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Veggie Five-O: How To Avoid Jail Time While Planting Vegetables In Your Front Yard

By Patricia Larenas

In 2011, a woman in Oak Park, Michigan, was being threatened with financial penalties and jail time for simply growing vegetables in her family’s front yard. The situation eventually resolved—the city dropped the charges—but for a while, Julie Bass was facing a fine and a possible 93 days in jail for not removing her vegetable garden. Persecuting people for growing food is difficult to fathom, but similar oppressive restrictions and bizarre city ordinances seem to be an issue nationwide.

So before you’re slapped with a fine and charged with a misdemeanor for picking cucumbers in your front yard, here are some sneaky strategies you can try to disguise your subversive acts of gardening.

You can always resort to planting edible flowers and herbs among the veggies in your front yard, and Big Brother will be none the wiser. This method of stealth edible gardening is worth a try if you are unfortunate enough to live in a city with an ordinance dictating what types of plants are “suitable” for your front yard. I’m very much in favor of working to change such misguided and outdated local laws. In the meantime, the following tips may help keep you out of handcuffs.

Emphasize Visual Appeal

Every summer I have Scarlet Runner Beans growing up an attractive trellis in my front yard. The showy scarlet flowers with lush, green foliage attract attention, and people are shocked to learn that, yes, they are also an edible heirloom bean. The bi-color form of this runner bean, the Painted Lady, is also very showy, with pink and white petals. The Royal Burgundy bean is much admired for its purple pods, which can be eaten as snap beans. This lovely bean has lavender blooms and purple stems.

Propagate Edible Flowers

I love flowers, so I plant them among my vegetables. There are many attractive edible flowers, including several that are grown strictly as ornamental plants: calendula, the violet family (including Johnny-jump-ups, violas and pansies), roses, chrysanthemums and nasturtiums, as well as flowers from common herbs such as oregano, parsley and thyme. Edible flowers make colorful additions to salads and desserts, and rose petals have many uses. For starters, you can make rosewater, sugared rose petals, and rose-petal jam. Remember that the flowers you pick for eating must be free of pesticides and herbicides. Flowers brought home from nurseries or florists are not safe to eat unless you know they were organically produced.

Landscape with Herbs

I’m a big fan of growing herbs. If you want to feel like a pampered foodie, grow some choice aromatic and flavorful herbs in your garden. Cooking with fresh herbs is a great revelation if you’ve only previously used dried. Some of our favorites are: French tarragon, rosemary, thyme (including lemon thyme), basil, cilantro, sage, dill and oregano. Lemon verbena, chamomile, lemon balm and mint are wonderful for herbal teas—and don’t forget pineapple sage with its abundant flowers.

I could go on, as fresh herbs are mostly easy to grow and attractive, with pretty flowers and amazing fragrances. Bees, hummingbirds and some butterflies love them too, so you’ll be providing much-appreciated food for wildlife.

Leverage Companion Planting

Besides growing vegetables in several raised beds in our front yard, we also have an herb garden that includes edible flowers and native plants. Many herbs are reputedly good companion plants to vegetables. They provide flowers that attract pollinators, they discourage insect pests, and they excrete substances through their root systems that benefit certain vegetables and fruits.

According to the research done at the Ecology Action test garden in Willits, California, some herbs and flowers are especially beneficial to spread throughout the vegetable garden, including borage, basil, calendula, tarragon and marigolds.

Leading by Example

It is both disturbing and extremely sad that growing food plants in your front yard garden is considered a misdemeanor in some cities. But I believe that there is value to leading by example (if you can avoid criminal charges), and working toward changing the aesthetic and attitudes in your own neighborhood. You may even end up helping to restore a more sane understanding of our food and where it comes from.