to tear down the boxes. All of her plants died. She mourned their loss but knew she'd kept out of future trouble with the long memory of the local law.

When it comes to activism, most residents of small and small-minded towns say "NIMFY" (not in my front yard). Sure, sign up for the "urban homesteader" email list or volunteer for the Growing Gardens non-profit (the one here in Portland, Ore., that plants veggie gardens in the yards of low-income residents would be the ultimate in anarchy in Oak Park). But construct an edible edifice to your belief in Food, Not Lawns? You've got to be crazy, right? It's a magnet for city officials and even neighbors who believe in the cultural superiority of lawns.

I've seen the evidence in my own neighborhood, even though I live in the very epicenter of edible landscaping. One of my neighbors disagrees with the curb appeal of my front yard farm and has repeatedly called the city about the "nuisance" of "trash" in my in-process yard. The pile of wood chips destined for my garden beds was finally deemed by city officials to be not, after all, a nuisance -- but I'm lucky. I live in a place where such things are officially sanctioned by the guys in City Hall, where another group of local non-profits planted vegetables instead of pansies in the greenspaces around the Mayor's offices.

On a chicken coop tour sponsored by one of those vegetable gardening non-profits last weekend, I walked into the small, lush backyard of a chicken-keeper in one of the toniest Portland neighborhoods. In one corner of the fenced backyard, a beehive stood in a thicket of native berries. It was beautiful, and I asked the woman hosting if she'd had to notify her neighbors to get the permit. "Well, I notified my neighbors," she said. "But if you get a permit, you have to give the city access to your property at all hours and at any time." Her activism -- offering a home for pollinators that could help her neighbors' vegetables, fruits and extravagantly-scented flowering plants grow -- stayed very much in her backyard, and behind a latched and private gate.

Having uprooted my lawn years ago, I've been watching passers-by gaze at my herbacious, fruit-filled, often feral front yard for many, many moons. If I'm out there on a sunny day, pulling weeds (the mint is insane!) or planting garlic bulbs or gathering strawberries (five quarts from my small front yard alone), people will stop and tell me how much they love it. It's gratifying, but as my property records indicate, it's not always the most financially savvy choice. Planting your activism in your front yard can end in a tearful uprooting, fines, requirements for expensive re-seeding or, at the worst, the specter of jail time.

If you're smart, especially if you live in a small town with traditional city officials, you'll keep your edible activism behind the gate. Or -- as Julie Bass has learned -- else.
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