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My Teacher’s Criminal Veggie Patch

Back in the 11th grade, Julie Bass was planting the seeds of civic responsibility and awareness as my favorite high school teacher, at a small Chabad girls’ high school in Oak Park, MI. Today, she faces a misdemeanor and up to 93 days in jail for planting a vegetable garden in her front yard.

Ever the teacher, Julie, planted a small vegetable garden in her front yard, hoping to provide a place in the neighborhood for local children to engage with a garden and learn where food comes from. The front yard garden made that possible. Mothers across and down the street could watch their tiny tykes shovel mulch into the raised beds or water tomato plants over at the Bass’.

Julie and her husband Jason built the garden after they were required to replace a sewer pipe in their front yard that tree roots had destroyed. They decided planting a vegetable garden would be a cheaper, more sustainable option than replanting sod grass.

(Check out a video of Julie’s garden below.)

The controversy came over city code in Oak Park, which states that “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” City officials contend that “suitable live plant material” does not include a vegetable garden, only grass, trees and shrubs.

By growing a garden instead of grass, Julie and Jason are creating a more sustainable solution to decorating their front yard, while engaging the neighborhood and providing their family with healthy food.

Back in 11th grade when I was stressing out over a test in Julie’s class on WWII, my mother planted a 10 cent packet of lettuce seeds in our front yard. I scoffed, but that summer we had salad every night for dinner, with plenty left over for the neighbors. While we did not win a beautification award from the neighborhood association, my mother’s zany garden was beautiful and tasty too.

Personal vegetable gardens, like my mother’s and Julie’s aren’t uncommon in Oak Park. Julie’s ‘mistake’ is that as a good citizen, she checked with city officials. before planting hers. They did not know what a raised bed was and they could not give her a direct answer. So, she moved ahead with her garden. Refusing to back down, her court date is now set for July 26.

Years later, after grad school, when I found myself elbow deep in vegetables from a beautiful harvest at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s Adamah farming fellowship, my mother’s garden took on new meaning. With my newfound interest in sustainable living and awareness of food justice issues, I see edible gardens like Julie’s within a larger context that can contribute to making the communities we live in a bit healthier.

You can read about Julie Bass’ adventure and find some of the national news stories on her new blog and a neighborhood site as well.

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