Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Oak Park Front-Yard Vegetable Garden Challenge

     Do jail time for planting food? If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of what’s been happening in Oak Park, Michigan. In a nutshell, the city charged Julie Bass with a misdemeanor because she planted vegetables in her front yard in violation of a city ordinance. She was threatened with jail time. The city has dismissed the charge against her in the face of widespread outrage on her behalf. That’s great!
     Or is it?
     It sounds to me like the city has backed down for now, leaving open the possibility of bringing charges against her later, after things have cooled down, while denying Julie the trial by jury she requested. At the same time, the city is harassing her over a charge of failing to license her dogs. This charge, Julie says, was tacked on to the original misdemeanor citation against her planting vegetables. She claims she got the dog licenses and paid her fine within a week of getting the citation. But the harassment continues; she’s still threatened with jail time of 93 days for failure to license.
     I’m wondering if she can sue the cretins involved for interfering with her civil liberties under the pretense of law.
     All that said, let’s get back to the subject of this blog: getting rid of lawns. Julie deserves a citation all right–of the positive kind. Growing your own food, whether in your back yard, front yard, patio, balcony, or on the roof, is such a basic right that it didn’t occur to our forefathers to include it specifically in the Constitution.
     Oak Park City Planner Kevin Rulkowski claimed the Bass garden is "unsuitable" because it’s "uncommon." Contrary to Mr. Rulkowski’s interpretation, these words are not synonyms, but if Mr. Rulkowski wants common, let’s give him common.


     I challenge everyone in Oak Park to plant vegetables in their front yard. Plant one or two veggies or a whole yard full. Have a contest for the most attractive front-yard vegetable garden. How about it, Julie? Do you think the city council could be persuaded to judge such a contest?
     For people used to nothing but grass out front, you may be uncertain as to how to get started with a vegetable garden. Ideally, the first step is to get your soil analyzed. Contact your county extension office to learn how. Most vegetables prefer slightly acidic soil, with a pH of six. Your yard would probably benefit from amendments. The extension office should be able to tell you what you need.
     Most vegetables like a full day’s sun. Figure eight hours minimum for those. Determine how many hours of full sun different parts of your yard receive. Measure the areas you want to plant. When you draw up your own garden plan, pay attention to space requirements on seed packets or plant labels of the vegetables you want to use. You’ll want to be able to walk between plants for weeding, harvesting, and admiring.
     Julie Bass went with raised beds surrounded by mulch. I played with the idea of using vegetables more like one might use traditional flowers and shrubs in a yard. This is what I came up with.

     "Up" in my sketch is north, so there’ll be some afternoon shade along the front side of this imaginary house. Nasturtiums, mint, strawberries, and cucumbers all tolerate part shade. Starting to the left, by the driveway, there are chives, sweet basil and lavender. The lavender makes a nice hedge. Tomatoes are in a circular garden defined by rocks or a low fence. South of the tomatoes are some marigolds or nasturtiums. A wide row of carrots looks almost like ferns beside colorful leaf lettuces bordering the sidewalk. 
     Across the sidewalk, there’s cabbage edged with onions, with two more circular gardens. The one closer to the house contains pumpkins or squash, with lots of room to vine. The southern circle contains green peppers. Sweet potatoes fill in as a ground cover around the peppers. Along the east edge are bush beans. Pole beans could be substituted. They are more productive and a bean tepee is a potential play area for children. Depending on what’s in the neighbor’s lot, rhubarb might work behind the beans.
     I’m not suggesting that anyone actually follow this plan for the challenge. It’s just meant to show that raised beds and neat rows are not the only options. The idea is to get rid of the useless lawn in favor of an attractive, productive yard, as well as to demonstrate how effective and attractive a front-yard vegetable garden can be. But if anyone wants to follow the sketch, help yourself.
     Growing your own food, homesteading, becoming self-reliant, aiming for sustainability are all smart choices. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has planted a vegetable garden at the White House! Okay, so that one’s in the back yard, but the point is clear. Growing food is an intelligent option and, oddly enough, even fashionable. Accept this challenge and show those Oak Park bureaucrats that it can also be attractive in a front-yard setting.


  1. As many times as this post has been viewed, no one has ever commented on it. Has anyone used this plan? Has it affected anyone's view of front-yard vegetable gardening? Comments are most appreciated!

  2. Pat, I think we're all looking for good designs, but this one wouldn't work for me.