Illegal Veggies

A citation and 93 days in jail. That’s what planting veggies in your front yard could get you, at least in Oak Park, Michigan. Ridiculous, you say? Hardly; it’s a reality, and it’s happening to Julie Bass. Julie and her family live in an average neighborhood in an average home in Oak Park, and a sewer line repair made it necessary to dig up their front yard. Rather than re-planting grass, the Bass Family though it would be more useful to plant a vegetable garden, which they did, taking great care to make it aesthetic as well as fruitful.

A city code mandates that, “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” The Bass Family considers veggies “suitable live plant material.” Unfortunately, the city of Oak Park does not, even though the veggies are growing in artfully-arranged raised beds, with decorative stone pavings winding between them, ornate trellises holding up the climbing plants, and an inviting bench swing. In fact, the city considers the garden an eyesore and wants it removed, even though there is nothing in the code that specifically prohibits the growing of veggies in front yards. Hence, the controversy. You can follow Mrs. Bass’s blog, “oakparkhatesveggies,” here.

I sympathize with the Bass Family. Each year, the Cudahy city inspector drives around town, evaluates the properties of unwitting home owners, and dictates what repairs must be done by what date, pending a fine. This is communicated via a letter that arrives USPS with no warning and with no prior consultation with the property owner. Owners are given a certain amount of time to complete the mandated work, or else. Period. Neither the cost of the repairs or updates, nor the finances or employment status of the home owner is given consideration. One may appeal the decision, but, of course, that takes time from the ticking clock.

The case of the Bass Family is more complicated, since it involves tearing down finished work and a jail sentence. That’s striking. But, what strikes me most of all is the overall effect that this case could have on families in general.

Times are tough; we’re all digging into methods and resources that before seemed like a novelty, such as vegetable gardening.  For many families, that’s no longer a hobby; it’s a necessity. If we mandate those gardens away, we’re mandating food away from family tables.

I think of my grandpa and grandma. Both born and raised in Germany, they survived World War I and immigrated to the United States in 1926 – just in time for the Great Depression and World War II! They, like so many Western and Eastern Europeans, learned to make the most of every square inch of land in order to produce food for their families, because there wasn’t much land to be had, and there certainly wasn’t an abundance of food to go around, either. On her quarter-acre City of Milwaukee plot of land, Grandma grew every kind of veggie imaginable – beets. kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes…everything. She even had pear and plum trees and a luscious grape vine growing over the tool shed! That wasn’t a passtime for Grandma; it was her way of life, as it’s now a way of life for many families around our country.

Why in the world would a city – any city, not just Oak Park – want to uphold a code that could potentially help families help themselves during these economic hard times? Even if times weren’t hard, what harm is there in growing vegetables on a front lawn? The idea that veggies are an eyesore is not only subjective, but ridiculous! One man’s eyesore is not only another man’s masterpiece, but his dinner.

I pray that the Bass Family case draws enough attention to convince Oak Park and every other municipality in this country to reconsider and repeal such codes. When nurturing grass becomes more important than nurturing families, we’ve got a problem. Make the park systems grassy, manicured islands of beauty for all to enjoy, and let the home owners do what they choose to support their families.

Marge Fenelon is a Catholic wife, mother, author, columnist, and speaker. She’s a frequent contributor to a number of Catholic publications and websites and is a regular guest on Catholic radio. She’s written several books about Marian devotion and Catholic family life and has touched the hearts of audiences in a variety of venues. Her latest book is Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom (Ave Maria Press, 2013).