The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

The Garden Resistance Movement – Replacing Front Yards with Gardens and Food Forests July 8, 2013

Note: I have been composing this blog post for quite some time.  This past week, I received a letter from my township about the “state of my lawn” and now find myself in a similar position to those I was blogging about in composing this post.  I’m going to go ahead and post this entry about garden resistance movement and then later in the week, share my own story as it unfolds…


A garden that was once a lawn!

A garden that was once a lawn!

A movement is sweeping across America. Rejecting the traditional notion of the perfect lawn (which I recently blogged about here), Americans from all walks of life who live in urban and suburban settings are working to convert their lawns into vegetable and perennial gardens. From a sustainability standpoint, nothing could be better than replacing consumptive yard spaces with organic gardening practices. Organic gardening of any kind will allow a healthy interaction with nature, will produce food locally, and will minimize the consumption of fossil fuel and pesticide use (common in lawn “care” products). Beyond organic gardening, there are growing trends of people are integrating other aspects into their garden, such as keeping chickens.


While this sounds like a wonderful thing to anyone who is of a sustainability mindset, there has been considerable resistance to the idea nationwide. As I blogged about before, the fascination, or perhaps obsession, with the perfect velvety green lawn is incredibly strong in the USA. Any challenges to that established norm have been met with substantial resistance. Seemingly disregarding the fact that our country was founded on the backs of farmers (even many of our founding presidents were farmers), Americans are up in arms over the fact that their neighbors’ lawns are disappearing. Citing everything from “eyesores” to “declining property values”, farmer/gardener/homesteaders in suburban and urban areas are facing the wrath of angry neighbors, housing associations, township and city ordinances, and the like.


To give a sense of the range of events, here are just a few of the cases in the last few years:


Julie Bass, of Oak Park, Michigan (which is about a 30 minute drive from where I live) had her lawn ripped up when the city was installing some new pipes. She decided to plant a garden in its place.  City officials decided that she did not have “suitable” cover and fined her and gave her a ticket. She ignored such charges, and then faced up to 90 days in jail time.  While the charges were dropped and she never went to jail, the fact that the matter was handled in the way it was, and the fact that it turned into a national issue is worth considering.

Jason Helvenston planted a garden outside his house, which eventually drew the ire of an out-of-town property owner next door. The city again stepped in, and the verdict is out as to whether or not his garden can stay.


Derek Becker and Nicole Shaw literally sold their home and moved to a new area after increasing pressure (and a $20,000 financial drain in legal fees) to discontinue their backyard homesteading.  And more and more stories pop up like these three every day.  In February, at least one city has gone so far as to consider a front-lawn ban on vegetable gardens entirely (while it was defeated, I think it speaks to the climate in general concerning gardens).


Friend's garden converted from lawn

Friend’s garden converted from lawn

If we step back from the individual cases and consider this as a larger movement, I think we can consider a few trends occurring:


First and foremost:  the front-yard, stop mowing your grass and/or convert-your-lawn movement is growing in popularity as we gain more people interested in moving away from industrialized food and into more sustainable lifestyles.  The lawn is undergoing shifts as the predominant landscape feature, and that shift will take some getting used to for those who have spent their whole lives seeing the green velvety lawn as “that which is worth aspiring to.”


With that said, however, this converting the lawn movement is far from reaching its full potential.  Since reading about the Oak Park/Julie Bass story a few years ago, I have spent considerable time observing neighborhoods in the Detroit Metro area (where I live). While lots of urban gardening and community food movements are happening in the city center (especially in abandoned lots), the more wealthy the suburbs, the less of it there seems to be (especially front yard gardening).  I haven’t yet done systematic observations, but it does seem that the more wealthy an area is, the less likely you are going to see any kind of productive perennial or annual gardens.  I’m wondering if others have noticed the same.


The second thing this suggests is that challenging America’s relationship with nature, especially in high-population areas, is not going to be easy or quick. When city officials or townships are willing to physically tear out gardens after 1-2 complaints, I think we are a long way from seeing general acceptance of gardens.  With that said though, municipalities are making urban chickens and gardening legal in other areas, and some laws are even being overturned.  So the best thing that people can do is put that garden in and prepare to fight for it, if necessary.  I think that the recent social media campaigns, like the “Oak Park Hates Veggies” campaign that took place in Michigan, are also excellent ways of spreading the word and supporting those who are on the front lines of this movement.


The third issue that is coming up (including in some of the stories I linked to) concerns the idea of rights, rights that all humans should have.  Should it be a “right” to plant veggies where one chooses?  Do others have the right to determine what should occur with someone else’s property?  A lot of these regulations seem to specifically target the efforts of  self-sufficiency and sustainability (which makes sense, if our modus operandi is consumerism, and this is a direct threat to several billion-dollar industries). For decades, increasing government regulation and intervention have been interfering with homesteader/gardener’s abilities to grow their own food and live sustainably. I’ll again mention Joel Slatin’s fabulous book, “Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front” for at least one compelling story concerning government regulation; another one that has seen a lot of press is the Rawsomefoods Raids.


