Front yard ordinance allows DIY food
This is the second growing season that Sacramento residents have been able to grow vegetables, fruit trees and other food plants in their front yard thanks to a revised city ordinance. After a three-year effort by food activists, the city’s Front Yard Ordinance was reworded in 2007 to specifically allow veggie gardens in that soil near the sidewalk. That change has enabled more and more Sacramento homeowners to grow their own food in an edible landscape, mingling [with] or replacing decorative foliage. Blueberries with your zinnias, perhaps, or tomatoes with your chrysanthemums, or lettuce where that brown scrubgrass used to be.
The original FYO was written into zoning code in 1941 and actually banned the growing of edible plants. Vegetables were confined to the backyard and growing any food plant on the front lawn was an offense punishable by a fine. This may seem like an unusual law, considering that homeowners own their lawns. The main concern of the old FYO was preventing overgrowth of plants, whether food or otherwise. It didn’t explicitly forbid food plants, but didn’t list them as legal either, whereas perennial grasses and decorative plants were listed as legal groundcover.
Sacramento resident Karen Baumann brushed up against that little-known ordinance when she planted tomatoes and a fruit tree on her front lawn in 2004, according to a city official. A neighbor reported her garden to city authorities, who then notified Baumann that she would have to pull up the plants or face a $750 fine. This was a surprise to Baumann, who asked folks at local gardening groups what she could do to save her leafy comestibles. Before she could act, an unknown party sprayed Baumann’s lawn pretty heavily with RoundUp, a Monsanto-brand herbicide, and killed off most of Baumann’s plants, as well as some nearby lawns.
Food activists citywide responded to Baumann’s plight and petitioned the city council to revise the outdated law. "There was a tremendous amount of community pressure," Paul Towers, a Sacramento resident and state director of Pesticide Watch said. "There were articles in the News & Review, The Bee. Organic Sacramento got involved. It was everywhere."
This grassroots effort to make Sacramento lawns more than just pretty finally achieved their goal in April 2007. Baumann’s war-torn lawn was later restored. Capitol Nursery donated a bundle of plants to replace her sprayed veggies.
The new FYO changed key wording to more explicitly allow food crops on front yards. There are still requirements for maintenance, but no limitations on what can be grown. There are limits on what you don’t grow; the law requires that landscapes must be "landscaped, irrigated and maintained," and there can be no dead plant matter taller than 4 inches. "Basically, you can grow all you want," said Community Garden Coordinator Bill Maynard. "But make it look good."
A tricky segment of the FYO still causes some concern amongst front-yard growers. It reads: "All landscaping materials shall be mowed, trimmed, and/or maintained as often as necessary to prevent overgrowth and blight."
But Towers said "blight" is a vague term that city authorities would be hard-pressed to enforce. The FYO lists no definition of "blight," only the word. Fortunately, the city is presently uninterested in enforcement.
"The city sent around a code enforcement memo that said not to bust food landscapes," said Towers, and Maynard corroborated that the city isn’t cracking down. Unless a withering garden is a clear fire hazard, then dried-out or overgrown lawns aren’t a problem. In a dry season, water conservation is at a premium, and accordingly the city has revised its enforcement plan.
Growing a plot of vegetables can actually reduce a front yard’s water consumption and benefit the community in drier times. "A lot of edibles are drought-tolerant plants, so people can tear up thirsty grass and replace it with food." Maynard said. "[The FYO] provides a whole ‘nother way to think about your yard."
The FYO places no restriction on fertilizer or pesticide use but Maynard hopes that Sacramento residents will pursue ‘river-friendly’ practices to reduce chemical runoff.
A front yard garden offers advantages that a backyard garden might not have. More sun usually hits a front lawn, and backyards might be covered with a patio or a pool. The FYO benefits homeowners almost exclusively, though, as landlords would may be unreceptive to suggestions of tearing up grass for greens.
Still, the FYO allows Sacramento city-slickers double the opportunity to turn their lawn into a bountiful foodscape.
"Our mission is to make all landscapes more healthy and sustainable, and we always put food first," Towers said.