Gardeners for Gardeners

Tonight, while perusing my Twitter feed, I came across a story on TreeHugger about a woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma who is suing the city’s code enforcement officers for cutting down and destroying her edible/medicinal garden.

The story as reported by KOTV in a nutshell: Last August, Denise Morrison received a letter from the city citing a complaint about her yard. She took pictures of the garden when she went to meet with the inspectors and invited them to her home to point out the problem areas. She states their response was that everything had to go. She then went to the police who issued her a citation and a court date. At the court appearance the judge told them to come back in October but City workers showed up at her home the next day and cut down all of her plants and some of her fruit and nut trees.

I came back three days later, sat in my driveway, cried and left,” Morrison said.

Sound familiar? That’s because we’ve heard versions of this story several times over the past few years. And every time I hear about another garden destroyed based on the complaint of one backwards-thinking neighbour or another gardener sued by the city for deigning to grow food in their front yard I am horrified, saddened, angered, and incensed. But worst of all I am paralyzed. I feel helpless, useless, powerless, hopeless about the state of the world, and consequently I do nothing. I self protect. I put it out of my mind and move on.

This time, rather than doing nothing or assuming there is nothing that can be done, I thought I’d at least get a discussion going about what can be done. Employ the power of many rather than remaining passive and powerless as one.

Firstly, I’d like to know how we can help this woman and others like her. Could we organize a drive for plants, seeds, and materials to replace what was lost, locals to show up at the site of the destroyed garden to help replant?

Do we need a public body of support? Citizens against the destruction of edible gardens? Gardeners for Gardeners?

And as Gina of My Skinny Garden asked on Twitter, I also wonder what we can do to circumvent this kind of thing from happening rather than reacting with shock and horror when it does happen.

On the one hand I feel like some of the work is already being done: writing about edible gardening as a positive, showing gardens that are not like the chemically dependant lawns and gardens popularized over the last 50 years, and gardening ourselves. Showing our neighbours what is possible, talking to them about what we are doing and shifting attitudes one person at a time. But it’s not enough. Clearly it is not enough.

What else can be done? I’d like to know what you think.

UPDATE: There is a petition at Change.org

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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32 thoughts on “Gardeners for Gardeners

  1. I’ve been trying to track her down to see if she needed seeds by calling the listing that I believe is her in the White Pages, but there has been no answer at the phone and there doesn’t seem to me machine or voice mail. Anyway, you can count on me to help in whatever capacity.

  2. Thank God MBT brings these injustices to light!

    I feel like there are always up to three areas these people need help with. Legal help to fight against the destruction of the gardens or in this case the compensation for the loss. Rebuilding destroyed gardens in this case, and on a larger scale I really feel like something should be done to begin the process of changing these stupid ordinances which is often about education.

    This makes me think about a conversation we had with an organization helping with an event at our community garden. They referred to a “plan in a can.” If we had an organization committed to helping these people and could make ourselves known to them, involve key people like those who could provide legal advice, those who could organize donations for rebuilding including plants then they could reach out to us and we could flip the switch to launch our “plan in a can” to help them. Eventually the organization would be powerful and laws would be changed. City officials would be all “oh no! the Citizens Against the Destruction of Edible Gardens is involved!

    I will help in any way that I can.

    • I like your image of a plan in a can.

      The major hurdle I’m having a hard time seeing around are these so-called City Ordinances… They vary wildly and the response/use of them is also varied. It’s hard to know how to protect oneself or advise others on how to protect themselves when there is no standard… It all seems to come down to subjectivity.

  3. Gonna be tough. I watch my neighbors mowing their lawns twice a week, weed whacking afterwards then using their leaf blowers for a final 20 minutes of noise.
    We keep our lawn looking ‘good enough’; most of our time and energy devoted to our veggie garden out back (40′X15). Now looking into what we can do and plant to eliminate having to mow the front at all.
    I don’t think it’s an easy task to change what has has been ingrained in people’s minds for so long…putting green perfection, chemical treatment. Would be like anti-smoking….gotta start with the young generation but this is a matter of taste and aesthetics and not health although the neighbors run ther mowers etc for a couple of hours a few times each week using gas ( polluting, both air and noise) and the chemical sprays, self-use and commercial. Have to be a concerted effort to change this. I don’t want to see government getting involved as we have been letting it.

