Wednesday, 8 August 2012

City Officials Are Waging a War on Gardens

It’s hard to imagine what could be controversial or even illegal about planting a couple of rows of tomato plants, green peppers and a cucumber vine … but depending on where those vegetables are planted, they have been the subject of great debate – even prosecution.

Across the United States and Canada a war is being waged against urban homeowners who want to plant gardens on their own property.

From Quebec to Oklahoma to New Jersey to Michigan and Georgia, people who have the “audacity” to try growing their own fresh, organic foods are being forced to pull up their plants, or in some cases, have been forced by the city to dig them up.

Cities Cracking Down on Vegetable Gardens

In Drummondville, Quebec, Josée Landry and Michel Beauchamp planted what some have called “a gorgeous and meticulously-maintained edible landscape full of healthy fruits and vegetables.” Rather than planting grass or ornamental flowers, this couple chose to use their land to grow food (in a rather attractive way, I might add … the picture of their garden is in the featured article).

The “problem,” the town says, is that a vegetable garden may only take up 30 percent of a yard’s area, and theirs takes up nearly the whole space. Due to this town code, they’ve been ordered to remove their garden in two weeks or less.

If it sounds ridiculous to you that a city government would spend time and money to pursue and even prosecute a resident for -- of all things -- planting a vegetable garden, be prepared to be amazed, as this is not an isolated case. Far from it …
  • In British Columbia, Dirk Becker was threatened with six months in jail for converting an acre of his 2.5-acre lot into an organic farm. What's even more unsettling about the charges in this case is that the lot was literally stripped bare down to a gravel pit before this.
    The owner spent over a decade healing the land and converting it into a self-contained ecosystem that is now home to thriving vegetable crops, fruit trees, bees, butterflies, birds, frogs, dragonflies and more. But because the area is zoned a "residential" lot, the local government is calling on him to "cease all agricultural activity" or pay the consequences.

  • Earlier this year, city inspectors bulldozed more than 100 types of plants, including garlic chives, strawberry and apple mint, being grown by Denise Morrison in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The inspectors said her plants were too tall, but city code allows for plants over 12 inches if they’re meant for human consumption, which hers were. Morrison is now suing the city for violating her civil rights.1

  • Steve Miller was fined $5,200 for growing vegetables in his Clarkston, Georgia backyard, which he not only consumed but also sold at farmers markets and shared with friends.2
Why are Vegetable Gardens Demonized and Lawns Embraced?

Legal codes that outlaw planting vegetables on a large percentage of your yard, or restrict them to only certain areas, like the backyard out of view of the public, truly defy all common sense.

New York Times author Michael Pollan was one of the first to tackle the absurdity of the pursuit of lush green lawns – which he says are a “symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land” – over environmentally friendly and productive landscapes like vegetable gardens, meadows or orchards.

Unlike a vegetable garden, which gives back in the form of fresh produce and a symbiotic relationship with soil, insects and wildlife, a lawn gives nothing, yet requires significant chemical treatments and meticulous mowing and watering to stay within society’s confines of what a properly “manicured lawn” should be. Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan said it best in his article “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns”:3

“Like Jefferson superimposing one great grid over the infinitely various topography of the Northwest Territory, we superimpose our lawns on the land. And since the geography and climate of much of this country is poorly suited to turfgrasses (none of which are native), this can’t be accomplished without the tools of 20th-century industrial civilization -- its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and machinery.

For we won’t settle for the lawn that will grow here; we want the one that grows there, that dense springy supergreen and weed-free carpet, that Platonic ideal of a lawn we glimpse in the ChemLawn commercials, the magazine spreads, the kitschy sitcom yards, the sublime links and pristine diamonds.

… Need I point out that such an approach to “nature” is not likely to be environmentally sound? Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive, on average, more pesticide and herbicide per acre than just about any crop grown in this country.

Suits fly against the national lawn-care companies, and interest is kindled in “organic” methods of lawn care. But the problem is larger than this. Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will. Lawns stoke our hubris with regard to the land.

What is the alternative?

To turn them into gardens. I’m not suggesting that there is no place for lawns in these gardens or that gardens by themselves will right our relationship to the land, but the habits of thought they foster can take us some way in that direction.

Gardening, as compared to lawn care, tutors us in nature’s ways, fostering an ethic of give and take with respect to the land. Gardens instruct us in the particularities of place. They lessen our dependence on distant sources of energy, technology, food and, for that matter, interest … The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature half way.”

Is it Your Constitutional Right to Grow Food on Your Land?

If you choose not to rely on the food sold in your supermarket, want to control the conditions in which your food is grown, or even if you can't afford the prices at the supermarket, what other option do you have than to raise your own? And why should it be illegal for a person to plant food on any area of the land they own and pay taxes on?

When governments start meddling with the issue of food freedom, including the ability to grow your own food on your own land, it is a serious affront, as most people would agree this is an absolute, basic, and unalienable right. The good news is that many residents are now fighting back. Last year after Julie Bass was legally threatened for growing vegetables in her front yard,
Facebook pages were created in her support and local media outlets aired the story as well.

Probably as a result of the backlash, the city backed down and quietly dropped the charges, although the city ordinance stating that only "suitable" plant material is allowed in a front lawn has not been changed, which means the charges could be reinstated at any time.

As people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from, and in securing food that is grown responsibly and without chemicals, the interest in backyard (and front yard) veggie gardens is only going to continue to grow – and it’s time for local ordinances to reflect this.

The featured article states:4

“It’s not the 1950s anymore: Not everyone needs to grow a perfectly manicured lawn, especially when vegetable gardens can look just as attractive, improve the soil (instead of requiring tons of pesticides), and provide fresh food. If the problem is that these types of front yards are illegal in current city codes, then the codes need to change, along with people’s assumptions that a burnt-out, water-sucking lawn is better than a few patches of thriving tomato plants and string bean vines.”

If you're thinking of planting veggies but are not sure where to begin, Better Homes & Gardens has a free All-American Vegetable Garden Plan5 that can be put into a 6x6 area. It's a great starting point for beginners. You can also visit a few local plant nurseries around your home, especially those that specialize in organic gardening. The employees are likely to be a great resource for natural planting tips that will help your garden thrive.

Even if you only have access to a patio, you can still grow some of your own veggies using containers.  Tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers are examples of plants that thrive in containers, but the sky is really the limit. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to garden or prefer not to then you can still access healthy vegetables grown locally by supporting local farmer's markets


Related links

* Facebook: National-Anarchist Permaculture Information Network