Why Do We Love Lawns But Hate Organic Gardens?

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)?


Related Care2 Coverage

Guerrilla Gardening Project Blooms At Occupy Wall Street

Victory! Math Teacher Can Keep His Urban Garden

Victory! Julie Bass No Longer Facing Jail For Growing Veggies



Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Caili W.
A. Cailia W3 years ago

Personally, I prefer an attractive organic garden ten fold over a lawn. Unfortunately, home owner associations are only concerned with uniformity, regardless of how attractively a yard may be done without being traditional. It's just one reason I avoid HOA's like the plague.

Thank you for sharing!

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Let's be eco-friendly

Terry V.
Terry V3 years ago

most of my yard is perennials with just enough lawn for the dog

Darren Woolsey
Darren Woolsey3 years ago

Thanks for sharing . . . passing around. . .

Phyl M.
Daisy M3 years ago

My husband & I do not use anything on our lawn...it is natural with weeds in it. We don't want a chemical lawn. It is beautiful in it's natural state, dandelions & all.

Jenna S.
Jenna S.3 years ago

I've read that most herbicide use in the U.S. in not from farms, but suburban chemlawns. Personally, I find this disgusting. It's an issue that affects the entire community (more chemmies in our air and ground water, fumes and gas use from mowers, etc.)...This suburban chem lawn aesthetic is really backwards; it's past time that we do away with it. Even if you don't want a garden; there are easy forms of natural lawn care to keep unwanted plant species under control.

Nona E.
Nona E3 years ago

I think it's great to have food plants in the front yard, but I see no problem with a bit of thought being given to types of plants either - many can be attractive. And being well maintained is essential. "No man is an island..."; and, while the yard "belongs" to us, how it affects our neighbors does not - I've been taught that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities. Also, for health's sake, some thought should be given to soil testing, etc.if area is close to street. I have read that exhaust fumes from cars can pollute the plants (organic anyone?). Love the idea of more people growning their own food and making the most of nature.

Sonia Minwer-Barakat Requ

I love the article and totally agree.I've got books whom suggest native plants,no lawns in arid places and list of plants whom attract buterflies and honeybees.Maybe it's time to change the laws.

Alicia Guevara
Alicia Guevara4 years ago

Great article. Completely agree. Tks for sharing.