Growing Food in Your Front Yard is Illegal

I feel for Sean Law. He thought he was doing the right thing putting his front yard to productive use. He started to turn it into a prolific forest of edible perennial and annual plants. Not planted in rows but a mélange of stacking and companion planting that would rule out the need for chemicals to keep unwanted weeds and pests at bay. Instead he found himself in trouble with the council and now has over $100,000 in fines to his name. You see, Law’s neighbours didn’t recognise his statement–political or ecological as it may be. They saw it as an infringement on their rights. It attracts wildlife they say. Writes Charlene Sakoda on Yahoo! News:

“His next-door neighbor Bobbie Corbitt told WOFL Fox 35, “We have all kind of weird animals, rodents and stuff, and bugs. I have bugs that I’ve never seen before come in my house.” To which Mr. Law responded, “There are ants in the world. I’m not God I didn’t put ants in the world.” Another neighbor Kathy Ettman said, “If he wishes to live that way, which is his choice, go to an area that accepts that. That means you go out to ranch land.”

Growing your own produce in your own front yard is ranch land behaviour? Please. If I am to accept that I  insist that lawns are for golf courses and sporting fields.

I think this story, and all the others similar to it—there have been a few—shows how touchy middle-class suburbanites can be. Further, it seems to be a very American phenomenon. Front yard vegetable gardens and fruit orchards are common here in Australia. Irrespective of their chaos, they seem to elicit curiosity and inspiration rather than hostility and vengeance.

In fact, I have a hodge-podge of pots and plants, at various stages of fertility, bolt, and heat exhaustion, in the front corner of my front yard (if you can call it that, it’s so small). It’s a bit chaotic—helped along by a veritable psychedelic rainbow of different coloured pots. Neighbours and fellow community members wander past every day—walking dogs, taking kids to school, heading to the tram to commute to white-collar desk jobs. They look—it’s hard not to—and ooh-and-aah, poke and prod, and marvel at the stuff that looks just like—arguably better—the stuff they see in the supermarket. “Growing food in pots in your front yard? How cool is that? How natural. Must try that at home!” their smiles and curious eyes suggest. I can’t even fathom, in my neighbourhood at least—very much your leafy, middle-middle to upper-middle class inner suburb where late-model leather-interior sedans and high-spec renovations are the norm—somebody dobbing me in; complaining that my little corner ‘o’ chaos is ‘unsightly’ or ‘immoral’ or ‘disruptive’. Maybe I am lucky. But it seems to be forgivable in this country.

Law has created a Change.org campaign that aims to “grant relief to Sean Law from all orders and fines from the special magistrate; and begin a city food forest initiative to live in greater harmony with nature and greatly increase food security.” (Grammar edited by me.) Do sign it if you want to help set a positive precedent.

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7 thoughts on “Growing Food in Your Front Yard is Illegal

  1. Move somewhere else where its accepted? What are they afraid of? They are just bugs, might even do their own plants some good. Unless they are the kind of people that have boring as hell bare lawns front and back.

    I can appreciate their position if it looks like he has just let weeds overgrow his front yard, maybe he can bring a little acceptance by adding some “structure” so it actually looks deliberate and planned, rather than just the product of laziness.

    Still a shame.

      • I did a quick Google search to check out what the place looks like. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to be antagonistic – his yard looks like an overrun swamp. Is that _actually_ necessary? I would find his sustainable initiative far more clever if he actually did it in a way that seemed less designed to shit the neighbours. Doing what he is doing in a way that is inclusive rather than divisive would impress me far more.

        It’s not the first or last case of councils using their powers to enforce a standard of neatness, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing overall (heavy handed in this case? Possibly, but it seems he’s being a dick about it anyway, so I have much less sympathy than I would otherwise).