To me, it seems that if you want to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and so forth, you should be able to do this in your front yard, back yard, or wherever. I understand that many would take issue with such a statement, but, as a nation and as a world, we are facing increasingly serious challenges in global food supply, depleting fossil fuel resources, and so forth. Growing a bit of one’s own food is a good way to begin to address some of these challenges, at least in our own small way. It certainly has helped me cope with the increasing chaos in my own country. And this food growing shouldn’t be limited to rural areas like where I live–food needs to be grown where people eat it; which means it needs to be grown in cities, in suburbs, at schools, in parks, etc.


I do think there are limits to individual rights though–for example, one of my neighbors routinely sprays his lawn and sprays for mosquitoes–this prevents me from raising bees (my friends already had massive colony collapse due to mosquito spray and other sprays in their neighborhood a few miles away).  This directly threatens so much life.  Is it my neighbor’s right to spray for bees? Who protects the bees and other life that is directly affected by this spray?


These are hard questions that more and more communities face as we continue to slide further down Hubbert’s peak and see increasing strains on our world’s resources.


27 Responses to “The Garden Resistance Movement – Replacing Front Yards with Gardens and Food Forests”

  1. Alex Jones Says:

    I wish you luck in your fight. With the emerging water crisis I guess there is going to be a forced change in policy against watering thirsty immaculate lawns.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Very true! I think that fight is already taking shape in the Southwest United states, where water shortages from the Colorado River (which is quickly drying up) are forcing people to rethink lawns, etc. I visited San Diego for work last year, and I was floored to see the immaculate green lawns, etc. They are supposed to be in a desert!

      Here, water isn’t really an issue–Michigan borders 4 of the 5 great lakes, and water as a resource is fairly plentiful. I’ll have to find other arguments here, lol.

      • Alex Jones Says:

        The notion of personal liberty against the tyranny of government might be a good argument. It is bad that people are being dictated to about how to run their gardens, that is not the spirit of a democratic USA that people fought and died for against King George and his Red Coats.

        • Willowcrow Says:

          I also happen to live in a township called “Independence township”…that’s where I plan on starting with my own arguments towards this issue.

  2. Lexie Devine Says:

    To me, the whole fight over lawn versus veggies is crazy! I expect that in certain suburban and upper class parts of our country (England), similar cries of foul would fly in the face of perceived devaluing of property, versus the right to grow your own organic veggies. I would also imagine that if you only care about your lawn you won’t care how the insect population does because of your sprays, and therefore, until you are having to spend silly money for a few basic veggies because the farmer now has to pollinate his crops by hand cos the pesticides have decimated the bees, you will continue not to care.

    In my immediate area (council estate, so generally speaking a working class area), gardens are largely used as kiddie playgrounds – lots of scruffed up lawn and a few flowers in a skinny border if you are lucky, and only the older residents grow food or raise bantams. It’s a shame. I’d like to see more teaching about gardening and ecology going on at child level. Generally speaking, we are so out of touch with nature now, it is a wonder kids recognise a tree when they see it.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Lexie, thanks for posting! I kinda think it is too–we’ll see what my township says about it (more about that later). I do think that there is some movement in the edible landscaping direction in the UK. I saw this TED talk coming out of the UK a few years ago–

      • Lexie Devine Says:

        Oh, that’s funny! Pam is about 150 miles from me, and yet I hear about her from someone on another continent. Gotta love the internet. It was a really interesting video, though I had to find it on You Tube because the linked video wouldn’t play for me.
        I love the ideas, and she particularly made me laugh about the prickly plants. I think they are put there to deter vandals, and we have an abundance of them here in Colchester too. I could see her ideas working here if we could get some of the local allotment peeps on side.

  3. Delia Niezguski Says:

    Hi, I subscribed to your blog yesterday which I came upon while searching information on the Oakland County Permaculture Group (Clarkston). Glad I did so that I was in time to read today’s posting re: garden resistance movement. Thanks for all your great blog topics which are well researched and well written. Have enjoyed reading your past postings. Keep up the great work and good luck with the current situation with your township.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Hi Delia – I’m one of the founders and co-organizers of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup :). We have our monthly meeting on Wednesday night this week in Troy! Hope to see you there :).

