Confessions of an Outlaw Gardener

When growing vegetables becomes an act of civil disobedience.

July 6, 2012

Even before I moved into my house, I was making plans to break the rules. It’s a fine little house—a 1970s-era split level on a half-acre lot, in a neighborhood filled with other 1970s-era split levels on half-acre lots. It’s a nice neighborhood, too. Kids ride bikes in the street. Adults walk dogs and push strollers and pause to chat about the weather. When a winter storm brought a tree down in my driveway, my neighbor brought his chainsaw and helped clear the debris.

Yes, this is a nice neighborhood. But it’s governed by a homeowner association (HOA), and there’s the trouble. More specifically, here’s the trouble (excerpted from my community’s declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions):


Article VI, Section 10: Vegetable gardens shall be allowed in the rear or side portions of said lots only.

That was going to be a problem. The rear and side portions of this particular lot are heavily wooded with five maples, three pines, two dogwoods, and more than a dozen cedars. The brief snatches of sunlight that make it past those trees are not enough to support a vegetable garden. If I wanted homegrown tomatoes, I had to break the rule.

And so I became an outlaw. I expanded the planting beds along the foundation and stole some land from the lawn. I ripped out several overly sheared shrubs and replaced them with blueberries. I added an herb garden, planted native flowers, and began to sneak vegetables into the mix. The idea was simple: Grow a vegetable garden that didn’t look like a vegetable garden.

“Incognito edibles” became the garden’s guiding theme. I chose ornamental varieties whenever possible—‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, ‘Siam Queen’ basil, ‘Burgundy’ okra—and did my best to hide the homelier crops. Sweet potatoes overflowed bushel baskets. Heirloom tomatoes shared trellises with ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runner beans. A dense border of basil, parsley, and purple-tinted ‘Velour’ filet bush beans hid less-attractive edibles from the street. Throughout the beds, native perennial and annual flowers disguised the operation.

The garden thrived, and the neighborhood noticed. Folks began to stop and chat while I weeded. Several drivers rolled their windows down to shout encouragement. No one complained about the vegetables.

Photos: Rob Cardillo

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more than 131 million housing units in the United States. Of those, approximately 25 million are in communities that are governed by HOAs or other associations. Some of these communities—like mine—are relatively relaxed. The rules are few and are lightly enforced. Others are stricter, and the consequences for violations can be dramatic. Some associations even have the full legal power to foreclose on a home. So when I agreed to write this article for Organic Gardening, it’s not surprising that my editor asked if I would like to use a pseudonym. (I declined.)

I’m lucky. Unlike many homeowners in HOAs and other association-governed communities, I don’t need to choose between my garden and my home. My HOA is more likely to scold than to foreclose; all my neighbors agree that it’s a remarkably easygoing group. And that’s a good thing, because I’m not exactly trying to keep the garden a secret. In fact, I’m hoping my garden will prompt a civil, neighborly discussion and lead to changes in the rule. Because, while I understand the HOA’s desire and responsibility to protect the look and value of my community’s homes, I don’t believe that wholesale discrimination against front-yard vegetables is the way to do it. When I bought this house, the front yard was in perfect standing. It followed the rules of the community to the letter. And it was boring. Now, it’s in blatant violation. Are the neighbors upset? Hardly. I’ve lost count of the number of compliments I’ve received.

In another year or two, I’ll start that discussion with my HOA and begin working toward changing the regulations. Eventually—with a little luck and some support from my neighbors—this outlaw garden will be completely legal, and my front-yard vegetables will no longer be the only ones on the block. Until then, I’ll continue with the incognito edibles. This year, I hope to harvest my first outlaw artichoke.

Read more about Cristina's rule-breaking garden on her blog, Outlaw Garden.

Photos: Rob Cardillo


Next Up From Rodale's Organic Life

9 Houseplants That Could Kill Your Pets
Keep cats and dogs away from these attractive dangers.
EPA Bans New Toxic Weedkiller
The "stacked" formula was designed to spray on GMO crops.
What Gardeners Really Want For The Holidays
Wrap up one of these sustainably-minded presents for the special grower in your life.