  4. I’ve hidden my orchard in my large, sunny back yard for the last five years and I dread the day that the city finds out that I have intensively farmed over fifty different varieties of berries and fruit trees, with aquaponics, greenhouses, mulch piles, et al.
    They would rip it all out in a heartbeat and then charge me a few hundred dollars for their time.
    The front would be a dead giveaway if I tried to grow food there, so I don’t water it and cut it with a sling blade most of the growing season.
    I know another gardener up the road who has to plant a screen of sunflowers every spring on all sides of the very large plot on the south side of his home to hide his permaculture food and perennial food sources.
    The guy two streets over with honey bees has to hide them too.
    I think we must all be anarchists or something.

    • I avoided titling this post, War on Edible Gardens because I didn’t want to use war imagery to provoke, but it’s hard to see it in any other way.

    • Gayla, it really is hard to not see the parallels between what is happening in these cases and what happens during war time. You have neighbors ratting out neighbors, you have people having to hide their gardening activities, and you have people in power making unilateral decisions where the victim has no real way of fighting back.

    • However… when I invite sympathetic neighbors and their children to pick berries and small fruits off the plant and eat them there (chemical free) that is one more convert for the municipal authorities to contend with, just as I was converted as a child by my berry-growing neighbor fifty years ago.
      Change is always glacial and generational, with a push or two of course, in my humble opinion.

  5. As a UK citizen I can’t believe that there is an authority in the US that is legally permitted to destroy gardens! The entire country would be outraged if something like the story described here took place. Destroying any element of someone’s home is the ultimate invasion of privacy, whether that home is publicly owned or not. Shocking.

  6. I’m a little confused, or maybe uninformed.

    Is the problem with the fact she (and other people) are growing their own foods? Or is it a aesthetic thing?

    i’m over in england, and havent heard of anything like this happening before.

    Chloe

    • It’s both. I don’t know what the numbers are but there are more gardens in the UK than in North America. It is understood and respected. There is a tradition behind it. Here in North America we are fighting against a 50 year stigma against edible gardening as something embarrassing, ugly, to be hidden or not done at all. The lawn has reigned as a sign of house pride, privilege, and success… Front gardens are typically rigid, extremely constrained, and low to the ground… Much like the lawn. I live in a big city where there is much diversity and the gardens reflect that… But when you get outside of the city the values change and reflect those of the community, which, when it comes to the garden, tends towards homogeneity.

  7. Unfortunately, the response you get from government officials is often incorrect in many circumstances. The woman did have a non-working car in her driveway. I’m somewhat skeptical as to how she presented herself to city officials and also how her vegatables, herbs, fruit and nut trees appeared from the street. I’ve seen some hellish looking hazelnut bushes and I noticed there were no shiny raised beds in the before pictures (the only nice before picture was a close shot of a flower bed by the front door). And she’s read the fine print and circumvented the how-tall-you-can-let-your-grass-get law by saying everything was for human consumption. Yes, she’s in the right, but she’s there on fine print without legal aid, without public support (back then), without financial means, I assume in a poorer neighborhood, etc. I dont doubt she tried to do everything right and by the book, but the book is not fair. It’s not fair for anyone, rich or poor, that’s why the rich get lawyers who file actions to prevent these things. But maybe she’ll win her lawsuit with the public outrage and get a bunch of cash from the city which might just tip off ten more cities to not destroy a yard that’s planted with medicinal herbs.

    • The gardens that I have seen come under attack aren’t perfect, but what I hear time and time again is that there are many others on the same street that aren’t perfect either. What’s worse here is that a judge made a ruling to wait until after Oct and the City just did what they wanted.

    • Oh, I definitely agree they were in the wrong to do it, but as I professionally fight the IRS (I live in France and deal with US citizens who live and work abroad but must still declare to the US) it doesnt surprise me at all. Here in France, this would never happen because everyone’s yards are completely fenced off up to the sidewalks and along all sides and if they tried to do enter your property without your authorization it would go bad. There’s a much stronger sense of public/private space and it’s quite common to see edibles growing in people’s front and back yards anyway.