  4. CWhitmore Says:

    I personally just can’t stand the look of a lawn. It just looks so… empty and pointless. Plus, there are so many beautiful ground-covering plants in Michigan that don’t require the same tax on resources as traditional grass lawns do. I don’t own property where I can even do any landscaping, but one thing I will be looking for when that time comes is a place where I can use ground cover that isn’t grass. It never even occurred to me to try putting a garden in the front of a house, but to me, that reeks of efficiency, and therefore, I think I like it quite a lot.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      I am saddened by the look of the lawn also. And its everywhere, in your face anytime you go anywhere (at least around here). Its something that is so ingrained into our minds growing up in this culture, and it takes some serious shifting to see it differently. I’m converting all my lawn, but that work takes time, and in the meantime I’m getting myself into a bit of trouble :).

  5. Kris Hughes Says:

    I agree that the “extreme” lawn (perfect, boring, overwatered, chemically assisted) is a waste and bad for the environment. I also like my home-grown veggies. However, must we turn this into yet another us-and-them battle? Many, many people for the past few generations have maintained their lawns simply because they don’t wish to offend their neighbours. What we need is education and a few publicity programmes to make growing veg fashionable. I know many lawn owners in the US and the UK who would breathe a sigh of relief if their neighbours had some tomatoes or beans out front – because then they could too!!

    The like of Jamie Oliver and Hugh F-W in the UK have done a lot to popularise these ideas. Where are their American counterparts?

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Kris – I try to avoid the binary thinking as much as possible (us vs. them) but I will say that its kinda what is happening here. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground (and certainly, my own recent/in-progress experiences suggest that there isn’t). I think that townships/cities create laws, and then those laws are enforced. The news stories I linked to were pretty much all battles between homeowners and townships, battles that cost homeowners substantial resources (time, money, etc.). I think the key is to get better laws passed, laws that respect the multiple viewpoints on this issue (maintaining a nice community, growing food, not creating waste) etc. But its a tricky issue b/c the laws themselves, and their enforcements, seem so black and white.

      So far, we haven’t had a lot of national discussion/debate on these subjects, honestly. Jamie Oliver has done a world of good here with his tackling of school lunches–but we don’t have many public “yard conversion” champions (and I suspect that mainstream media would not be the place for such voices in most cases–this view is directly threatening to the billion dollar lawn chemical “care” industry who spend quite a bit to advertise on national media networks). The one person I can think of who did tackle this was Michelle Obama, who put in an organic garden at the White House (which drew the ire of big ag) and who also replaced the entire White House lawn (because it had been treated with sewage sludge). But that was a while back, and it happened and unfortunately, public discussion really didn’t become sustained because of it.

  6. Hey Willow,

    I enjoyed your post. For my family the front yard is the only place that gets full sun. We can grow herbs, wildflowers, berries -even potatoes- and other things in the back below our neighbors wondrous Oak -but for things like squash & tomatoes, and other crops the front yard is going to have be the place. Luckily there are a number of other front yard growers already in our urban neighborhood.

    Best of luck. Justin

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Hey Justin, Thanks for posting–glad to hear the tides are turning! I have friends a few miles away from me (but who live in a different township) who have done a lot of good using some loopholes in the laws to grow tons of food in their front yard. They have a hoop house (not a permanent structure, so its perfectly legal) and huge amounts of garden beds, etc. While many neighbors have complained, the current laws permit their gardening and they are safe. Its more of a suburban neighborhood in a rural area, so its kind of a weird space. So yes, this is totally possible! (this also speaks to finding “middle ground” via Kris Huges’ earlier comment).

  7. Barbara Says:


    Love the blog, have been enjoying it!

    I think people in this country don’t value home gardening in general, let alone front yard gardens (gasp!), because they are so disconnected from their food. The average consumer doesn’t understand the true value of home gardening (organic, zero fossil fuel consumption, grown with Love), instead they shop for food based on convenience and advertising. Big Ag is busy churning out ad campaigns to convince the public that the garbage they sell is “nutritious”. I can’t really blame the public. Advertising works wonders on the un-informed. Its hard to understand what is really going on with our food, one has to really look hard to find the truth. Hence…the disconnect from our food. So, I’m sure there are a good handful of folks in my neighborhood who would welcome the return of self reliance in the form of a front yard garden. However, I’m inclined to believe we would have a lot more people complaining…because they don’t understand that the lawn is nice to look at, but would be so much better if you could eat it!

    I do agree that people should be able to do with their lawns as they see fit, with limitations. I’d hate to suddenly see a bunch of unkempt gardens up and down my block with rotting produce and rodents. But I agree that some well aimed local education would help with that. And it would be tough to grow organically if your neighbor was spray happy. I can’t grow anything along my back fence line because my neighbor always sprays his back yard for weeds particularly at the fence line (I love the six inches of dead grass along that fence line – now thats a nice look!).

    Thanks for the great blog! 🙂

    • Willowcrow Says:

      My garden is a good 100′ from where my neighbor sprays (I think the organic requirements say 30′ minimum) and there are two lines of trees between us, so I think my veggies are ok. But yes, sprays are such a problem.

