Jason Helvenston was at work on his second crop, spreading compost to fertilize the carrots, bok choy, kale and dozens of other vegetables he grows organically on his property in Orlando when the trouble began.
Helvenston spent last Super Bowl Sunday planting the garden outside his 1940s cottage, in a neighborhood of modest houses close to downtown. Orlando’s growing season is nearly year-round, and Helvenston, a self-employed sustainability consultant for the building trade, said he saw the garden as “a budget thing” — a money-saving supplement to the chicken coop he and his wife, Jennifer, installed a few months later behind their house.
Since his backyard doesn’t get much sun, Jason Helvenston ripped out the lawn in his front yard and put the 25-by-25-foot, micro-irrigated plot there. The unorthodox landscaping went largely unnoticed for months, perhaps because he lives on a dead-end street next to Interstate 4.
Then, in September, Pedro Pedin, who lives in Puerto Rico but owns the rental property next door, visited with his wife and cast a displeased eye on his neighbor’s front yard.
“All the houses are pretty much kept neat,” Pedin said, “but his house looks like a farm.”
Pedin contacted the city, which cited the Helvenstons for violating section 60.207 of Orlando’s Land Development Code (failure to maintain ground cover on property) and set a deadline of Nov. 7 to comply.
Instead, Helvenston stood outside his polling site during the last election circulating a petition to change the code and then appeared on a local TV news station, telling the reporter and any city officials who happened to be watching, “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”
Gardeners aren’t generally known for their civil disobedience, yet in the past couple of years several have run afoul of local officials for tending vegetables in their front yards. In Ferguson, Mo., a stay-at-home father was ordered to dig up his 55 varieties of edible plants. In Tulsa, Okla., a gardener who didn’t want to remove her veggies and medicinal herbs saw them largely cleared by the city. In Oak Park, Mich., Julie Bass, a mother of six, faced up to 93 days in jail for refusing to take out the raised beds in front of her home and plant what the city deemed “suitable” ground cover.
These and other cases have drawn national attention, as well as outrage from gardeners, some of whom have begun referring to the isolated skirmishes as a broader “war on gardens.”
Roger Doiron, the founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a group promoting food gardens, has marshaled support for Bass and others.
“If you define a war as a struggle between opposing forces, this does fit the bill,” he said.
The opposing forces, in Doiron’s view, are progressive-minded gardeners and backward-thinking municipalities.
Gardeners, he said, “need to push back. This isn’t about a single garden; this is about the right to garden.”
Although rooted in something as innocuous as vegetables, these disputes touch on divisive issues like homeowner rights, property values, sustainability, food integrity and the aesthetics of the traditional American lawn. Ecologists and libertarians alike have gotten into the debate, the latter asserting that the codification of gardens is just one more way the government tells people how to live.