Tag Archives: legal trouble with township

The Garden Resistance Movement – Replacing Front Yards with Gardens and Food Forests

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.