• AFP speaks with homeowner battling city hall for the right to plant, harvest own vegetables
By Keith Johnson
ORLANDO, Fla.—Who says you can’t fight city hall? Certainly not homeowners Jason and Jennifer Helvenston, who attracted national attention after refusing to comply with a November 7 deadline to dig up the vegetable garden in their front yard and replace it with more generic ground covering.
“You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden,” said Helvenston during an interview with Orlando’s WKMG 6. “There’s nothing wrong here. There’s nothing poisonous here.”
This AMERICAN FREE PRESS reporter recently spoke with Helvenston, who went into depth about his family’s ongoing ordeal and their commitment to resist overbearing government officials who believe they have the right to dictate what a homeowner can have on his property.
“Our problems began when a landlord who resides in Puerto Rico came to visit a property that she owns here in the neighborhood,” said Helvenston. “She happened to come into town just as we were turning our crops.”
Apparently, the absentee owner didn’t like what she saw and complained to the local authorities. A visit from code enforcement officials soon followed, and the Helvenstons were determined to be in violation of a vaguely written city code, which dictates that ground covers must be planted in a way that gives off a “finished appearance.”
In other words, aesthetics that keep property values and tax revenues high trump a homeowner’s right to use what little fertile soil he has to grow healthy and affordable food for his family—at least in the eyes of Orlando officials.
“I equate a ‘finished appearance’ with well-kept and maintained,” said Helvenston. “I’m not about to entertain a debate about which plant is prettier than another. Everything we grow is organic and poses no threat to anyone. We don’t even use pesticides. In fact, I squish caterpillars with my own two fingers.”
Unsympathetic code enforcement officials told Helvenston that he had no other option but to remove his garden, to which he replied: “I refuse to
do that, so what’s the next step?”
Initially, Helvenston’s case was expected to go before a code enforcement board, whose members would decide the fate of his garden. However, as he explained, “I just received an email from the city. They apparently want to have a meeting with me so we can work this thing out. We’re expecting them to try and reach an agreement with us as to what an acceptable vegetable garden is. And we’ve already decided that we will accept no restrictions other than to keep the garden in our own yard and to properly maintain it.”
But even if Helvenston’s individual case is resolved to his satisfaction, he has vowed to continue to fight the archaic city code that continues to oppress home gardeners.
“There’ve been many people in the city of Orlando who’ve been forced to dig up something because they are in violation of this code,” said Helvenston. “In 2010, code enforcement made a gentleman pull up his corn because they said he could only use 10% of his backyard for growing crops. So this is no longer about our little garden. This is about everybody’s constitutional and religious right to grow their own vegetables.”
Helvenston is an architect and engineer by trade who lost a lucrative job as a result of the housing crisis of 2007. For him, gardening is not a hobby—it’s a way to survive.
“We’ve been struggling to hang on to our house during these tough economic times, and one of the things that’s helped us save thousands of dollars is by growing our own vegetables,” he said.
In the short time he and his wife have been gardening, the Helvenstons have grown an abundance of crops including cabbage, onions, carrots and tomatoes. And although that may have led to their recent troubles with the law, they have no regrets. In fact, they consider the entire ordeal to be a blessing in disguise.
“We’re actually grateful to the person that complained,” said Helvenston. “She’s not part of our community here, but she has brought our neighbors closer together than they’ve ever been. Now, everybody in our neighborhood has things planted in our garden and wants one of their own. And we’re helping them do just that.”
The Helvenstons have received a lot of local support. Shortly after their run in with the code enforcement goons, they circulated a petition around their neighborhood and gathered more than 200 signatures on their behalf. Another petition, generated by Kitchen Gardeners International, has collected in excess of 3,500 signatures nationwide.
“We want people to know that there’s nothing wrong with growing your own vegetables,” said Jennifer Helvenston. “During WWI we had victory gardens. Now, in 2012, we have patriot gardens. The government has always encouraged Americans to grow vegetable gardens during economic downturns. We just want to continue with that movement.”
Keith Johnson in an investigative journalist and host of the Revolt of the Plebs radio program.