We’ve all heard this story before: An academic, hippie environmentalist moves into a middle-class suburban neighborhood where neighbors like their front yards tended and prefer their lawns to have conservative buzz cuts, just like their men. The new neighbor has other ideas, however, and upsets the balance. People start to worry about their property values, pests and the aesthetics of their otherwise quiet subdivision. It’s the age-old tale of living in the ’burbs – the neighbor’s grass isn’t always greener, especially when it’s dotted with radishes and dandelions instead of bright green sod.
Shon Law is a 32-year-old tech start-up wizard who foundedsocial media website, Nebber, a few years back. He’s also a Longwood resident who refuses to mow his lawn. In fact, he’s decided to stop interfering with his yard altogether in favor of planting edibles and letting it go native, a decision that his neighbors and the city are not happy about. Law is being fined $300 a day for abandoning the traditional grassy lawn for a quilt-like expanse of ankle- to knee-high tufty native grasses, weedy plants and isolated patches of vegetables. Law has placed a path of square cement blocks around the plot to try to make it look a little more civilized, but they really only emphasize how high and overgrown the grass is.
To date, Law has accumulated well over $130,000 in fines for breaking city codes, mostly dealing with the length of his grass and attracting pests. The city of Longwood has placed a lien against his property in an effort to make Law change his ways, but he says he doesn’t plan to change a thing.
Video: Shon Law explains his farming philosophy
When asked why, he says he believes he’s doing the right thing. “This area is a food desert, which means no food is readily available here and it has to be trucked in from somewhere else,” he says. “Sure, I could move out to Bithlo, but I bought this house here, and I have a right to do what I think is best on this property. … This is a free city, and we cannot bar a property owner from doing something on the basis of aesthetics. … If something happened and food was no longer being brought to this area, all of these people would starve.”
Law is practicing the art of permaculture, a method of agriculture rooted in natural ecosystems. His goal, like the goal of many permaculturists who went before him, is to bring sustainable, local sources of food closer to home.
Clashes between radical locavores and their more traditional neighbors have grown more common as interest in sustainable food production has increased. In 2012, a College Park couple faced fines of more than $500 a day after neighbors complained that their front-yard vegetable garden was against code. In response to the controversy, the city of Orlando eventually rewrote its landscaping code to allow city residents to dedicate a limited amount of their property to edible plants.
It may frustrate some neighbors, but as populations shift toward urban centers in greater numbers and the practice of sustainable living grows, agricultural homesteading practices like backyard chicken-keeping and vegetable gardening are becoming more popular. While proponents say people should be encouraged to produce their own food and take a greater interest in natural ecosystems, sometimes the reality isn’t as pretty as the pastoral pictures people have in their heads. And Law’s front-yard garden is certainly no well-groomed paradise.
According to Law, Florida statutes are on his side in this battle with his neighbors and the city of Longwood. He says he’s going to fight the fines imposed on him because he believes he is “protected by the Florida Friendly Landscaping statute.” The law, passed in 2009, states that local ordinances may not prohibit property owners from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping practices. Specifically, Law says, the statute suggests that people may “reduce mowed areas” because unmowed grass contains a greater diversity of plants and wildlife.
This is shaky ground to stand on, though. There are a number of other measures within the statute that prevent municipalities and homeowners associations from prohibiting Florida-friendly landscaping, but things get hazy in section 1[b], where the law declares that a homeowner cannot be prevented from planting “quality landscaping.” But who defines what is “quality”? The state leaves it up to local courts to decide, and it’s apparent where Law’s local court stands as it denied his most recent appeal to be permitted to keep his yard as he pleases.
And Law’s yard isn’t your garden-variety vegetable patch. He says he is following the teachings of Japanese microbiologist and agricultural scientist Masanobu Fukuoka, who practiced a style of food cultivation called shizen noho, which means “natural farming.” Fukuoka is seen as one of the founders of the organic farming and guerrilla gardening movements because of his groundbreaking work in anti-desertification using seed bombs (little clay balls filled with soil, compost and seeds) and natural selection to regrow disturbed areas. Essentially, people roll the seed bombs, toss them into a fallow area and see what happens – the plants that are most adept at growing in that particular area thrive, and the rest die back. Fukuoka famously applied this method to growing food on his farm in Japan and wrote several books about his process. His practice of do-nothing farming insists that the custom of plowing, fertilizing, weeding, pruning and applying pesticides is unnecessary, or even harmful, to food production. Fukuoka asserted that the best way to farm was to combine the lowest amount of input (less work) with the same amount of output, which would mean greater net returns.
Law’s practice is a little more loose and haphazard than Fukuoka’s actual method. He prefers to use seeds of edible species, like radishes and collards, and then toss them into his front yard. He is a strict believer in the no-tilling, no-weeding and no-pruning aspect of Fukuoka’s practice and lets the plants survive through natural selection. He harvests what he needs on a day-to-day basis and lets the rest go to seed to be used again in more seed bombs. If he does it correctly, Law should never have to buy seeds for those plants ever again.