      I think you are so right about advertising–in my day job, I’m a writing and rhetoric professor, and I spend a lot of time teaching my students about persuasion, how others are persuaded, how to engage in ethical communication, etc. And what we have going on in the USA is anything but ethical, but it is very persuasive.

      I think some of the most persuasive things from the other side is the produce itself–if you eat a black krim organic tomato that you grew yourself, there really is no comparison between the processed stuff. I have stopped eating all sorts of fresh produce during parts of the year where I can’t get it because it just doesn’t taste right!

  8. It’s ironic that, during the world wars, everyone was encouraged to have a home vegetable garden 😀

    I’ve always told James he can remove most of the grass as far as I care. I do need a small flat grassy area for the dogs to relieve themselves in.. though the new pup prefers high ground cover for #2. 😉 The oldest dog uses the stone walk, darn it! So a bit of grass is fine. (I figure 10 sq ft)

    When I was looking to buy a house here in Oregon, I wouldn’t look at any place that had a HOA. (The realtor wasn’t happy about that, since ALL the neighborhoods had them!) We finally found a place, house badly in need of all new stuff because everything was/is broken… And my neighbors have expressed unhappiness over where I plant trees ON MY ACRE mind you!! A garden is unfortunately beyond my physical capabilities.. and James doesn’t want to do the work either. BUT there are many things that can be planted that require little care: a mulberry tree, rhubarb, horseradish, etc. The field weeds keep me upset though.

    Good luck on your trials, all of you. And if you need a signature on anything that will accept mine, being in Oregon not the state YOU are in, I’ll be glad to contribute.

    Kept neatly, gardens are da bombe. With the chickens, they should be behind fences… dogs, including mine, might take to chasing them, at the very least!

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Meran – I also avoided a HOA. I refused to look at communities that had them. I’m wondering about this idea of a “neat” garden. There can be a well-kept garden, but to me, some of the wildness is part of the fun…. 🙂

      • merannicuill Says:

        A neat garden is one that doesn’t have unintended tree starts (I move them to better places 😉 ), also, I can’t have any dropped leaves for very long.. my dogs’ fur pick them up and bring them in. Also, no rotting veggies (I dig them into the dirt if I can’t put them in the compost pile.)

        that kind of thing 😀

        My present garden is full of weeds. We tried to bring a field into service. Too much bindweed, can’t get it pulled enough let alone, get it gone!

        Our grape arbor is also so overgrown that it’s trying to climb the blueberries! (we planted them 3 yrs ago. They’re still not doing well, though I don’t have an idea why. I think I might pile some manure on them this fall…) The grape also grew a 2″ diameter runner/branch that went horizontally over 20 ft to climb over the raspberries and into the mulberry tree!! We cut that. That’s just too wild!

        • Willowcrow Says:

          Meran, have you checked the acid content of your soil? Blueberries need a high acid soil. They won’t be able to take up the necessary nutrients without high acid. You can purchase a simple soil test kit that will tell you the PH of the soil. Its kind of hard to amend for acid though….

      • My soil is very acidic… maybe too much? I know because my hydrangeas are always blue without adding ammonium. 😀 I’m thinking of scraping away the mulch come fall and putting in manure. I usually just use the kitchen compost, which is VERY rich.
        I have noticed that different bushes grow at different rates. (We bought two pink blueberries a couple years ago.)

  9. Vicki Kibby Says:

    This says so much about the idiots we place into office to see to it that our collective wishes and thoughts are represented correctly. Then what happens? Our town, Harrison, MI has gone the opposite direction. I am thinking of writing the town paper a letter stating how proud I am of the community gardens that have popped up. One of them is huge…and on the county jailhouse property run by inmates. A second one is in front of our Michigan Works building on the main street of town. Another large garden is at a day care center across the street from the elementary school, and a 4th is near the main intersection of town, across the street from our city library and sponsored by area Master Gardeners. All very inspirational.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Hi Vicki, thanks for posting! You should certainly send that letter into the town paper! Its good that the decision makers know how the community feels about the growing emphasis on gardens 🙂 I have been reading and re-reading our township ordinance codes to understand what is going on here.

  10. Karen Fisher Says:

    Willow, I am so sorry to hear that your township is giving you a hassle! I will be interested in hearing how that turns out. It could be a good opportunity to publicize issues of private land use and the benefits of gardens. I’m fortunate to live in a semirural area that’s still zoned agricultural, so people can do whatever they like with their yards. That means a certain amount of junk cars and trash piles, and some who mow literally acres of lawn, but there are gardens everywhere and the chicken population is increasing.

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Hi Karen, I’m still doing research on it, but I think it will be a great opportunity to educate some folks, if nothing else! I also live in a semi-rural area, but apparently, we have some silly laws, lol.

  11. […] writes about the garden resistance movement – replacing front yards with gardens and food forests.   (And also see this update on her own recent experiences.)  I’ve also heard stories of […]

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