Shaw cited the city’s “Live Well Ferguson” program as an example of its progressive attitude toward healthy practices like gardening. It is the residents, he added, who are often in favor of restrictive landscaping codes.
“Some of the largest volume of calls we get are complaints about property conditions,” he said.
In many communities where gardeners face fines, including Orlando and Ferguson, code enforcement officials didn’t initially go after the person planting vegetables in the front yard. It wasn’t until one or more neighbors complained that the city responded by following the law as currently set forth. Much like the chicken coops that popped up in suburban backyards a few years ago, front-yard gardens weren’t an issue until they suddenly became one.
Faced with residents who are adapting to what they perceive as new economic and environmental realities, in ways that don’t always fit the current laws or aesthetic norms, many communities have been caught off guard.
Shaw said flatly, “We weren’t ready for this.”
Doiron, the gardening activist, believes change will come slowly to the traditional lawn, and with resistance from local officials.
“We’re going to pull them kicking and screaming into the 21st century if we have to,” he said. Orlando is an unlikely place for a battle over a garden. As the name of the college football stadium reminds visitors, the city’s roots are in citrus growing. In 2007, Mayor Buddy Dyer started GreenWorks Orlando, an ambitious plan spanning decades to turn Orlando into one of the country’s greenest cities. Publicly fighting one of its residents over organic vegetables probably didn’t come up in the drafting meetings.
From Rowes’ view, the Orlando case points to a distinction between what he calls a “corporatized green,” like installing reflective windows in city buildings, and a “grass-roots kind of green,” as practiced by the Helvenstons and others.
“People just want to be able to grow their own food,” he said. “It’s a rejection of everyone having the same kind of house with the same kind of lawn.”
Ippel, the sustainability director, said Orlando is all for sustainability at the grass-roots level.
“We’re not opposed to gardens,” he said. “We allow chickens in the community. In our view, the story got blown out of proportion.”
Ippel added that the city had undergone a yearlong process to revise its landscape code to better promote sustainability and flexibility. As part of the process, he said, the city would incorporate codified standards for front-yard gardens.
“Hopefully, he’s amenable to making those changes,” Ippel said of Helvenston.
One of the ideas floating around is to require homeowners who plant a front-yard garden to shield it from the street with a fence. Pedin, the owner of the neighboring house, said he would be “100 percent agreeable” to that solution.
But Helvenston finds the compromise objectionable.
“A fence is expensive,” he said, digging in. “Now you just ruined my return on investment.”
While they wait for the city’s updated policy, the Helvenstons continue to tend their vegetable patch (they just harvested edamame) and to drum up support for the garden in their front yard and those elsewhere.
“We didn’t want this to happen,” Helvenston said, in a warning shot to other communities, “but it’s a blessing. It’s gotten more people planting gardens.”