Jeff Gillman and Eric Heberlig have written a sweetly provocative book, “How the Government Got in Your Backyard,” about the ways officialdom dictates what we can and cannot do in our gardens.
If the authors wanted to write a sequel, Julie Bass could suggest the title: “How the Government Got in Your Front Yard.”
Bass lives in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park, but her street of red brick ranch houses might be any mature neighborhood in America. Close set and tidy, the homes have front yards that for generations have embodied an iconic conformity of foundation shrubbery and unfenced lawns. Bass wanted a more active use for her real estate. After her front lawn was excavated to repair the sewer this spring, she replaced the grass with five raised beds for vegetables. If she was going to water the yard, she figured, she might as well raise food for her husband and six children. Within a few days, the garden police came calling.
She said she was told to remove the offending garden and replace it with the municipal code’s demand of “grass, ground cover, shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.”
“We are sticking to our vegetables,” she said in an interview. This disobedience, inevitably, brought the might of the municipality down upon her. Facing more than 90 days in jail, she hired a lawyer. The charge was dismissed while the city studies its law. Bass says the case could be reopened. Meanwhile, she is harvesting tomatoes, basil and cucumbers.
Gillman said people get “outraged” by such cases, “and they should.” In the annals of vegetable crime, he is particularly angered by the case of Joseph Prudente in Bayonet Point, Fla., sent to jail in 2008 when he didn’t show up at court to answer a charge that he failed to re-sod his worn-out lawn. In this case, Gillman writes, the complaints had come from that extension of local government and ace guardian of landscape behavior, the homeowners association.
“Usually homeowner associations are reasonable, but at times they’ll become insane power mongers,” said Gillman, who teaches horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. His co-author, Heberlig, is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Does government belong in our gardens? Absolutely. Who wants neighbors with extremely toxic pesticides or who create public nuisances that degrade a whole community? But there are times when government might go too far.
The popular view of what constitutes a landscape is narrow, and those limitations are probably shared by the people who make laws and those who enforce them.
There is a difference between a yard of weeds, which is a product of neglect, and today’s eco-sensitive ornamental gardens that to untrained eyes might look weedy. The contemporary green garden takes many forms, and most, ironically, tend to advance some environmental public policy. Examples include a xeriscape garden of drought-tolerant plants, a native plant garden of indigenous flora, a pollinator garden for insects, a rain garden to slow runoff or, yes, a vegetable garden to become less reliant on industrial agriculture.
You could probably interpret most of the weed ordinances across the land to ban all or most of these earnest garden forms. What is “suitable” flora and what isn’t, and who gets to decide?
Many laws were written decades ago, when the typical vegetable garden was big and resembled a little farm. “Neighbors feared it would affect property values or attract rodents, whereas many of the gardens and plantings today don’t fit that model,” Heberlig said. “Yet the ordinance was written without that type of nuance.”
It should be said that the looser a garden type, the harder it is to make it look appealing. Asters, goldenrods, joe-pye weed, milkweed and other native perennials all grow in the wild, but in the right hands, they can form a handsome landscape of multi-seasonal interest. Vegetable gardens may be the hardest form to make eye-catching, usually because too little effort goes into establishing a framework of paths, fences, containers and the rest, or into weeding, tying and general maintenance.
Clipped edging of herbs, geometric beds, attractive paths and sitting areas are among the elements that can raise the lowly vegetable plot into a kitchen garden or, ooh la la, a potager.
“It’s hard to make sure the design fits in with surrounding neighbors and doesn’t make people freak out,” said Edamarie Mattei, a garden designer whose Silver Spring company, Backyard Bounty, specializes in eco-friendly landscapes.
“A garden is a little bit like a sonnet,” she said. “You can have all the freedom you want but within a structured form.”
The decorative vegetable garden has been taken to its zenith by author and gardener Rosalind Creasy. When I visited her front vegetable garden last year in a rarified neighborhood of Los Altos, Calif., it was a thing of beauty — and structure. She has championed the beauty of fruits and vegetables. The artichoke relative cardoon was nine feet tall; the bronze fennel sported umbels of yellow flowers. “The red orach was so beautiful with the dahlias a month ago,” she said, guiding me along the roadside bed at the very front. Nestled inconspicuously in the front was her dark green chicken coop. Several young hens were cooing softly. “I don’t eat them. I can’t handle that. They’re raised from hand.”
Curious about what you may and may not do with your lawn and garden? Here are your local garden laws, by state and jurisdiction:
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