Front Yard Garden Controversy Revelation: Lawns Are Useless

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The fact that so many people are up in arms about a Michigan woman facing jail time for planting a garden in her front yard is an obvious indictment of meddling local code officials gone off the deep end. The case also serves as a reminder of a rather obvious truth: Vegetables are edible and good for people, and no matter how pretty the grass, shrubbery, and flowers in your front yard, you’re not going to eat them.

For most American homeowners, the groomed, watered, and chemically modified lawn is the only option for a front yard. But why is this? Sure, it’s aesthetically pleasing. But there are many ways to landscape a yard—and almost anything else is more useful than a lawn.

Many of the weeds homeowners spend hours and many dollars eliminating are entirely edible, giving homeowners ample justification to let the lawn get overrun with dandelions and feel good about it. But taking the heretical homeowner step of disavowing the front lawn doesn’t necessarily mean simply sanctioning the mower and weed killer to the back of the garage. By following the vision of people such as Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping, it’s possible to create a front lawn than is both beautiful and productive. On Creasy’s 2,000-square-foot front yard, where nothing but grass might otherwise be, a field of neatly arranged figs, peppers, lemon trees, radishes, blackberries, and spices burst with life.

(MORE: Woman Faces Jail Time for Planting Organic Vegetable Garden)

And perhaps this new front yard vision, in which aesthetics and utility aren’t mutually exclusive, is catching on a bit. An essay in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, one woman details the ongoing efforts of she and her husband to plant a front yard garden. Why? After much of their high-maintenance front lawn died, they decided to do away with the nice-looking but useless feature:

Space hogs, water suckers and giant leaf collectors that have to be blown, mown and doused in chemicals with a great ruckus to look good, what is the point of a lawn other than to say: we have land, time and money to waste?

A year after planting the garden, the couple is saving money by skipping trips to the farmers markets and supermarket produce sections. A funny thing has also happened in their neighborhood:

People walking by – instead of just breezing past – stopped to talk to us. Some were just curious; others had tips and stories to share. Many with backyard gardens marveled that they’d never thought to use the sunny front yard. We had more conversations with neighbors we’d never met in those few weekends than we’ve had in the entire 15 years living here.

Think about it: The only thing holding people back from planting front yard gardens is a subjective but widely accepted sense of what’s pretty and proper. (In Oak Park, Mich., and other communities, the possibility of fines and jail time may also scare some off from planting gardens in the front yard.) Most people buy into this sense of aesthetics mostly because they never bother pausing to think about why they do what they do, and that there might be better, more sensible, and more productive alternatives. The garden simply must be relegated to the backyard, and few dare to question why.

Now think about it some more: Especially given soaring obesity levels in the U.S., do laws that discourage people from producing and eating vegetables in any way make any sense?

(MORE: Q&A: All the Dirt on Gardening with a Small Budget)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.