An illegal garden? An Interview With Sean Law

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Over a week ago, my dad sent me an article on Longwood homeowner Sean Law and his battle to restore his piece of the Earth to a healthy ecosystem.

When I saw the piece, I felt a quick connection to the guy, particularly when he mentioned Fukuoka as an influence. So, after some finagling, I managed to reach him personally for an interview.

Before I caught up with him via phone the first time, I wondered if he was going to be one of those “crazies” that simply won’t abide by the rules or make friends with neighbors, etc. You know, the kind of guy that fixes cars late at night with pneumatic wrenches while cranking up AC/DC, or the gal that stuffs her house with piles of newspapers and dead cats.

Sean Law’s inspiration, Masanobu Fukuoka

Instead, I found Sean to be more caring about people that you would imagine, considering his current battle with the city of Longwood. He’s unassuming, friendly, coherent and well-versed in Florida law. He also has a deep love for the environment and the many creatures that inhabit it, right down to the microorganisms in the soil.

His focus, rather than being on the way things are clunking along right now and on the codes that keep us in a cycle of cropping and poisoning… is on the future of humanity and our planet.

Here he is, in his own words:

Sign his petition by clicking here.

UPDATE: After this interview, I was able to visit Sean Law’s illegal garden and found it to be a marvelous place filled with life. Unfortunately, the city has now taken his house from him. Not all battles end as well as others. The Helvenston garden fight was won… but Law’s was lost.

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Do you have an illegal garden?

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The Helvenston family and their illegal garden.

An “illegal garden.”

Those two words together sound almost ridiculous, conjuring up images of bandit broccoli, thieving tomatoes or perhaps counterfeiter carrots:

“Stay right where you are,” growled the sinister squash, poking a previously concealed row marker into the back of an innocent cabbage. “One word out of you and you’ll be chopped, pickled and put in cold storage like the others!”

Here in the “land of the free,” gardeners across the nation have been cited, fined and trampled upon for growing vegetables in their own yards.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since “private property” is anything but private at this point in American history. The very fact that you are taxed on your land means the government owns it and you’re paying rent to them for the favor of letting you use it. Don’t believe me? Try not paying and see what happens.

It’s not a big reach to go from controlling a property through taxation to controlling it directly through regulation. That’s what we saw lately with the case of Jason and Jennifer Helvenston in Orlando. Their front-yard garden was declared illegal and they were threatened with fines if they didn’t remove it. After a year of fighting, plus lots of petitioning and letter-writing, the city backed down just this last month and wrote new ordinances legalizing the growing of food instead of just lawns or “approved groundcovers.”

We’re at a strange point in this nation’s history right now. Many are more concerned with “keeping things nice” than they are with other people’s right to property. Honestly – if you don’t like the color of a neighbor’s house or the rusty old car in their yard or their messy vegetable garden, plant a hedge or something. Freedom is precious. Every time you restrict it for someone else, you’re making this nation worse than it already is.

There was a time in the past where we’d talk to someone directly if they gave us a hard time or we didn’t like their grass. You might approach them with a jar of homemade preserves or a dozen farm eggs and have a chat over the fence.

Now? Like sniveling little weasels, we often call in the “authorities” to deal with the situation before we ever talk with the person that offends us.

A lot of people are short on time, short on money and sometimes even short on food. It’s hard to know what someone is facing if we don’t show ourselves friendly and listen to their story. Who knows if they painted their house “that AWFUL color” because it reminds them of a beloved long-gone relative? Maybe they aren’t mowing their lawn because they have health problems – or because they’re deliberately creating habitat for the birds and bees? Maybe they were going to fix that old car for a friend but then got called in to extra shifts at work?

Don’t be too quick to judge or attack. The Helvenstons never would have gone through their painful (and frankly scary) ordeal in Orlando if it weren’t for an absentee landlord down the street calling in a complaint. Everyone else loved their garden – and with a backyard shaded by a neighbor’s oak trees, there was no other place for them to grow food.

Really, it shouldn’t matter where you grow a garden in your yard. The right to grow your own food should trump codes and be unassailable by bureaucrats. Front-yard gardens should be everywhere!

As the Great Depression 2.0 continues, taking away folks’ homegrown calories is criminal. Thank goodness Orlando finally saw the light and let freedom ring.

Would you do the same?

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Sean Law and his illegal front yard garden

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An illegal front yard garden? It sounds insane… I mean, people would rather see grass… than see food?

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These squash grew in an illegal front yard garden

Right now, this fellow is facing $130,000 in accumulated fines for his front yard garden:

People just don’t “get” what folks like Sean are doing.

Neat grass and landscaping may make people feel nice, but it isn’t good for the environment.

