The Urbane Ecologist

Urban gardeners are supposedly in a battle with the government–but when will the ecologists weigh in?

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I read The Battlefront in the Front Yard today. It describes the difficulties gardeners across the country are facing in determining what they can and can’t plant in their front yards.

Many people choose to grow vegetables and have things like chicken coops in their yards, but they face opposition from local governments, which have strict legislation on the type of vegetation you are allowed to have (i.e. monoculture) and from their neighbors, who fear the decrease in property value as the new gardens make their neighborhoods ugly.

This article paints the battle in very social terms: It is a case of the government trampling on people’s rights to grow whatever they damn well please and it is getting in the way of “sustainability.” There is a single mention of a term remotely ecological. Specifically, Orlando’s sustainability director has defended the list of approved and prohibited plants that are used to prosecute rebellious gardeners as intended to create landscaping that survives the Florida climate and keeps out invasive species. But right after that, he is quoted on explaining that the enforced homogeneity is largely due to the fashion of the early 1990s, when aesthetic was a “formalized thing.”

In this discussion, we have environmental groups, political groups, and citizen groups weighing in. But ecologists need to be consulted or to force their way into the discussion, too. How modern are the plant requirements in Orlando–do they still keep out invasive species that currently plague Orlando? Invasive species rapidly change communities and what may have been a major threat 20 years ago may not be a major threat now. What is bothersome, too, is a terrible assumption that seems to be the foundation of the entire article: that anything that people plant is better than monoculture. Just because someone has a garden rather than a lawn technically makes them more “green” (whatever that is) but it doesn’t necessarily prevent problems like invasive species or mean that what they are growing is helpful.

This battle is an opportunity for a larger discussion on what “green” really is and how people’s gardens can function both ecologically as a way for families to feed themselves. This is also a chance to reinvent our ideal of gardens and to challenge monoculture, supporting, instead, more localized forms of gardens. Houston ecologists, for example, have been pushing for “pocket [coastal] prairies” in various places in the city and even in people’s lawns.


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