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Oak Park’s Famous Small Kitchen Garden

This environmentally irresponsible yard would be legal in Oak Park, Michigan where lawn fascists seem to control the citizens. Note that the chemicals lawn owners apply to kill weeds and insects and to feed the grass, wash into sewers which empty into waterways that ultimately feed lakes and ocean bays. How can this possibly be good for the planet? How many hours of your life do you lose cutting back the grass that you’re obligated to keep healthy? In a free country, you should be able to choose NOT to waste your resources and your life this way.

In case you haven’t heard, representatives of the government of Oak Park, Michigan think that small kitchen gardens don’t belong in front yards. They site planning code that specifies homeowners may have only suitable plants in their front yards. This is news because it’s affecting a homeowner who decided that vegetables are suitable for her yard.

The Oak Park Situation

Excavation having to do with a sewer left the Basses’ yard in disarray. Being of sound mind, Julie Bass decided not to re-plant grass, but rather to build a lovely set of raised beds to hold a vegetable garden. It seems that a neighbor might have complained to the city government, and that government is insisting that the garden is a violation of city code.

Would this environmentally responsible yard be legal in Oak Park, Michigan? It contains no grass; just rocks and trees. Imagine how little time it takes to maintain this yard. Imagine how little gasoline the homeowner burns in that effort. I don’t see any food plants in the photo, so perhaps it could squeak past the lawn fascists.

The Basses have been ticketed and fined, and are now facing a trial. Apparently, the city’s entire case hinges on a misinterpretation of the word suitable. Oak Park’s Planning and Technology Director Kevin Rulkowski claims that Webster’s dictionary defines suitable as common. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and have yet to find one that agrees with Mr. Rulkowski. (It seems thousands of other folks have consulted many dictionaries; suitable is a trending word at online dictionary web sites.)

More sadly, Rulkowski invites his audience (TV interviewers) to look around the city. Every front yard, he asserts, contains grass and trees. This is his rational for prosecuting a front yard that has vegetables in it. (Can you hear Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes?)

How would Oak Park, Michigan treat the owner of this yard? There’s not a lick of grass, and many of the plants are flowers (which may be “suitable”). Still, if you look closely, you might notice a few strawberry patches and some mounds of squash scattered here and there. Honestly, I find the yard unattractive; no patterns emerge at all, and the various clumps don’t complement each other. Still, I applaud the homeowner and would be happy to live next door to – or across the street from such an environmentally responsible yard.

Crime Against the World and Ourselves

Some years ago I came to recognize that having a lawn is one of my greatest green offenses. In a nutshell: I spent about $50 from March through October and one-and-a-half hours a week “maintaining” my lawn. But what does this mean?

  • I applied chemicals to kill broadleaf weeds and to prevent crabgrass from taking root.
  • I applied chemical fertilizer so the grass would grow faster and fuller.
  • I watered to keep the grass going when it was particularly dry.
  • I tilled bare spots and planted new seed in damaged areas.
  • I mowed at least once a week—and in wet periods, twice a week.
  • I maintained the mower; when my first (10-year-old) mower burned, my wife invested in a self-propelled industrial-quality machine that must have cost a small fortune.
  • Oh, and I actually priced rental of heavy equipment: an aerator to drill holes and loosen the soil, and an overseeding machine that drills grass seed into the lawn to provide new vitality.

Then I saw the irony: I was spending money and time to grow something so I could cut it down and throw it away. My lawn’s only contribution is to keep the soil in my yard from washing away; we rarely spend time on the lawn except to walk to our flower and vegetable beds or to do lawn care!

If that’s not enough, mowing was blowing acrid, toxic smoke into the air, burning non-renewable petroleum products, and making a horrible racket. I noticed that there is almost never a time I can be in my yard without hearing a mower running in the neighborhood.

Seriously: if you need a lawn on which to play croquet, soccer, or other outdoor games, it makes so much more sense to go to a park or a playground than to maintain your own lawn for the rare recreation.

I can’t help wondering: are there any houses in Oak Park, Michigan that are so close to the street you might not consider the area in front to be a yard? Does the homeowner need to buy a lawnmower to handle the six foot strip of grass? Would a flower garden like the one in this photo be legal as an alternative? I suspect it would pass as long as the town council doesn’t recognize Echinacea… some people consume it for alleged medicinal value.

Oak Park Idiocy

So, a lawn keeps soil from washing away. Apparently, the government of Oak Park sees another amazing benefit to growing grass: It conforms. And, by golly, if your yard doesn’t conform, the city will pursue every legal means to make it conform.

It’s hard for me not to exercise the word fascism. Please say it with me: lawn fascist. Reason tells us that replacing your grass with vegetable gardens actually improves the planet, and if it’s your food, it improves the quality of what you eat. It saddens me to think that a lawn fascism ideology could even exist, much less have power to suppress positive inclinations of citizens in a free country.