It’s time for us to wage war on lawns. Whether it’s through the Fukuoka method, or edible landscaping, or Patriot Gardens… it needs to happen.

Now.

Update: Sean Law talks about his illegal front yard garden

I still can’t believe there’s such a thing as an illegal garden…

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Response From the Padin’s – the Helvenston’s Neighbors Who Contacted Code Enforcement

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The plot thickens!

The following was recently both sent to my e-mail and posted as a comment on a previous post (my own response below):

Dear Mr Goodman:

I am the owner of the house next door.  I live out of town, but pay taxes on the property, and has the same rights.  My farmer neighbor is very collective in your interview, but when we approach his wife to discuss alternative, we never had a response from them.  He called our property manager to insult him.  This is not an attitude from a farmer, I am a farmer also a biologist and understand the natural process and sustainability movement, but this crying baby attitude is what confused me with the right purpose of farming.

Since to me that he only wants to get publicity for his business.

What’s next? Chicken, Gardens, herpetologist???

I live in Puerto Rico and proud to serve the US Navy.  I’m willing to discuss our rights and opinions to anyone.

Sincerely,

Pedro Padin 787-612-9127

Gretchen Rivera Padin 787-413-7788

Gretpadin1@gmail.com

The key issue here is to keep the place neat and clean and that’s why we are concern about the front garden.

RESPONSE FROM ME (via e-mail):

Dear Mr. Padin,

Thanks for writing. I’ll bump your comment (and this response) to the top of my blog. I’ll also make sure the Helvenston’s are apprised of your concerns.

I can’t necessarily speak for the Helvenston’s motives, not having witnessed the entire situation. I only met them recently and know just what they’ve told me.

However, I don’t understand why you would have a problem with anyone growing food in their own yard. If Jason and Jennifer planted a garden in your yard, you’d have every right to complain. But shouldn’t a person be able to use their own property as they wish, providing they aren’t hurting anyone else?

It doesn’t seem that vegetables are hurting you guys in any way, except for not being “neat,” as you state. If there’s more to this, please let me know – but this nation was founded on private property rights. Whether or not you get along with the Helvenston’s – and even if they’re rude or self-seeking or anything else you might assert – it’s still their yard and I believe gardening in it should absolutely be allowed, just as you should have a right to use your own yard as you see fit.

I hope your family and their family will be able to resolve your dispute and be at peace once again. I’m sorry the neighborhood has been caught up in controversy. I wish it could have been resolved without the city having been involved.

All the best,

David Goodman

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Video Interview with Jason and Jennifer Helvenston – the Orlando “Illegal” Front-yard Gardeners

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Many of us saw the article last week on the Helvenston family who were told by Orlando to tear out their vegetable garden. I saw it too and was inspired to dig deeper. Fortunately, the Helvenston’s were nice enough to sit down with me for a half-hour interview over Skype.

They’re not crazy, they’re not bad neighbors, and they don’t view themselves as radicals or revolutionaries. They’re just an environmentally keyed-in couple who needed space to grow food and refuse to roll over before city officials who think unproductive grass is better than organic veggies.

Here it is in their own words:

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Response from Mayor Dyer on Jason Helvenston’s “Illegal” Front-yard Garden

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After sharing the story of Jason Helvenston’s (given wrongly in previous reports as “Helvingston”) front-yard garden being threatened by the city of Orlando, I later posted my e-mail to Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Incidentally, I’ve also been in contact with Jason and Jennifer Helvenston and hope to catch them for an interview later today – with luck, I’ll be able to dig deeper into the story and share what I find with all of you.

This morning, I heard back from Mayor Dyer – here’s his response:

Dear Mr. Goodman,

Thank you for reaching out to us on the topic of residential
gardening. The City of Orlando is committed to environmental
responsibility and encourages the use of vegetable gardens as a
sustainable source of producing food.

While media reports may have inaccurately led you to believe the City
has an ordinance against vegetable gardens, nothing could be further
from the truth.   The City is working with the property owner to
address a concern shared by a neighbor regarding lack of ground cover.
 This code helps the City maintain standard levels that help keep
property values up for residents and creates an inviting atmosphere
for neighbors.

However, our existing landscape code never contemplated front yard
food production, hence the confusion related to this recent story. As
society’s tastes change, we continue to adapt our development and
landscape codes.

To assist with this process and the topic of sustainability as a
whole, the City has created a Green Works Task Force.   The Task Force
will help develop Orlando’s plan for sustainability, which will serve
as the road map to steer future policies, developments and
investments.   The task force will address items such as this to
ensure there is a balance between sustainable practices and
maintaining the high quality of life Orlando residents expect.

To learn more about the City's sustainability efforts, please visit
cityoforlando.net.

Sincerely,

Buddy Dyer
Mayor
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