Our Heroes: Julie Bass, 'Outlaw' Front Yard Veggie Gardener

Julie Bass is proud of her vegetable garden. In May, after her front yard was torn up over a busted sewage pipe, she placed five decorative planter boxes there and started growing tomatoes, zucchini, baby peppers and other vegetables. The idea was to help feed her family and educate the local community about gardening—a move that would seem benign, if not beneficial – to her hometown of Oak Park, Michigan.

Oak Park’s Planning and Technology director Kevin Rulkowski felt otherwise and issued Bass a misdemeanor charge in June. The citation was based on an ordinance that states, "All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material," and the debate was over the meaning of “suitable.” Bass chose to fight the citation, and by doing so faced a possible 93-day jail sentence. On July 14th, prosecutors dropped the charges after her story and her blog “Oak Park Hates Veggies” went viral, gaining Bass national support as an ‘outlaw' front yard gardener. Julie, now free to garden in her own yard without the threat of jail time (at least, for now) took the time to tell me about her love of gardening, why she chose to fight the good fight and how her experience as an ‘outlaw' veggie gardener has affected her view of the food movement.

What was the inspiration behind your garden?

The inspiration behind our garden came from lots of different landscaping books we got from the library. I loved the idea of growing something we could use, instead of just wasting money on things that were "pretty." We love to go to farms and farm stands, and I am kind of a homesteading magazine junky. It’s a big dream that one day we could live somewhere and I could have a real homestead, but we are here for the time being, so I figured, why not do a small bit of a homestead right here in Oak Park?

Being open to knowledge is the first step in moving forward

Tell me about your ordeal with the city.

I think the biggest irony is that I called them to ask about landscaping ordinances before I did anything. I wanted to work withthe city to have what I wanted, while still being mindful of the zoning and the neighbors' preferences. The idea that "Oak Park hates veggies" came from the warning and the ticket I received. The only thing the city kept mentioning that was a problem was that there were vegetable plants. They were ok with the raised beds and the mulch and the swing and the spotty grass we have in the very front. The only thing they kept saying was a problem was that there were vegetables. So if I had flowers too, that would have been a problem still because I didn’t move the vegetable plants. The name of the blog was kind of tongue-in-cheek (obviously), but it was really a question- like, "what does Oak Park have against my vegetables?"

You were facing 93 days in jail! What inspired you to stand up and fight in the face of such a heavy penalty?

That would have been really, really scary if I had thought about it. I think I just had a naive faith that they could never really lock me up for vegetables. I tried not to think about it as a real possibility because then I would have made decisions based on fear and not on principle, and that is something I didn’t want to happen!

Social media and the internet rallied in support of you. How do you see the power of online communities supporting the food movement?

Social media was incredible in this case. I really just thought that my friends might forward my blog to people they knew who had similar problems in their own cities. That’s why I started the blog- to see if I could learn from what other people had gone through. It actually took a really long time to find anyone like that, and by then the blog had taken on a life of its own. I am lucky to have friends who are conversant in technology—they set up the petition and the Facebook page. My husband helped a lot with the bells and whistles on the blog. I think it’s incredible how many different people were touched by my story, and that never could have happened without the internet. I definitely have much more of a sense that there is a greater worldwide community out there, instead of just being in my little bubble here in Oak Park.

Has your experience with Oak Park and being an “outlaw gardener” inspired you to be more involved in food activism? How has it changed your views on the food movement?

It still makes me laugh when I hear phrases like, "outlaw gardener.” It makes me realize how much government can try to limit your options, and how revolutionary it can be to just expand people’s comfort zones by even one inch. What I did was very small. It was very tame. But it got people to start thinking about possibilities in a whole different way. As far as food movements or activism, I don’t know that I am a great spokesperson, since I still have so much to learn. One of the biggest benefits of the blog has been the amount of information people have brought to my attention. I really enjoy researching, and I have been able to read about water issues and soil issues and organic food and local food and urban agriculture -- and so much more! I think that, if anything, being an "outlaw" has reinforced what a good feeling it is to stand up for what is right.

How did you start gardening?

I started gardening last year in a few containers. I read things like Mother Earth News, Mary Jane’s Farm, Grit and some others. I also read lots of books on homestead-related issues. I also bought books on being able to homestead on a small amount of space. They really made me feel like I should take a bit more responsibility for providing quality food for my family, and they made me feel like it was within my reach. We didn’t do so great last year, but it did light the spark for a bigger gardening project this year!

What brings you hope for the future of the food movement?

I am hopeful about the food movement because I think more people have their eyes open. So many people are aware of issues related to their food, and whatever way that manifests itself for a particular person or family, that’s great. Being open to knowledge is the first step in moving forward, and I think lots of people are coming around to the idea of caring what they are putting into their mouths.

What do you do in your free time or to relax?

Free time with 6 kids? Hahahaha! Really, though, I love to read. I use my free time to devour books! As far as relaxing, I find that housework really makes me feel grounded. I love to set things in order, and I am a huge baker. My friends always know when I am under stress because they will get a cake and some cookies and a pan of brownies all in the same day.  Maybe also some ratatouille or homemade applesauce or jam we made. Then they call me up and say, "Ok, Julie- what’s wrong?" and lately, gardening has been my new way to relax. There is something so cathartic about pulling off dead leaves and puttering with the vegetables. Who would ever have guessed it?

What’s your favorite food?

I don’t know if your article will have enough space for this! I really like pizza. I am crazy for salads with a fresh vinaigrette dressing. Sometimes I get in big ice cream moods, and I'll go for three or four days where I just want ice cream for every meal. Oh, and general foods international coffee -- that’s probably my most guilty pleasure!

Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?

I think that a wise person will try to learn something from everyone they encounter. There is a woman in Baltimore who has a blog I follow. I find her very inspiring in that she thinks about what she wants, and then she looks for ways to turn that vision into reality. She is always coming up with ingenious ways to stretch her resources, or do something big that other people thought was impossible. I find her VERY inspiring. I am also inspired by the readers of my blog. They are so generous and warm, and they have so much information to share. They reinforced over and over again that I was on the right track with my garden, and that made a big difference in my confidence level when things looked kind of bleak. I am inspired by people who stand by their principles, especially if they can do it in a way that helps other people.