The Battlefront in the Front Yard

December 21st, 2012

New York Times
By Steven Kurutz

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.

Image courtesy of Jean-noël Lafargue

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.”

Roger Doiron, the founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a group promoting food gardens, has marshaled support for Ms. Bass and others. “If you define a war as a struggle between opposing forces, this does fit the bill,” he said. The opposing forces, in Mr. Doiron’s view, are progressive-minded gardeners and backward-thinking municipalities. Gardeners, he said, “need to push back. This isn’t about a single garden; this is about the right to garden.”

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.

Invoking the nation’s agrarian past, Mr. Rowes noted, “Washington, Jefferson and Madison were all farmers.”

For Mr. Pedin, the issue is less about the inalienable right to grow snap peas at home than it is about the prerogative to not stand idly by while your property value plummets. Mr. Helvenston’s garden is “messy,” Mr. Pedin said, and will attract rats and lower the worth of his rental home. Mr. Pedin also questioned Mr. Helvenston’s commitment to maintaining the mulch-covered plot.

Mr. Helvenston, who is 40 and wears his hair in the same receding-ponytail style as the martial arts actor Steven Seagal, said that his green thumb isn’t a whim but a financial necessity. Anyone who is going to remove his family’s garden, he told a reporter by phone, “might as well kick down our door, steal food from our table and take off.”

Ms. Helvenston took the phone from her husband. “We want to be sustainable,” she said.

Mr. Helvenston, who has begun referring to his yard as a “patriot garden,” an overt reference to the Victory Gardens planted during World War II, got back on the line, expressing disbelief at the response by Mr. Pedin and the city of Orlando: “Who doesn’t like a garden? It’s like punching a baby.”

THE neatly manicured lawn was imported from England, and has been like a civic religion in the United States since the early 20th century. The desire to make your neighbor’s yard conform apparently goes back even farther. In her book “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins quotes the horticulture writer Peter Henderson, who in 1875 disparaged homeowners who let their grass grow wild and vowed that “the majority will soon shame them into decency.” If Mr. Henderson were alive today, he might be pleased to discover that Americans spend an estimated $30 billion annually on lawn care and divert rivers so those in arid places like Phoenix can spend their Saturdays behind a mower, too.

But in recent years, water shortages and growing interest in sustainability have given rise to an alternate view of the lawn. Food Not Lawns, an environmental group, advocates abolishing ornamental grasses in favor of edible gardens, while the National Wildlife Federation sponsors a program for homeowners interested in creating wildlife habitats in their yards. The transformation can start with something as minimal as adding flowers that attract migratory butterflies or be as ambitious as cultivating a wild landscape of Dr. Dolittle proportions, said David Mizejewski, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation.

“There’s a movement of turning conventional suburban yards into more productive spaces,” Mr. Mizejewski said. His organization has certified about 131,000 wildlife habitats since 2000, he said, almost seven times the number registered during the program’s previous 27 years.

As Amy Stewart of the blog Garden Rant put it, “People are going native.”

If that’s true, someone should inform local municipalities, many of which have spent the last 50 years drafting increasingly restrictive codes governing their residents’ landscaping choices. Orlando’s code, for instance, specifies that planted shrubs “shall be a minimum of 24 inches in height” and “spaced not more than 36 inches apart,” while berms “shall not exceed a slope of 3:1.” The code goes on to list no less than 295 approved and prohibited species.

Opponents like Mr. Rowes argue that such strict rules are fine when instituted by homeowners associations, where residents “go in with their eyes wide open,” but codification of a homeowner’s landscaping by local governments can be “oppressive.”

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.” The garden sharing program run by the city of Santa Monica, Calif., where residents are permitted — even encouraged — to plant front-yard gardens, turns out to be the exception, not the rule.

City officials frequently cite public health and safety as the main reasons for zoning codes, but the underlying driver is often real estate. John Shaw, the city manager in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, said of zoning codes, “At the end of the day, they’re there to protect homeowners and to protect their property value.”

Last summer, after Karl Tricamo, the stay-at-home father in Ferguson, was informed that his front-yard garden was in violation, he challenged the city and won a ruling from the Board of Adjustment that allowed him to keep his veggies.

Mr. Shaw cited the city’s “Live Well Ferguson” program as an example of its progressive attitude toward healthy practices like gardening. It is the residents, he added, who are often in favor of restrictive landscaping codes. “Some of the largest volume of calls we get are complaints about property conditions,” he said.

In many communities where gardeners face fines, including Orlando and Ferguson, code enforcement officials didn’t initially go after the person planting vegetables in the front yard. It wasn’t until one or more neighbors complained that the city responded by following the law as currently set forth. Much like the chicken coops that popped up in suburban backyards a few years ago, front-yard gardens weren’t an issue until they suddenly became one.

