News came from Oak Park, Michigan this week that a woman named Julie Bass is being threatened with ninety-three days in jail for planting vegetables in her front yard. Apparently, Oak Park city code stipulates that only "appropriate" vegetation is allowed, which city administrators interpret as only grass, trees, flowers and shrubs; though presumably if she were to grow a wildflower meadow, she would be facing the same problem. Ms Bass has found herself at the center of a national commentary on the issue, which she seems to be able to handle with grace, on her blog, Oak Park Hates Vegetables. No entity less than Time magazine, and the writer Jessica Newman, felt compelled to write a hit piece against her, which Ms Bass detailed quite capably the errors of, in a recent post.
That any government could presume to dictate what you grow in your yard is ridiculous in the extreme; that your government might tell you that you cannot grow food, is some curious bit of tyranny. Sadly, it seems her community is more concerned with enforcing conformity than checking the irrational reach of government. Which, it could be argued, as government is an extension of the people, and the people don't want their neighbors to have veggie's in the front yard, then government is only enforcing the will of the people. To which I reply, if that is the case in this case, then the people have gone insane. If they have not, and they believe their local government in this case is wrong, and they are not stopping this action, then they are cowardly.
It's a case similar to mine, as I have turned my entire yard into a garden. I've written before about the harassment I have received from city bureaucrats; the latest example of which came in the form of a letter informing me that my driveway is a public nuisance. I have not been threatened with jail time for what I'm doing with my yard, unless you count the time I asked what would happen if I moved back into the house they were threatening to condemn, when they were threatening to remove me from it for not having natural gas hooked up. To be fair to my Minneapolis city government, if my yard were in Oak Park, I might be threatened with life imprisonment, or death.
I recently came across a book by Michael Pollan, called Second Nature. In the third chapter, he discusses the lawn and its history in America. The lawn as we currently conceive it originated shortly after the Civil War, when Fredrick Law Olmstead was commissioned to design what was one of America's first suburban developments, outside Chicago. Each house was set back thirty feet from the road, no walls or fences were allowed, and the front lawn was seeded with grass and expected to be cut short. Lawns had precedence in Europe, but only in America were they democratized. As Pollan points out, this lawn aesthetic is a "totalitarian landscape....subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly....nature under cultures boot." Speaking to our puritanical origins, the lawn is "a vehicle of consensus, rather than...an arena for self expression." And, "just as the Puritans would not tolerate any individual who sought to establish his or her own back-channel relationship to the divinity, the members of the suburban utopia do not tolerate the homeowner who establishes a relationship with the land that is not mediated by the group's conventions."
To the horror of some of my neighbors, I am trying to establish in my garden a balance between the wild and the cultivated. I'm inclined to think my plants flourish best if I work with nature rather than against it. It would seem the bugs and the birds agree. I'm searching for that same balance inside myself, and it seems to be working, if my dreams, and my financial prospects are any indication. I suspect it will have to be a perspective Americans at large embrace, if we hope to enter the future of resource constraints with anything resembling grace. Otherwise, I suppose, we can continue down the path that leads to us incarcerating people for growing vegetables, which I suspect leads to a State far more dark than that.
I vote for grace. Which is why I think of my yard as a garden. Here's a tour:
My backyard. A tomato bed in the middle with a bit of blue jade corn; a fingerling potato bed upper left, grape vines on the fence.
The north side of the back yard. Bean and pea trellises made with grape vines. Brassica on the left, more tomatoes on the right. Wildflowers beyond that. I built the trellis in the background; another example, perhaps, as another neighbor has said, of my lowering the neighbor's property values?
The fenced garden. I built the fence. It needs a little love. I'll get to that.
A closer look at the fenced garden. Carrots between Brassica: khol rabi, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga. Peas on a trellis. There's a compost bin covered by grape vines, upper right.
The north side of the fenced garden. In the foreground, radish and arugula going to seed. Strawberries in a horseshoe around two young blueberry. Asparagus in flower beyond that.
The driveway, which is the reason for the latest accusation of my being a public nuisance. This is a planting on two hundred wheelbarrows of dirt I set here. The future orchard. My neighbors never complained when this was an ugly sheet of aging asphalt.
I convinced a tree trimming crew to drop this load of wood chips, which I'm in the process of spreading around the garden. It's all a process, and the garden is evolving, but some of my neighbors don't care. If I was wealthy, I might be able to hire others to do the work. I do it all myself. That I have spent approximately 300 hours working in this garden this spring is impressive to some, lost on others.
The driveway through slender penstemon on the boulevard.
My raspberry patch.
I have about 100 tomato plants. I'll harvest about 400 lbs of potatoes. Both are of the nightshade family; this is a bittersweet nightshade next to the pond. If you look close, underneath is a potato plant. I've never planted potato here. A new variety?
I pack the plants in. Romaine lettuce in front of Russian red kale. Cilantro flowering on the lower right. Potato on the left. The romaine were given to me by the neighbor who thinks I'm lowering property values. He wanted some, but I like the way they grew (the ones closest to the left receive more morning sunlight), and I wasn't inclined to tell him they were ready after his most recent tirade.
The view from the sidewalk.
Some kind of amanita mushroom, of which there were about fifty popping up in this tomato bed.
Another fungi, growing on a black spruce stump. I have seen upwards of thirty different kinds of fungi growing in this garden this year.
Rattlesnake snap beans.
A very happy bumblebee. Look at those pollen sacks. He is making love to a leadplant, which the early settlers called devil weed, because the cable-like roots foiled the plow.
A potato flower ready for some lovin'.
A cabbage moth couple going at it. Insect porn. My goodness, outlaw such imagery! I hear the puritanical among us screaming.
A female cabbage moth with her yoni aloft, ready and waiting.
Two june bugs, in ecstasy.
And look, another female cabbage moth, on a morning glory leaf, the june bugs in the background.
In swoops a male.
Consummation! (Too bad the steward can't get layed.)
The veiw of my front step. I've let the spiderwort and yarrow be, where they come up in the cracks of the sidewalk. That's a red-osier dogwood on the right of the step. There was an even bigger one on the left side until recently. No wonder some of my neighbors are distraught. My god, the breakdown of civilization!
The north side of the front garden. More potatoes, beans, peppers, etc. That's a dead lilac. I have cardinal vine, moon vine and heavenly blue morning glory climbing it; which I hope will be my version of good ol' red, white and blue.
The south side of the front garden. More tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, amaranth, evening primrose, more potatoes, etc. Fern along the fence. It looks more chaotic in the picture than it does in person; some see only chaos. There is a path. Another neighbor who is moving told me, the only reason her family has considered staying in the neighborhood is my garden.
The view of the pond from the street. I built the screen to keep wayward children out, as the water extends underneath the chain link. Bee balm on both sides, with black caps on the left. Frontenac grape vines climbing everything.
There will be three gallons or more of black caps this year.
Front step progress. I am sensitive to what the neighbors think, and I'm tired of the harassment. It's all a process. And by the way, this year, despite all you've seen, I've spent less than $100 on this garden. For what will prove to be about $3000 worth of veggies.