  8. Unbelievable….but know this happens. When I wanted to “naturalize” my back acre, I called the township and asked what the restrictions were. I was told there was only one – I could not plant invasives. Based on this story, I am going to get a handle on the county and state rules in PA and make sure I won’t face a similar, heartbreaking situation like this one. Maybe that’s where we have to start…

  9. I agree with you that here (Canada) the stigma against edible gardens and any non-conformist gardens has been very slow to change. While we’re gradually changing minds with our own blogs and gardens, we have to figure out how to protect the basic right to have a garden.

    I know how unrealistic this sounds but…We need to form some sort of coalition with representatives throughout the US and Canada so that when someone’s garden is threatened, they have a resource to call upon to help defend and protect them. It needs a central online reporting area, and volunteers available to assist as needed (perhaps via Hort or naturalist socieites?). Kind of a civil liberties, Greenpeace, and legal aid all wrapped into one. It’s not easy fighting City Hall and it seems like the threat of legal action or some viral media attention is the only thing that can slow their bulldozers down.

    We know there’s enough of us who care about this stuff. The problem is finding those in need and helping defend them before it’s too late….

  10. Our village in the city of Madison is kind of snooty and has ordinances about”noxious weeds” and we too faced this last summer because of a complaint by a neighbor. Our police were much nicer and after we neatened things up a bit and named all those noxious weeds which were all perennials they dismissed the case. Ten years ago when we let our lawn wave in the wind we had to cut it down though. Right now on the suggestion of a friend we ordered certification by the National Wildlife federation online – for 35$ they send you this certificate which basically says that your yard is a shelter for birds etc and for an extra amount ( forget what ) they send you a plaque for your garden which makes it look official. So it would make a neighbor who was going to complain because of extra vegetation think twice since she would be shown up as a bird and butterfly hater , and by giving to the NWF it is going towards a good cause too. So that is something worth trying. We also put up a birdbath and birdhouse among those noxious weeds and the birds and squirrels love it. The birdhouse has a wren family living in it – and we have done our part by keeping things a tad neater for the folk in the village whose concept of gardening is lots of lawn to mow and neat beds with plants ordered to stay in place – very contrived and very dependent on lots of gasoline, electricity , weed killer , water etc. Very ignorant. Oh dear! Hope this helps!

  11. Also after reading all the replies and finding comfort from so many like minded souls , i would like to add that last summer I had asked all the folks on our environmental action team in Madison, wisconsin to offer their ideas to help deal with the police who had also said they would have to come and mow down our front yard if we did not comply . We were told that the sierra Club might be able to help. But since we were able to have our case dismissed we did not have to resort to that. Yes we need some kind of coalition in place to fight for people like us who are treated as outlaws. My husband and I would be glad to join.

  12. A garden of perennials and fruit n nut trees can’t be replaced by a seed drive.
    If I was in her shoes, and someone offered me a handful of seeds, I’d be hard-pressed not to feel offended.

    I think that we need to pass some strong ordinances against that resource wasting, polluting turf.

    We need to work harder at getting the hidden cost of all that useless turf brought into the front and center, and rub people’s noses into the fact that their damn turf is destroying the planet.

    I think we need to call the police on those people wasting water on grass, and operating that noisy equipment, force them to install baffles, and set specific times that they can run that noisy stuff, and cite them for operating those noisy blowers…

    • I don’t see that as a replacement — it’s a start, a beginning point, a kind gesture, a reaching out so that people in this position aren’t left alone. A productive perennial garden takes years to establish. For itvro be thoughtlessly ripped out in a day is ruthless and unconscionable. Still, if I were in her shies I would appreciate the gesture, however meager

  13. There is a petition out there for the Morrison case – I tried to sign it this morning but kept getting errors. It’s over on the Garden Rant site.
    But I too would like to see more information about the original state of her garden’s as well. It’s all really a shame, a sad sad shame…
    I am in a constant worry that my gardens will be reported to our township. The front yard is the predominate location for full sun, so I have planted my veggie garden in the front. So far, it’s been four years with no qualms. I even get a lot of compliments from it! Recently, though, the house across the street is now with new owners. One which is out there…. every weekend: mowing the lawn, spot-treating for clover/dandelions, and using his giant blower for the grass… I am now in constant fear for my front yard garden. Regardless that there are similar [and worse...] lawns on my street. One elderly lady has a hedge of these AMAZING tea roses… it smells so lovely.