Faced with residents who are adapting to what they perceive as new economic and environmental realities, in ways that don’t always fit the current laws or aesthetic norms, many communities have been caught off guard. Mr. Shaw said flatly, “We weren’t ready for this.”

Mr. Doiron, the gardening activist, believes change will come slowly to the traditional lawn, and with resistance from local officials. “We’re going to pull them kicking and screaming into the 21st century if we have to,” 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.

Eugene Lumberg, the prosecuting attorney for the city in the case, said the chances of Ms. Bass’s going to jail were “nil to none.” Still, he said, under the city’s laws, violating the zoning ordinance was a criminal misdemeanor, not to mention an unattractive addition to the streetscape. “We’re a city of neat, manicured lawns,” Mr. Lumberg said, expressing disapproval over the expected tangle of tomato vines and adding that “nothing destroys a neighborhood faster” than shabby-looking homes.

Ms. Bass said she came to see herself as a champion for gardeners’ rights, especially after her case attracted media attention and support worldwide. “I felt like if I don’t stand up to this petty tyranny,” she said, “it gives the city carte blanche to walk all over anyone.”

But the city saw an important principle at stake, too: maintaining the delicate balance of comity between neighbors. Individual property rights aren’t absolute, Mr. Lumberg argued. “What if I decide to leave my garbage out for a week before pickup day?” he said. “People say, ‘This is America. It’s my garbage and my property.’ Where does it stop?”

Mr. Rowes, the lawyer advising Mr. Helvenston, agrees with that argument, up to a point. “The government gets to draw lines” for the public good, he said, acknowledging that concerns over property values are legitimate and citing as an example of objectionable behavior a homeowner’s burning noxious substances. But with respect to a front-yard garden, he said, “we don’t need to make an aesthetic judgment.”

The city of Oak Park was flooded with angry calls and e-mails. But, as Mr. Lumberg pointed out, the great majority of Ms. Bass’s supporters weren’t her neighbors. “If you don’t live next door to it,” he said, “your thinking is different.”

In a Clintonian echo, Ms. Bass’s case hinged on parsing how one defines “suitable” plant material. In interviews with the media, a city official argued that suitable meant commonly seen in the community, so a front-yard vegetable garden didn’t qualify. Ms. Bass insisted that her cucumbers, melons and jalapeños were the definition of suitable.

Perhaps owing to the Bass family’s indicating they were moving to Seattle, or to the negative media attention, the city dismissed the case. The Basses now have chickens at their new home, but no front-yard garden, since their lawn is concrete.

Instead, Ms. Bass acts as a kind of elder sage in the garden war. She recently e-mailed Mr. Helvenston, offering advice and encouragement. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be difficult, but you’re fighting a good fight. Hang in there and stay strong.’ ”

ORLANDO is an unlikely place for a battle over a garden. As the name of the college football stadium reminds visitors, the city’s roots are in citrus growing. In 2007, Mayor Buddy Dyer started GreenWorks Orlando, an ambitious plan spanning decades to turn Orlando into one of the country’s greenest cities. Publicly fighting one of its residents over organic vegetables probably didn’t come up in the drafting meetings.

From Mr. Rowes’s view, the Orlando case points to a distinction between what he calls a “corporatized green,” like installing reflective windows in city buildings, and a “grass roots kind of green,” as practiced by the Helvenstons and others. “People just want to be able to grow their own food,” he said. “It’s a rejection of everyone having the same kind of house with the same kind of lawn.”

Mr. Ippel, the sustainability director, said Orlando is all for sustainability at the grass roots level. “We’re not opposed to gardens,” he said. “We allow chickens in the community. In our view, the story got blown out of proportion.”

Mr. Ippel added that the city had undergone a yearlong process to revise its current landscape code to better promote sustainability and flexibility. As part of the process, he said, the city would incorporate codified standards for front-yard gardens. “Hopefully, he’s amenable to making those changes,” Mr. Ippel said of Mr. Helvenston.

One of the ideas floating around is to require homeowners who plant a front-yard garden to shield it from the street with a fence. Mr. Pedin, the owner of the neighboring house, said he would be “100 percent agreeable” to that solution.

But Mr. Helvenston finds the compromise objectionable. “A fence is expensive,” he said, digging in. “Now you just ruined my return on investment.”

While they wait for the city’s updated policy, the Helvenstons continue to tend their vegetable patch (they just harvested edamame) and to drum up support for the garden in their front yard and those elsewhere. “We didn’t want this to happen,” Mr. Helvenston said, in a warning shot to other communities, “but it’s a blessing. It’s gotten more people planting gardens.”

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