Law bristles when his yard is referred to as a garden, preferring instead to label it an ecosystem. “You’re not God the gardener, judging insects and plants,” he says. “You’re letting the plant work itself out. The seed balls let natural selection/God sort it out. So you’re not directly seeding anything.”
Instead, the land and the climate decide what grows. As a result, Law’s 10,000-square-foot yard resembles an unkempt forest of vegetation more than a well-tended cabbage patch. It’s not a fully grown “food forest,” as some of his supporters have referred to it, but in a few years, when Law’s trees have matured and he has established a bit of a canopy, it could produce some high yields. Bananas and fruit tree saplings dot the lot, and in some patches, the ground cover is more than a foot high, peppered with random collards, broccoli and dandelions.
This is just how Law wants it.
“Lawns are disaster-scapes of death,” Law says. “I’d rather live in a life-scape. People are afraid to have living things near their homes so they mow the grass and spray it with poison to keep it away from them.”
Law says he believes that the majority of Americans are suffering from “nature-nauseating conditioning” – that people have been taught to fear or be sickened by nature. It’s hard to disagree when all you have to do is open up your Facebook feed to see a friend’s frantic photo of a bug in the kitchen, or a confused-looking frog in the toilet. But on a recent winter day, while Law stands in his yard pointing fingers and bemoaning his neighbors’ gas-guzzling habits, “gun talk” and mine-versus-yours mentalities, his 66-year-old neighbor arrives home.
“Keep your crap out of my lawn,” Bonnie Corbett, a silver-haired every-granny who lives next door, declares from the safety of her manicured lawn. She points out the remnants of Law’s hurricane-felled tree, which has become a veritable termite buffet, and an informal mulch pile, which has made its way over to her side of the property line. “I’m tired of having to pick it up.”
“I don’t see it as crap, ma’am,” Law retorts, munching on a random green leaf. “This is all part of God’s work, and I’m just trying to do what I think is best, rather than filling my yard with poisons and preventing life.”
Corbett walks away and says over her shoulder: “If you knew something about the Lord, you wouldn’t have a yard like this. My son will be down soon to help me take care of this.”
The tension is palpable, and neighbors can be seen peeking through hedges or out their windows to watch the confrontation play out. It’s clearly not the first time these two have had words, and it certainly won’t be the last. The neighborhood is an older subdivision, and many of the residents have lived in their homes for at least a couple of generations. American flags fly in every driveway, and people sit in their carports on sunny days. The yards fronting this street are not flawless, but they are respectable – clean, mowed and tended – and they reflect the pride of the people living in the neighborhood.
Kathy Ettman, who lives kitty-corner from Law’s house (seen in the background of this issue’s cover photo), breaks into tears as she discusses the situation. She says that she’s seen a noticeable spike in rats and pests as Law’s unruly yard has grown out of control. She recently had flooding in her bathroom caused by rats chewing through pipes leading into her house. Her husband is unable to repair the problem, so she says she’s now saddled with an expensive bill and a daunting construction project that’s going to cost her money she says she doesn’t have. Ettman, who has several containers of pineapple starters in pots on her patio, says she’s not opposed to gardening.
“It’s not about growing food, it’s about doing it responsibly and being a good neighbor,” she says, wiping away tears. “Everyone here grows their own food.” She points out a neighbor who has a citrus tree growing in the front yard and a house across the street where papayas line the fence.
“Growing food is something we all have to do here to make ends meet,” she says.
If you look up gardening or urban farming on Pinterest, it makes the result look trendy, cute and easy. But the reality is that it’s sometimes more messy, unsightly or difficult than people realize. Chickens can end up wandering the neighborhood (or in animal shelters) and weeds can take over your veggies in a week. What was once an exercise in sustainability and emancipation becomes an eyesore – and that’s what scares neighbors and city officials.
Ettman and the other neighboring families are all poised on their stoops, staring down Law’s corner-lot experiment, hoping for an act of God or Ty Pennington to make things normal again for them, but it seems like that won’t be happening any time soon. The city has a lien on Law’s property, but he says he isn’t looking to move or sell any time soon. When asked recently about any possibility for third-party mediation or a happy middle ground, nobody seemed ready to concede defeat. Though Law’s recent appeal was rejected, he doesn’t want to give up; nor does he really have much interest in pursuing further communication with his neighbors.
“We’re all facing an irreplaceable planetary collapse and these people are all worried about tall grass,” he says. “They’re conditioned puppets. And you’ll never free your mind until you shoot the cop in your head.”
Correction: Shon Law did not sell his social-media website, Nebber, to Facebook. The story has been changed to reflect that correction.