    Sadly, finding that happy medium is what seems to be the hardest to do with our gardens. I agree with having a resource! I believe that’s the key for all of this…
    Should try to get Michelle Obama to represent the home gardener… since she’s so very gung-ho about it all! :D

  14. As I have worked for a city the last 4 years, I’d recommend that if she has like-minded people in her town, and if they have a community center or something simular, they could possibly hold a class on edible landscape. Perhaps someone who’s written a book or knows a lot about it could talk. Not a seminar, but an informative class. Perhaps a local nursery could hold a class on the subject. I think it’s a matter of making people aware of the possibilities. Mrs. Obama is very much for community gardens. Maybe this is something she could address, if anyone has her ear on the matter. She would be a great one for promoting the edible landscape mindset.

  15. As I posted this story link to my FB with the following comment: Read a SAD UNREAL REVOLTING gardener story. And this in 2012 when America is at its feet and people are trying to survive. Standards and beauty still prevails over ecology green and home grown nature A proud HOME gardener. http://visualsenses.smugmug.com/Nature-in-its-many-splendors/My-KALE-forest-and-organic/13595110_78GD5j#!i=1220176556&k=zvJjz
    QUESTION: How does one JOIN this community here?

  16. I say fight City Hall and if it don’t work at first
    Keep fighting them. I’m sure she is going to have lots
    of support from gardeners all over the world. Count me in
    for anything I can do.

  17. Wild Ones is a great organization working to change misguided ordinances restricting what you can grown in your yard. I believe they are focused more on using native plants/wildflowers, but their work may be useful for edible yards too. Lots of resources on their website http://www.for-wild.org/weedlaws/weedlaw.html

  18. That was really shocking.
    On the bright side though, I assume that most of her perennials would come back- if they were simply hacked.

    Being peace-lover, I’ve learned that a little aesthetic consideration helps avoid a lot of ignorant animosity.
    I really can’t imagine living with hostile neighbors, and it’s quite dangerous when you think of it.

  19. For starters, I sent an email to the mayor of Tulsa, here: http://www.cityoftulsa.org/our-city/elected-officials/office-of-the-mayor/contact-mayor-bartlett.aspx

    There is also an organized effort on facebook to send plants to her. http://www.facebook.com/RebuildDeniseMorrisonsGarden

    I would love if there was a more formal way for us to organize a letter-writing/phone-calling response. I wrote:
    I am writing about the recent destruction of Denise Morrison’s garden by Tulsa city workers. I grew up in Oklahoma, and I am so embarrassed to hear that the city of Tulsa would perpetuate such violence against a marginalized member of your community. Mrs. Morrison’s garden was not only beautiful, but necessary for her survival. Her garden was food and medicine for a low-income family. It was not an overgrown, abandoned, weedy lot, although Lord knows there are plenty of those you could go “enforce” the city code on. We are living in a world where the grocery stores sell worse food for higher prices every year, more people are suffering from nutrition-related sicknesses, and we are importing food from China! Mrs. Morrison deserves delicious, nutritious food from her own yard. Oklahomans have a long-standing tradition of self-reliance. I am flabbergasted that the city of Tulsa would punish someone for hard work and creativity in the face of adversity! I implore you not only to issue an apology to Mrs. Morrison, but to send city workers out to replant her entire garden. Replace the plants that were destroyed, and use this as an opportunity to support Tulsa citizens who are trying to support themselves. It’s the right thing to do.
    Thanks for your time.

    • What a wonderful idea!

      I just fired off a note too!
      (I borrowed your starting line)

      I am writing about the recent destruction of Denise Morrison’s garden by Tulsa city workers.

      I pray in my heart that you will dismiss the tin-pot despot that ordered this willful act of vandalism.

      In a time where people are starving, food banks have empty shelves, there’s lengthy waiting lists at community gardens, people are unemployed, and getting people removed from food stamps seems to be a priority, people like Denise need encouragement, rather than be attacks by marauders from city hall.

      Please do the right thing, fire the idiot that ordered this shameful act, and extend an apology to Denise, and my God, ask Denise how the city can help her rebuild her yard.

      Thanks,
      stone

  20. I also think education is the key. What if a chef (or chefs) made things for the doubters/complainers to try using ingredients from the offending garden? Maybe have garden tours open to the public where they point out different plants, talk about how they can be used, give out seeds, food samples, or recipes. It may be too late in a case such as this where it has already been destroyed, but in other cases something might could be done before it reaches that point.

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