Remember that dystopian novel we read in high school?  The one where humans were barred from interacting with the natural world, and everyone ate the same factory-produced synthetic foodstuffs?  Where any human who questioned the status quo was watched by the government, fined, or harassed?

Oh wait – I’m getting 1984 and Brave New World mixed up with last week’s New York Times.  Apparently in Orlando “the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening.”

Front yard gardens are currently under review in Des Moines, Iowa, too, according to a Feb. 7 report in the Des Moines Register:

“In West Des Moines last fall, a City Council code enforcement subcommittee directed city staff to write up a draft ordinance banning front-yard fruit and vegetable gardens after a resident raised questions {about} the aesthetics of his neighbors’ edible landscaping, including corn.  The subcommittee, which meets quarterly, reviewed the proposal Wednesday…
Mayor Steve Gaer recommended bringing the ordinance to a meeting so all City Council members could be a part of the discussion.”

There are two questions at the root of this kind of conflict. First, how much say (if any) should the government have over the plants on private property?  And second, if beauty is subjective, how should we determine what makes a lawn beautiful?

With regard to the first question, if you believe that the government’s role is to regulate private gardens and lawns, I won’t try to change your mind (except to say really???).  But I would like to offer a way to answer the second question.

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and those purple lettuces in my window boxes look as lovely to me as your pansies may look to you, what if we measure the beauty of a lawn by how much it benefits human flourishing?

If we consider human flourishing, then a lawn that serves as a depository for hamburger wrappers, rusted car parts, and styrofoam cups fails to be beautiful.

If we consider human flourishing, then a perfectly-manicured lawn of green grass regularly sprayed with chemicals fails to be truly beautiful, too.  According to Mark Bittman, “many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways”.

The average plot of grass and shrubs in front of most American homes is also only average in terms of this human-flourishing-beauty; it’s better, environmentally, than a slab of concrete, though it’s still a waste of water.

But a lawn like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston’s, used for edible plants and vegetables, is actually the loveliest of all.  Working with soil and plants allows humans to connect with their sources of food in a way that is mostly unheard of in America today, and studies continually show that such activity is good for our physical and mental health.  Growing food in your own yard also allows you to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used for shipping foods across the country to grocery stores. Sharing your yard or an empty lot with neighbors for a community garden builds relationships and strengthens communities, and can potentially provide healthy food for people who otherwise might be unable to afford it.

So join me in a little civil disobedience: plant some lettuce in your window boxes, and vine some sweet peas around your mailbox. That’s what beauty is all about.



  1. In most cities the land between the sidewalk and the street is owned by the city, not the homeowner even though the city doesn’t maintain that land–typically the homeowner does. I’m all for gardening with that land though! Our little patch had been landscaped and I maintained it, and when the city decided to replace the sidewalk in front of our house, not only was there no notice given to us (and our access to our front door and garage roped off), but they parked all of their machines on the landscaping and then rototilled the dirt afterward and I was left to clean up the mess!

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