Continuing Fight for the Right to Grow Food: Orlando’s War on Gardens

Reader Contribution by Kale Roberts
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In early October 2012, a notice from the City of Orlando’s Code Enforcement stated that Jennifer and Jason Helvenston’s “front yard must be restored to its original configuration and ground

covers restored.” As reported Nov. 12, Orlando has taken issue with the rows of beans, greens, and other vegetables occupying the space between the resident’s front door and sidewalk.

The Helvenston’s micro-irrigated front yard garden is in contrast to other yards in their neighborhood, where a “finished” and “inviting” appearance is mandatory. The Nov. 7 deadline for the garden removal passed with the Helvenston’s refusal to uproot their vegetables, and Jason declaring, “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”

On Nov. 20, 2012, the City of Orlando’s Public Information Officer for the Office of the Mayor, Cassandra Lafser, told MOTHER EARTH NEWS:

The City is not requiring the property owner to tear up his garden. The City of Orlando is committed to environmental responsibility and encourages the use of vegetable gardens as a sustainable source of producing food […] The City does not have an ordinance governing vegetable gardens in the front yard. 

However, the City of Orlando has faced the issue of front yard vegetable production before, providing a precedent by which an ordinance might have been drafted. A complaint filed in 2010 after a resident used most of his front and back yards to grow 10-foot-tall corn resulted in a document drafted June 25, 2010, entitled Agricultural uses in Residential Zones LDC2010-00131. The City clearly lists their code definition of “agriculture” to be: the production, keeping or maintenance, for sale, lease or personal use, of plants and/or animals useful to humans.

At the time, code enforcement acknowledged this limiting definition, stating “in a strict interpretation, anyone who grows a tomato plant in his or her back yard would be in violation of the code,” going on to say:

Clearly this was not the intent of our code. In my [zoning official, Mark Cechman’s] opinion, the intent of the code was to prevent the nuisance effects of major farming activities from harming the reasonable use and enjoyment of adjacent, non-agricultural property owners. 

The final outcome of the June 2010 code enforcement proclaimed that the corn-growing resident could grow corn for personal use, but only in his backyard and production must not exceed 10 percent of the lot’s size. For this reason, it would seem Orlando does have a position on front yard gardening, contrasting with Lafser’s recent statement. Mayor Dyer’s office declined to comment on the 2010 code enforcement.

The Helvenstons, however, do have comments in response to the City. On Nov. 21 they told MOTHER EARTH NEWS by email, “We also realized after sharing with others that there is a pattern with these types of cases. The local officials do something to flip the media image so that they appear to accept gardens but then create many barriers later. Apparently, the same is happening to us. If they mean what they say then why isn’t the incident closed?”

The Helvenstons believe the City may relent to allowing front yard gardens only if fencing is constructed to block gardens from view. They feel fencing can be prohibitively expensive for many residents who hope to grow vegetables for food self-sufficiency. “FOOD should not be confused with aesthetic landscape. Our patriot garden produces real value, not perceived value,” they wrote, going on to create a Patriot Gardens blog.

Gardening homeowners in states throughout the nation have faced similar run-ins with city code enforcement. These gardeners, like the Helvenstons, are responding on behalf of the growing number of citizens across the country who – faced with soaring food prices coupled with shortages and an uncertain economic climate – are searching for ways to achieve food security.

The City of Orlando needs a code overhaul in response to changing public interest and perceptions of urban agriculture, say the Helvenstons. “The patriot garden is a key step to ensuring the City of Orlando progresses to become the ‘Greenest City in America.’ The greatest freedom you can give someone is the freedom to know they will not go hungry.”

If you would like to voice your opinion regarding this issue to Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer, he can be contacted at, or call 407.246.2182.

Check out our Illegal Gardening Collection Page for more news on this subject. For more information on urban gardening, check out the CityFarming Blog, and Jules Dervaes’ article, An Amazing and Prolific UrbanHomestead.

Photo by David Goodman
Documents provided by Jason Helvenston

 Kale Roberts is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS. His interests include renewable energy, real food and sustainable rural development. You can find him on Google+.

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