I’ve signed a petition in support of Julie Bass and her raised bed vegetable garden, and I hope you’ll sign it too. Also, you might enjoy Julie’s blog and the television news reports about the situation. The aspect of this story that amazes me most of all is that Julie’s raised bed gardens are very tidy and attractive. I would love to see such well-kept gardens in every front yard in my town; even a poorly-kept vegetable garden would have way more curb appeal to me than yet another homogeneous spread of useless, environmentally-damaging grass.

Here’s another tricky call: would Oak Park, Michigan allow this yard? Trees and flowers must certainly be suitable in a no vegetables allowed city. But wait! The petals of day lilies go great in salads. Who knows what other fine foods might lurk in this seditious yardscape?

I had to include this disgraceful display in my post. I don’t believe this corner house has a lawn; every inch of the yard is a vegetable and flower garden. While snapping photos, I noticed that there are even botanical-garden-quality signs among the plantings so pedestrians can easily identify them. Oak Park, Michigan would send a squat team to remove the offending plants and bring the owners to justice.

A final tricky one: would this be legal in Oak Park, Michigan? There’s lawn, but there’s also a big honking vegetable garden. What’s missing is a house! Yes, this is a vegetable garden on an empty building lot—a corner lot, no less. I suspect the management of Oak Park would deem this an eyesore when what’s really wrong is that the kitchen garden doesn’t fill the lot. Someone still must tend the useless lawn whose only purpose is to fill space.

I’m willing to bet that Oak Park, Michigan officials could find a whole lot of trees in their city that look like this one; it has a mound of mulch that reaches well up its trunk. Even being a low-life ugly-vegetable-growing scofflaw sympathizer, I know it’s a crime to heap mulch against a tree’s bark. Oak Park could do its citizens a true service by finding such abused trees and raking the mulch away from them. Certainly no government agency could deem this horrid treatment of a tree as suitable.

Places to visit for more on this story

  • The petition – Please tell the City of Oak Park to let Julie Bass grow vegetables in her front yard. It’s time the city’s government adopt a responsible attitude about air polution, noise polution, conservation on non-renewable petroleum resources, and lawn fascism.

  • Julie Bass’s blog – Read what Julie has to say about her situation.

  • If Oak Park Hates Veggies, They Can Bite Me – Commentary by Ivette Soler whose book, The Edible Front Yard encourages you to grow food in your front yard.

  • WXYZ News – Hear a local news station’s coverage of the Oak Park situation.

  • Fox News, Detroit – More local news coverage of the Oak Park situation.

  • Plantgasm Blog – Another blog post about the Oak Park idiocy along with many links to other web pages of interest.

 

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6 Responses to “Oak Park’s Famous Small Kitchen Garden”

  • BRAVO!!! BRAVO!!! Author! Author!!!

    Wonderfully well-put, Daniel! This post says it ALL – I am sharing this piece of impassioned eloquence across facebook. You beautifully illustrate the bizarre thoughts of the powers that be in Oak Park – and I love that you show several examples that also defy the norm. All of them are appropriate and “suitable”, even if not to my particular taste.
    Thank you, Daniel – you took it to a whole new level!

  • Daniel, brilliant! can you hear me applauding? Logical, documented, common sense approach… that clearly political officials do not possess. Is it really about Bass’s thoughtful and lovely vegetable garden, or is it about continued intervention, ever increasing control and power over our lives.

    The government is in every room in our home, from the light bulbs that GE has manufactured in China (and I do love the Chinese) at the expense of our workers,… and God forbid that should we break one a hazmat team is required in cleanup… to the toilets on which we sit, to our showers and water faucets and how we are permitted to wash our dishes.

    Bureaucracy/ Facism at its finest, and it only gets worse from here.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Ivette: Thanks so much for having a read! Oak Park raises the question I’ve asked all my life: Am I on the wrong planet? City officials put a small-minded aesthetic ahead of common sense… as we have collectively for decades. Makes me wonder if the lawn-care industry has been buying up politicians.

    Diana: Thank you for visiting! Honestly, I’m not particularly bothered by government regulation when it has clear economic, safety, or ecological motivation. But regulation that clearly damages the environment, squanders resources and money, and robs people of time is pernicious and embarrassing.

  • Kathy Arnheim:

    Beautiful article and pictures. May I use this when emailing local newspeople in an attempt to stir up interest in the plight of Julie Bass. She needs our support, as you know. Thanks, Kathy

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Kathy: Thanks for visiting. Please feel free to point people here, though some of the links at the end of the post might be more compelling as several are closer to the story than I am. If you want to quote from the article in your emails, of course that’s fine. I hope you can stir up some serious coverage. Good luck!

  • How stupid to complain about a vegetable garden in a front yard. Or anywhere. Unless the city is willing to pay for the upkeep of a lawn, the landOWNER should get to decide how to use the land. This is America.

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