      • It’s certainly not necessary. He could make it look any way he fancied. However, he seems to argue the principle, Design From Patterns To Details (and goes light on the detail). He wants a natural looking, ‘do nothing’ garden. Where weeds aren’t pulled but rather outcompeted–indeed, requiring plants to grow unruly, drop seed, and repeat the process again and again to attain the patch. As the weeds and grasses (and annuals) die off and fall, they break down into the soil providing a new layer of fertility.

        Keeping neighbours onside is a sure way of being able to do what you want. However, none of us know who he has for neighbours. Perhaps he has gone a little too far—a little more order is all that would bring them around. Perhaps the thought of anything less than a impeccable green carpet would send his neighbours batty and to the chambers. It’s hard to say “what he should do” considering he hasn’t necessarily done anything wrong. Rather, he has done something that isn’t to the taste of some others—likewise, I am sure, their lawns aren’t to the taste of Law. Aesthetics is a challenging beast.

        To be sure, when we cast judgement along the lines of “I can’t help but feel like he’s trying to be antagonistic – his yard looks like an overrun swamp”, I can’t help but feel our middle-class, suburban prejudices are showing. Perhaps it does look like a swamp. Perhaps that’s the point. I think what you’re trying to say is, it’s likely to be very far removed from the general aesthetic of the neighbourhood. I’m sure it is. So is my front yard—save the beautiful big hibiscus that takes centre stage in my front yard, creating far too much shade, mind.

        Asked whether I would like to share a street with a seemingly intelligent, well-meaning hippy who wants to create a political and ecological statement with his front yard, a middle-class NIMBY obsessed with social standing, or white trash; it’s obvious which one I would invite over for a mid-week glass of Adelaide Hills pinot noir and goats cheese. Probably all of them actually. It’s amazing how far connecting with your neighbours can go.

  2. Absolutely agree. My point being that clearly his council has some form of guidelines / regulations. “Stick it to the man” is one approach, but I can’t help but feel this guy is pushing hard against the grain (why else so many complaints & fines?) rather than working WITH his neighbours and council?

    • According to what I have read and heard (via YouTube) it’s vague as to whether he has broken any guidelines or rules. He argues that he has done the right thing by the “Florida-friendly landscaping law from 2009 (sic), which encourages homeowners to have yards which are chemical-free and conserve water”.

      In fact, according to 373.185 Local Florida-friendly Landscaping Ordinance, Section 3:C [1]:

      “A local government ordinance may not prohibit or be enforced so as to prohibit any property owner from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping on his or her land.”

      This isn’t exactly “sticking it to the man”, rather doing what the ordinance outlines as right and reasonable and exercising one’s implied right to use their land how they see fit (within reason). I couldn’t find anything in the ordinance about aesthetics.

      No doubt he is pushing hard against the grain. The grain, of course, being what is deemed normal in a particular place or broader culture. In my recent post, The Morality of Lawn, I describe and critique this ‘norm’ in some detail.

      Why mightn’t one work with neighbours and council? Because there is no actual or perceived requirement to, is one possibility. Did I get any approval to shove a heap of annuals in the bottom corner of my front yard? Not at all. (1) There is no local, state or federal government ordinance that requires me to; and (2) The perception I have of my neighbourhood is that it wouldn’t matter. Would I return the yard to what it was on account of a neighbour complaining? Definitely not. I am more likely to pop a pile of literature on gardening, permaculture, transition, climate change, peak-resources, and a copy of Damon Young’s “Philosophy in the Garden”, on their doorstep; or offer them some delicious heirloom tomatoes and strawberries. That said, my yard is much tidier than Law’s. Much tidier. But the ‘veggie patch’ is purposely cluttered for good reason.

      [1] The Florida Legislature (2014). 373.185 Local Florida-Friendly Landscaping Ordinances: Section 3:C. See: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0300-0399/0373/Sections/0373.185.html

  3. Interesting read. I have to agree with Sam on this one. A garden can be productive, chemical free and still kept presentable and managed. A little bit of compromise would go a long way I think.

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