Encouraging Citizens to Grow Local Foods

Some Communities Allow Front-Yard Gardens

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Freddy L. Collier, Jr., is city planning director for the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

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Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 2:21 pm

From World War I Victory Gardens to Michelle Obama’s ground-breaking of the White House lawn, across the years and miles in cities, suburbs and rural communities, people have planted backyard vegetable gardens.

They’ve used the resulting bounty to supplement grocery store selections for their family meals, to sell in farmers markets and to preserve for winter.

And now the local foods movement is moving from the back yard to the front, as city policymakers and homeowners reevaluate the best way to use their ground.

In recent years, an interest in locally sourced food has increased, and urban planners have begun to find a variety of ways to encourage it through land-use code changes that relax restrictions on where citizens can grow fruits and vegetables. Some municipalities have begun making empty lots or other parcels of land available to be converted into community gardens. These allow individuals to use a designated plot of land for their gardens, which can be preferable if their yards are too small, too shady or don’t have the right soil conditions for horticulture.

Until recently, front yards were considered off limits for planting vegetables. Public taste embraced a more formal landscape aesthetic, reserving the portion of the property most visible to the outside world for mowed lawns, trimmed shrubbery, and well-tended flowers. In recent years, more property owners have started planting vegetables in the front yards, often unaware of zoning laws that prohibit them. Efforts by city officials to simply direct front-yard gardeners to turn over their turnips or pull out their peas have been met with resistance and, in some cases, with lawsuits.

For example, a woman in south Florida, in the town of Miami Shores, had been gardening in her sunny front yard for 17 years until last year zoning restrictions tightened and her usual practice was disallowed. Her fight against those new rules drew a great deal of media attention, and along with it, advocates for her cause.

This same type of attention faced the City of Orlando in 2012, prompting it to loosen its front yard gardening regulations. The city council there eventually approved allowing vegetable gardens to cover as much as 60 percent of a home’s front yard. There are certain restrictions concerning proximity to the property line and requiring the gardens to be screened from view with shrubbery or other landscape elements. As chief planner Jason Burton said in the Orlando Sentinel, “The idea is to treat turf and edible gardens equally, since they’re both water-intensive uses.”

In West Des Moines, Iowa, a 2013 debate before the city council included whether or not it was acceptable to grow corn in a front yard. This debate was brought on by a citizen complaint, but when other neighbors voiced concern that property rights were being restricted, the matter was dropped.

As gardening continues to grow in popularity, there will likely be an increase in the number of residents who feel that vegetable gardens are a more productive use of their property than simply growing and mowing the same lawn over and over.

Other front lawn alternatives also are growing in popularity. For example, as an alternative to thirsty grass, many property owners in arid parts of the county have pulled out their lawns entirely, opting instead for xeriscaping. This type of landscape features the sort of drought and heat-tolerant plants that would have naturally grown in a location, but had been replaced by lawns and the irrigation systems needed to water them.

But even in places where water supply is adequate, lawns, with their attendant weekly mowing, watering and annual fertilizing, have seemed to make less sense to many people, and the business community has helped that feeling along. Major gardening companies like Burpee deluge postal customers with seed catalogs each winter. Their website includes a page called Front Yard Vegetable Gardens, which says, in part, “Growing your own food is appealing. The sunniest part of your yard is the best place to grow vegetables. If that place happens to be your front yard, don’t let that stop you. Plants are beautiful. Why not choose edibles?”

The “why not” might be answered by a city planning board, or even a neighborhood association. Even advocates for front yard gardening admit that gardens can be unsightly, especially late in the growing season or when invading insects or blight get the better of them. Some gardeners lose interest midway through and allow weeds to grow in tilled soil and vegetables to rot on the plant. This waste might in turn attract rodents or other pests in larger numbers than a tidy lawn of Kentucky bluegrass and a shady maple tree would do. Other gardeners might not have adequate storage for their tools, and leave a chaotic tangle of garden hoses, shovels and wheelbarrows scattered about. These objects are inoffensive when out of sight behind a back yard fence. But in the front yard, they can be embarrassing for the gardener, and cause dissent among those who prefer lawns.

Cities are developing rules that allow people to use their property in productive, positive ways, without creating the disheveled appearance their regulations are intended to avoid. Many cities specifically regulate what sort of plants can be grown in a front yard, down to how many and at what density. Other cities have a vaguer set of guidelines. And what to do about unfenced corner lots, with “backyard” gardens just as visible as they would be on the property’s front lawn?

Cleveland, Ohio, developed specific guidelines to encourage the sort of community garden where people have individual plots. In Cleveland, these specific areas are known as Urban Garden Districts. Although developed as an approach to community gardening, they also guide the individual with a sunny front yard just ripe for the planting.

“Vegetable and flower gardens are permitted in a front yard. However, fences cannot be higher than 4 feet and must be at least 50 percent open,” said City Planning Director Freddy L. Collier, Jr. “Also, no ‘accessory structures’ like sheds or hoop houses are permitted in the front yard.”

One group of gardening advocates has begun a national campaign to normalize gardening as a front yard pursuit. With the phrase “Occupy Your Lawns” as their slogan, Food Not Lawns was founded in Eugene, Ore., in 1999 by a small group of Food Not Bombs activists. They had been cooking meals for people living in parks and decided to start gardening as an extension of that work. Word got around, and chapters began forming around the country. Their website lists chapter locations in 25 states, with more listed as “coming soon.” There also are organizations like the Institute for Justice, and bloggers with names like Front Yard Farmer and Outlaw Garden, all calling for civil disobedience in the name of efficient land use, even on a small scale.

Government agencies at many levels work with citizens to help promote safety and minimize waste, no matter what they plant in their yards. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, “how you care for all the green and growing things in your yard can have a big impact on how much waste your household creates, and on Minnesota’s air and water quality. From grass trimmings and leaves to pesticides and water, the eco-impact of your lawn and garden can be significant. Yard waste and food waste make up 13 percent of what’s thrown into the garbage in Minnesota.”

Whether residents want to grow grass in their front yards or develop a productive garden, specific city zoning regulations give people forewarning about whether their garden will be tolerated or turned over. And while the EPA is silent about its preferences on the visual appeal of vegetable gardens, it has established regulations restricting the loud, small gasoline-engine equipment many individuals, institutions and government entities use to tend their properties.

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