Sunday, March 14, 2010

What to do when your yard is illegal

It was bound to be a topic of discussion at some point considering the quantity of wilderness I'm inviting people to invite into their yards. And Michelle Clay raised the issue during a recent guest rant on the Garden Rant blog. What do you do when your neighbors start complaining about the forest in front of your house? Or when they get the law involved?

If you live in the Portland area, then you're lucky. I don't know exactly what laws are on the books, if any, regarding the state of a front yard, but court rulings have set a pretty strong precedent for freedom of expression in all its forms. And certainly, I've witnessed my share of front yard vegetable gardens. Portlanders try hard to earn the eco-friendly title, and so you're more likely to find awed neighbors than annoyed neighbors.

But that could change the further from Portland you get.

And a vegetable garden is well-manicured relative to a forest.

In her post, Michelle lays down three rules for handling your less conventional yard in the face of less-than-genial neighbors.

1. Know the local laws (and law-enforcers)
2. Be on good terms with your neighbors
3. Make the yard as aesthetically pleasing as possible

In regards to rule three: well, of course a forest garden is aesthetically pleasing! Well, okay, your neighbors might not think so. A bit of trimming will help you stay on your neighbors good side and will actually make your food forest more productive. It will allow more light to reach the forest floor, thus causing shorter species to flourish. You can have a no-maintenance, low-maintenance, or high-maintenance forest garden. The amount of work you put in determines how much food you'll get out, and will likely also determine how aesthetically pleasing your yard is to your neighbors.

You can avoid some of the work if you focus your energy on rule number two, a rule which I think deserves more attention regardless of what kind of yard you're keeping. We used to visit with our neighbors all the time growing up, and all of our minds and resources together were greater than any subset of them. But, as I've grown up, I've found that neighbors have become less... neighborly.

Chances are that if your food forest is mature, you're producing more fruit than you could ever possibly eat. Offer your neighbors apples, pears, and plums. Or, invite them over for an exotic food forest dinner. If you play your cards right, you might just be able to convince them that they need a forest garden as well.

Take that time to help them design a forest garden!

The reasoning is simple. In a small suburban yard, if that's where you've ended up, you can only plant so many trees. But there's an unbelievable variety of fruits and nuts that you can choose from. If you help your neighbor plan their own food forest, you can ensure that they end up with different plants than you have. Then you can trade with each other for the things that you're not growing. It's a win-win situation.

And even if you don't convince your neighbor to turn their yard into a forest, the fastest way to a persons heart, as they say, is through their stomach. The more people you feed, the more people you'll have defending your unconventional yard if you do run into trouble with the law.

Also interesting to note is that one of the commenters on the aforementioned post suggested that they had, or were considering, putting up a variety of signs. These included notices that the yard was a NWF certified wildlife refuge and that all of the plants were native species. This comment made me think back to a presentation I was lucky to see by artist Fritz Haeg, the brains behind Edible Estates. Edible Estates was an "art" project to bring vegetable gardens into people's front yards and covered various topics, such as the origin of the grass lawn. The part that really impressed me though was the official/government-looking logos that Haeg designed for each of the front yard gardens he designed. The basic lesson here is that if you make it clear that what you're doing is intentional, rather than just laziness, then they're less likely to bother you. I'm always inspired to do this kind of mix and match anyways: take something wild, mix it with something "sophisticated," and keep people guessing. Think mohawk and three-piece suit. It's easy for people to judge something as "unrefined" if that's all you give them. But if you mix "unrefined" or "wild" elements with "refined" or "sophisticated" elements, it's harder for them to peg you as "one of those people" and write you off entirely. This is one of those concepts that I love to play with...

Anyways, what are you doing to upset the status quo in the land of grass lawns?

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