Squashing the Garden

Soil, sun, seeds, and water. In general, that’s enough to get you started on your own home vegetable garden. Depending on where you are, you can grow different things. Climate matters, of course, but so do some other factors — for example, if there are a lot of deer where you live, it may be hard to grow almost anything (as my own experience proved) without proper fencing. But that aside, if you have the land and the patience, you can probably make yourself a good amount of otherwise-free food.

Or it may cost you $50 a day in fines.

Starting in 1996 or so, Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll started a garden in the front yard of their home in Miami Shores, Flordia. They grew all sorts of vegetables — lettuces, Swiss chards, kale, okra, spinach, and even onions. In some years, the garden provided the couple’s entire supply of vegetables and perhaps a majority of their diet altogether. But in 2013, that came to a screeching halt. Miami Shores had a zoning ordinance that prohibited homeowners from growing vegetables in their front yards.  And for the first time in memory, the town decided to enforce it.

Ricketts, who led the couple’s defense of their garden, protested.  As the Palm Beach Post reported, the couple had originally tried to grow their vegetables in their backyard, but “the sunlight conditions weren’t right.” Growing the vegetables in the front yard was their only option for their gardening goals. So that August, per NPR, “Ricketts went before the town’s code enforcement board to protest, but [. . . ] board ruled the vegetables must go. The zoning inspector told Ricketts which plants she had to pull up,” or face a $50 per day fine for non-compliance. And a bill for $1,500 a month during growing season — which is most of the year in southern Florida — wasn’t in the couple’s budget.

Pro bono legal representation, though, was. The couple sued the town, noting that “only vegetables are explicitly banned—trees, fruit and garden gnomes are just fine” per their attorneys’ website. (In the above-linked NPR article, their lawyer also noted that “pink flamingos” — plastic ones, I presume — are also allowed under the ordinance, for whatever that’s worth.) In fact, the town’s ordinance allowed them to grow other food-bearing plants — Ricketts had a peach tree, some blueberry bushes, strawberries, and more, all of which were left alone by the zoning inspector. But when it came to the vegetables, the courts didn’t care. As the Miami Herald reported, “a 10-page ruling filled with legal analysis on the definition of vegetables, Circuit Judge Monica Gordo acknowledged she wasn’t quite sure how the gardens ruin the aesthetics of a neighborhood. But she got to the root of the law: Miami Shores still has every right to decide front-yard veggies make a neighborhood ugly.” The couple appealed but got the same result — Miami Shores’ ordinance, while perhaps seemingly arbitrary, was perfectly constitutional — and the garden was, therefore, prohibited.

But while the courts saw no legal basis for Ricketts’ claim, the public attention to the absurd result carried the day. In 2019, the state legislature enacted a new law, stating that (with some exceptions for stuff like water and fertilizer use), Miami Shores and other municipalities “may not regulate vegetable gardens on residential properties.” Back yard, front yard, it doesn’t matter — go ahead and grow your greens.

Sadly, Ms. Ricketts didn’t get to enjoy her new law, or old garden, for very long. She passed away in August of 2019, a few weeks after her husband and lawyers held a ceremonial replanting of her now legal-garden.

Bonus fact: In 1995, a Swedish woman lost her wedding ring — she took it off while in the kitchen and when she went to put it back on afterward, it was gone. But not forever. In 2011, it turned up again: around a carrot growing in her garden. As the BBC reported, her theory is that the ring “was lost in vegetable peelings that were turned into compost or fed to their sheep,” and, ultimately, ended up in the soil used in her garden. 

From the Archives: David’s Garden: It’s all bottled up.