The war on front yard vegetable gardens has been portrayed as a battle between those who want to grow their own food and those who have issues with cultivating a little nature in the suburban jungle. This issue was brought to national attention in the summer of 2011, when Michigan mother Julie Bass received a possible sentence of 93 days in prison unless she removed her vegetable garden from her front yard.
Bass was given a blight ordinance for failing to have “grass, shrubbery or other suitable plant material” in her front yard in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park. At issue was the word “suitable”: In a 21st-century residential front yard, that word has come to mean “grass” or, more specifically, “lawn” or, even more specifically, “evenly green and clipped lawn, courtesy of regular mowing.”
That is, “suitable” is the “neat, manicured lawn,” as the prosecuting attorney for the city in Bass’s case, Eugene Lumberg, tells the New York Times. No faster way to “destroy a neighborhood, he contends, than shabby, ill-maintained homes.”
But when municipal ordinances say there is only one way to be “suitable,” we aren’t really free to use our personal property as we wish. As Orlando resident Joe Helvenston discovered when he was charged with violating section 60.207 of that city’s Land Development Code for “failure to maintain ground cover on property” because he had an organic vegetable garden in his front yard, Americans are only so “free” to do what they wish with what they own.
America’s Love Affair With the Manicured Lawn
The manicured lawn that has become ubiquitous with the notion of a “front yard” in U.S. communities is actually a British import. It has nonetheless become part of a “civic religion” amongst Americans, along with the apparent need to conform when it comes to one’s house and property, notes the New York Times:
…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.
Recently, more and more people — some prompted by water shortages — have been turning their yards into sustainable spaces. A Eugene, Oregon-based organization, Food Not Lawns, calls for nothing less than “abolishing ornamental grasses in favor of edible gardens.”
Groups including the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) take things a step further, offering many suggestions for creating a “wildlife habitat at home” by planting certain flowers for migratory butterflies, creating cover for wildlife so they’ll feel safe in your yard and have a sheltered place to raise their young and making sure there’s an adequate water supply.
The NWF also shows how you can attract wildlife by using native plants rather than those on the “America’s Most Not Wanted Invasive Plants” list. Grasses and other plants native to a region may look “wild” if not weed-like, but can actually be easier to maintain and require far less water; they do not need chemical treatments to keep them lush and green in broiling summer months. In view of this, isn’t it ironic that manicured lawns are what people expect to see on a “typical American street”?
Rather than argue and fight about the right to have vegetable gardens where ordinances decree there shall be grass, what if we urged municipalities to rewrite their laws on yards and based them not on aesthetics but on sustainability, water conservation and ease of care (no pesticides, please)?
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