Michelle Obama lives in arguably the most prestigious home in America. In 2009, she dug up a portion of the South Lawn and installed an organic vegetable garden to provide fresh produce for the White House kitchen. Short of the chemical companies who produce pesticides – definitely not allowed in an organic garden – who could complain about such a plan? It’s a great example of sourcing foods locally and Washington DC school children have had the chance to dig in the dirt, learning just where their food comes from.
It’s a good thing the White House isn’t located in Oak Park, Michigan.
When the Bass family had to tear into their lawn to repair a sewer line, instead of replacing the grass they decided to plant a vegetable garden. Oak Park city officials were not impressed with the family’s idea and asked them to move the garden to the backyard.
“Five beds, six yards of compost, about 90 plants – but most important of all, on principle — no!!!!” says Julie Bass.
Short of a little container gardening, this is the first time the Bass family has grown a garden. But instead of focusing their efforts on developing new gardening skills and harvesting the fruits of their labor, Julie Bass, a mother of six, finds herself facing a court battle and possibly jail time.
Over a vegetable garden.
The family would love to raise chickens for fresh eggs, have a goat for milking, and generate electricity with a windmill. They haven’t done so because those activities are not allowed in Oak Park. Vegetable gardening, however, is not explicitly against city codes. So what’s the problem? City code requires that front yard landscapes have “suitable, live plant material.” Well, since the plants in the Bass front yard are not made of silk or plastic, it appears that the battle is over what’s “suitable.”
Is a green lawn maintained with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and trimmed with a gasoline-powered mower suitable? Not in my book. I think it’s entirely UNsuitable to expose our communities to the dangers of poisons on a daily basis just to maintain conformity.
“If you look at the definition of what suitable is in Webster’s dictionary, it will say common*. So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what’s common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers,” says Oak Park City Planner Kevin Rulkowski in an interview on WJBK Fox News in Detroit.
Following that line of thought, would the front yard vegetable garden become suitable if the majority of households in the Bass’ Oak Park neighborhood tore out their lawns and planted vegetable gardens of their own? Vegetable gardens would then be common, and by your reasoning, thus, “suitable.”
“That’s not what we want to see in a front yard,” says Rulkowski about the Bass’ veggies.
Beg pardon, Mr. Rulkowski, but who are you to say what is and isn’t desirable – or suitable – in a front yard? Determining what passes for “suitable” landscape is purely subjective. Your opinion surely differs from that of the Bass family and many of their neighbors.
Is a statue of St. Anthony suitable? Or what about topiary? Where exactly is the line – and who draws it?
You know what I think is suitable and desirable? This:
Isn’t it gorgeous? These photos are from Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping. Ms. Creasy has done an amazing job of combining vegetables and flowers for an aesthetically pleasing landscape. In other words, it’s a very suitable landscape – that happens to produce vegetables. I can’t imagine that Mr. Rulkowski would have any quibbles with a lush front yard like this, vegetables or no. Certainly the Bass’ immature garden isn’t quite as lush as Ms. Creasy’s mature landscape, but with a little TLC (and a lot less BS, if you don’t mind my saying) the potential for a gorgeous, produce-bearing garden is great.
The Bass family is doing something different, certainly, than most folks in their neighborhood – but why in the world would the City of Oak Park spend any of its budget fighting a battle against people who have simply opted for a different type of landscape? One that provides sustenance for household members, in the form of food and companionship from the neighbors who stop by to visit the garden? Does Oak Park not have any actual criminals?
Instead of condemning this family, Oak Park would do well to use them as an example of how residents can build a sense of community through growing food.
“I think this has been a great experience for the neighborhood kids- lots of them come over any time we do anything outside,” says Julie. “They were here to help shovel the dirt, and dig the holes for the seeds, and water the new plants. They love to come over and sit and hang out on the swing, and [a] neighbors’ son actually gives garden tours to people who want to know what specific plants are- it’s too cute!”
The City of Oak Park is charging Julie Bass with a misdemeanor that could carry a 93 day jail sentence. Julie is blogging about the experience of being on the wrong end of the city planner’s office and the right side of common sense, here.
*The definition of “suitable” in Merriam-Webster (both online and in my old tattered print copy) does not include the word “common.”
GeekMoms, what do you think? Is the City of Oak Park out of line? Or should the Bass family move the garden to the backyard?