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Should it Be Illegal to Grow Vegetables Instead of a Lawn in Your Front Yard??

Updated on May 26, 2018

A Weed is a Plant No One Wants

Exotic Herbs or Weeds? Please click picture to be able to read sign.
Exotic Herbs or Weeds? Please click picture to be able to read sign. | Source

How Far Do Private Property Rights Go?

Julie Bass, a law-abiding woman living in Oak Park, Michigan, at the time of this writing is in trouble with the law because the mother of six decided to plant vegetables in raised beds in her front yard. The city has charged her with a misdemeanor and she could face up to 93 days in jail if she doesn't move her garden. There is a pre-trial scheduled for July 26, 2011, and if that doesn't settle the matter, Julie has requested a jury trial.

In a video, which has now been removed, it's seen that the ordnance Julie is charged with violating is ambiguous. It says nothing specific about vegetables in the front yard being legal or illegal. Enforcement hinges on the word "suitable." Even Julie's neighbors can't agree on that, so who decides?

How far do private property rights extend? Julie's yard was already torn up and the grass was gone because of sewer repairs. In my city of Paso Robles, California, we are being encouraged to get rid of our water-hogging lawns because rain is scarce here. The city is subsidizing people who will tear out their lawns and put in drought resistant landscaping or even cover their front yard with rocks or artificial turf to save water. One person put in a cactus garden. Another has all rocks with a couple of fruit trees in the middle. Another planted herbs, and, yes, some lovely zucchini flowers near the lavender and poppies, in the side yard facing the street. Each believed this was "suitable." I never heard any complaints about any of these people, but Julie got in hot water for being different. The issue is bigger than Julie's case, and is ripe for discussion as more people are making decisions to use that front lawn space more efficiently.

What Does "Suitable" Mean?

I suppose it all depends upon what dictionary one uses. My dictionary on my I-MAC gives this definition: right or appropriate for a particular person, purpose, or situation. My American College Dictionary (Random House, 1966) offers this definition: such as to suit; appropriate, fitting, becoming. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, (Simon and Schuster, 1984) adds this: that suits a given purpose, occasion, condition, propriety, etc.; fitting, appropriate, apt. This same book offers this as one of the definitions for suit: to be fit, suitable, convenient, or satisfactory.

I'm not sure in what dictionary the city of Oak Park found suitable defined as common, but I did not see common as one of the definitions in any of my dictionaries. I cannot even find "common" as a synonym in Rodale's Synonym Finder. So it would seem that the city's case rests on which definition is right, and, in turn, how one chooses to define appropriate, fitting, or becoming. As the maker of the video pointed out, why pick on Julie for her vegetable garden when other neighbors have tall weeds covering their front yards?

Just what is appropriate? I suppose that, too, is subjective, since it's a matter of taste. Do I think Julie's vegetable garden could be more attractive? Yes. I think some of that bare dirt could look better with an attractive ground cover and some paths. I think more flowers among the vegetables might also look nicer. Those are all improvements that can be made, and might offer a compromise. But the question still remains? Who determines what is suitable?

Have You Ever Grown Edible Plants in Your Front Yard?

Have you ever grown vegetables, fruits, or greens in your front yard?

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Would You Object to Julie's Garden ?

If Julie's front yard vegetable garden were on your block, would you want the city to prosecute her?

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Charges Against Julie Dropped -- for Now

I just added another link with the details of this story. They have dropped charges that would have made the July 26 pre-trial necessary, probably because the media drew attention to this case, but then Oak Park got her for not having licensed her dogs. She has since licensed them and is waiting to see if the city will write an update to the front yard law that would make her out of compliance again. Stay tuned.

Now It's Happening in Tulsa!

A friend just posted this link on Facebook about how the code enforcement officers in Tulsa violated a court order and literally ripped out a woman's herb garden and fruit trees when they did not violate any specific law or code. I find this shocking! Its hard to believe someone can be so cruel and unjust. Why this animosity toward those who want to use their land to grow food? Our city is actually encouraging people to use their yards this way.

What Happened in One Neighborhood

What Should Julie Do with Her Garden?

One thing that would beautify Julie's garden is the passage of time. Right now the raised beds are rather empty. As the vegetables mature, they will quickly fill the beds and make them visually more appealing. But that still leaves a lot of bare dirt that could fill with weeds. If you were Julie's neighbor, what suggestions might you give her for making her garden more acceptable to her hostile neighbors who are responsible for complaining? Or would you support her in leaving it as it is and adding to it as she sees fit? This issue is really bigger than just Julie's case. Many others are considering edible gardening in their front yards. Please share your ideas in the comments module below.

Maybe you believe Julie is in the wrong and should be required to take her garden out. Would you insist she put the lawn back, or would you mind as much if those raised beds weren't so obvious and the rest of the yard weren't so bare? Do you think whether Julie goes to jail should depend on how "unsuitable" is defined by by an enforcement officer when it's not spelled out in the law? Is growing food in the front yard by itself wrong, or is it really how it's done that should determine whether people should be able to do it? Who should clarify the law so it's not so subject to interpretation? Do you support any kind of edible gardening in front yards? Please express your opinion in the comments section below.


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