The Vegetables of Their Labor: Victory in Orlando?

Would a government really fine a family $500 a day for planting a garden in their front yard? That’s what Jason and Jennifer Helvenston wondered as they decided to fight for their veggies in a battle to keep their front yard garden – a symbol of sustainability and sound budgeting in this trying economy. As a young couple living in Orlando, the Helvenstons decided to cut costs and live a healthier lifestyle by growing their own produce in their front yard. As their garden grew into a local attraction, the Helvenstons began to teach local youths about the benefits of homegrown foods, and even gave lessons on how to grow a garden.

But unfortunately, Orlando’s city council declared the garden in non-compliance with city code, and threatened to fine the Helvenstons $500 a day until they uprooted their beautiful garden and replace it with lawn. Well thanks to the efforts of the Helvenstons and IJ, we can all but declare victory as Orlando’s city council is poised to return control of its citizens’ property rights back to their rightful owners.

To vindicate the Helvenstons’ right to use their private property in a safe, productive way, we organized a nationwide protest: “Patriot Garden: Plant a Seed, Change the Law.” Over a thousand citizens throughout Orlando and across the country received radish seeds to plant in their front yards and signs displaying the motto in support of the Helvenstons’ cause. But that was only one manifestation of Jason and Jennifer’s activism. “We’ve got to give a lot of credit to our ‘Gardener Army,’” said Jason. “From the coffee shops and organic cafes that publicized our petition, to the radio stations, big and small, who helped spread the word. And then with the massive email floods to the city council, we really feel like we created the perfect storm to get this ordinance the respect it deserves.” As a result of Hurricane Helvenston, the city planner’s office drafted a new ordinance to regulate and allow front yard gardens in Orlando.

The first version of the ordinance legalized front yard gardens but, if passed, would have restricted the garden size to 25% of a front yard and required that gardeners maintain a 10-foot buffer zone between their gardens and the sidewalk or place their entire garden in planter boxes. Furthermore, gardeners would be required to construct some sort of screening, either fence or shrubbery, around their garden and would need to ensure that no plant grew over 4 feet tall. And while the ordinance demonstrated that Orlando’s city planners were moving in the right direction, it simply wasn’t good enough for a city that has its own Green Works Initiative office in city hall. The protests continued and city hall got the message: help us practice what you preach and give us the rights to our own property. So the city planners went back to the drawing board and produced a second version of the ordinance.

In the new version, a citizen can use up to 60% of their front yard as a garden and need only leave 3 feet of lawn between the sidewalk and the edge of their garden. The 60% rule, as explained over the phone by Jason Burton in Orlando’s city planning office, stems from Florida’s environmental concern with fertilizer runoff causing algae blooms in its waterways. However, the other 40% of the front yard could be made up of permanent edible plants like sweet potatoes or rosemary, which technically allows for the entire front yard to consist of edible foliage. These types of plants grow year round in Orlando’s sunny climate, and therefore hold the soil and fertilizer in place. The best case scenario would have been for the city to simply allow front yard gardens, but the Helvenstons noted that the city has really come around on the issue. “Somewhere throughout the process the city really did a 180,” Jason recalled. “They began to support our efforts and worked with us to create a sensible ordinance instead of fining us for nothing more than having a garden in front of our home.”

The city council is aiming to vote on the ordinance by the end of the calendar year, but in the meantime, the front yard garden movement charges on. The Helvenstons have used their amazing garden for community outreach, helping kids reconnect with the food they’re eating, and teaching them about the all-telling cycle of life gardening embodies. They have even helped their church create a garden which produced over 300 pounds of sweet potatoes that were donated to help feed the homeless.

“Our garden has opened our eyes to a new way of looking at our community,” Jennifer explained, “in a garden you need to start with the seeds, and we feel like our garden was that seed. But any plant needs roots to thrive, and we can’t stress the importance of the community’s involvement in helping us take this thing all the way and make a real change with a positive impact on the entire city.”

Well, I guess that’s where they got the term grassroots.

— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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