Home gardeners and urban homesteaders are constantly battling against outdated or limiting legislation. Even in a progressive community such as Boulder, Colo., nudity in the garden is no longer allowed under a new home garden law. Many cities and neighborhoods have garden laws, ordinances or other regulations that may limit where your garden is placed, how it is designed, what structures you can put up and even what attire you are allowed to wear while weeding your tomato patch.
Also referred to as “local weed laws,” these ordinances are meant to keep negligent homeowners’ yards and lawns from becoming a hot bed of mosquitoes, rats or potential fires. These same laws have been employed to prevent homeowners from planting anything besides the most common grass species. Natural landscapers, home gardeners and urban farmers have been struggling against these laws since the beginning of their suburban applications.
Natural landscaping, or the use of native plants and low-maintenance caretaking techniques to support the local ecosystem and encourage biodiversity, is a natural enemy of the bright green monoculture lawn now accepted as the ideal. (To learn more, check out Make Your Lawn Naturally Beautiful). About 5 years ago, Laurie Otto’s yard — planted to ferns and flowers – was deemed illegal and weedy by local authorities and cut down. Determined to put up a fight, now the head of Wild Ones — Natural Landscapers, Inc., Mrs. Otto has helped to educate and advocate about the importance of natural landscaping.
Home gardeners can also get caught in violation of their local weed laws. City ordinances commonly stipulate that vegetable gardens shall not be planted in the front lawn. Also, laws often require any plant growth to be maintained below a certain height, such as 5 inches. While vegetable garden plants are usually exempted, this does not include any wild or native plant species — for example, wild onions — you may wish to keep around. Laws limiting the days and amount a homeowners can water their property can also affect how well garden plants will fare through drier months.
Most of the basic rules you need to check into before you start digging are monitored on a city level. These generally include laws or guidelines about lawn length limitations, height and type of fences, specifics of water usage, rights to plant in the planting strips (also known as hell strips) and regulations on compost piles and practices. Garden-related structures, including tool sheds, can also be subject to local zoning and building codes. Some garden-related legislation, however, is created at the federal and state levels, including laws on invasive and noxious weeds and rules regarding what pesticides are allowed or prohibited, as well as specifics on their proper application.
Unfortunately, the home gardener and his or her neighbors — backed by city ordinances — may not always see eye to eye. In some cases, such as that of Tara Kolla in Los Angeles, complaints from neighbors about home gardens can result in a citation from zoning officials. In several communities and cities across the states, home gardeners and proponents of urban agriculture have seen — and actively been involved in — positive changes in their local policies. Many cities, including Seattle and Kansas City, have created Food Policy Councils which have encouraged the growth of urban gardens and localized sustainable food systems by advocating for changes to local zoning and planning ordinances.
Has a city ordinance or federal law ever kept you from a garden expansion project, turning your home garden into an urban farm, or otherwise affected your gardening endeavors? We look forward to finding your answers in the comments section below, and be sure to follow the links to read about how Seattle and Kansas City successfully changed their local ordinances for ideas about how to respond.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
Photo by iStockPhoto/Joe Klune