The city and town names may change, but the stories are strikingly similar. Every year, new tales of urban gardeners who are cited for “illegally” growing food in their yards or on vacant lots bubble up.
One recent high profile case involves Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, a couple in Miami Shores Village, Florida, who was told the front yard vegetable garden they’d tended to for 17 years was prohibited according to a new zoning code that banned front yard vegetable gardens. They had to dig up their plants, which supplied half the food they ate, or face $50-per-day fines.
This happened in 2013, and they’ve been fighting for the right to replant their garden ever since. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case. A bill inspired by their story, prohibiting local governments from regulating residential vegetable gardens, was introduced in the Florida senate this year, but it died in the house in March. The couple still has an active change.org petition going.
Vegetable garden restrictions aren’t the only food-producing activities homeowners have come up against. Those who want to keep backyard chickens, other livestock or bees can face hurdles. Things can get even stickier if you decide you want to sell some of the food you grow.
GROWING CONFLICTS Although there’s little research about the prevalence of front yard garden bans, disputes over home gardens aren’t going away, according to Baylen Linnekin, author of Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. “These conflicts occur with surprising frequency around the country,” he said. “Local zoning laws—which often place aesthetic concerns over the rights of homeowners and renters to raise their own food—are almost always the culprit. As more people look to grow their own food, these conflicts are only likely to grow.”
But the benefits of urban agriculture activities are becoming harder for cities and towns to deny. Not only do gardens increase access to healthy food, they can conserve energy, lessen storm water runoff, cool temperatures and sequester urban nitrogen. They can also help foster a sense of community. And telling people they can’t grow food on their own property just doesn’t sit right with many people.
FIGHTING FOR FOOD For every head-scratching story of overregulation, there are examples of lawmakers who change their tune when challenged by passionate citizens. Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, lifted a ban on “row crops” in front yards in 2010. After a dispute last year in Toledo, Ohio, over piles of mulch that an urban farmer was using to rehabilitate soil, other urban farmers in the city created the Urban Agriculture Alliance to work with the city to come up with more clear guidelines. The two sides recently came to an agreement on several issues. From now on, home gardeners will be allowed to sell produce to neighbors from small tables. Gardening structures like hoop houses and greenhouses less than 400 square feet will be allowed without a permit.
Sometimes a front yard is the only option for home gardeners who don’t have a back yard or have one that doesn’t get enough sun. Or, people may simply prefer to grow food instead of grass. There are approximately 40 million acres of lawn in the United States. Considering intensive farming methods can produce a remarkable amount of food a fraction of an acre, the potential for home gardeners to increase local food production is impressive.
Before you embark on your own front yard garden, it’s good practice to check your city ordinances, advises Linnekin. Some cities that allow gardens have rules for them, like how far a garden needs to be from a sidewalk. “Remember that even if your city or town allows gardens, you’re also subject to state and local nuisance laws, among others,” he said.
“If you’re found to be in violation of any law—gardening ordinance or otherwise—consult with a local attorney immediately to learn more about your rights,” said Linnekin. “You may be able to fight back.” There are also nonprofits, such as Institute for Justice, that may be willing to take on your case as well.
If you happen to not have a yard at all and want to start growing your own food, check out Shared Earth, our website that connects people who have land with people who want to garden or farm. Search listings and message with nearby gardeners or landowners to get started on your next garden!