Without a ‘Right to Garden’ Law, It May Be Illegal to Grow Your Own Food

How one Illinois family's backyard hoop house put them at odds with city officials.



The most delicious vegetables are the ones you grow yourself, as many have come to realize during the pandemic. But some cities and counties have restrictions that prevent people from gardening at home. In one Midwestern town, a temporary greenhouse has ended up on the wrong side of the law, revealing a value system that is distinctly regressive.

Nicole and Dan Virgil, who live in Elmhurst, a suburb of Chicago, are dedicated vegetable gardeners. By the summer of 2015, they had maxed out their 2,000-square-foot backyard with raised beds and were relying on them for much of their family’s produce. They had branched out from simply growing the typical salad ingredients to cultivating potatoes, fennel, leeks, and tomatillos. In late August, the plants were still going full-bore, and the Virgils wondered how they could extend the Midwestern growing season. (In this climate zone, seedlings go into the ground on Mother’s Day and peter out in October.)

“It seemed like such a shame that everything would come to a dead stop once the temperature dropped,” says Nicole, who is among an estimated one-third of all Americans who have grown food at home. “We really wanted to make a dent in our grocery bill and in our carbon footprint—we didn’t turn our whole backyard into a garden just to have a few token vegetables.”

After doing some online research, Dan built a “high-tunnel” hoop house to protect two of the larger garden beds. The temporary greenhouse, made of plastic sheeting over a frame of PVC pipe and plywood, was nine feet tall at its apex. It was big enough to produce sufficient heat to warm the soil and allow the Virgils to stand inside while gardening in frigid conditions. In more temperate climates like California’s, farmers use hoop houses to protect delicate blackberries and raspberries from dew and fog.

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A few weeks after their hoop house went up, Nicole found a violation notice from the city taped to it. “I thought it had to be some kind of misunderstanding, that it couldn’t possibly be serious,” recalls Nicole. She had assumed that the hoop house, a lightweight temporary structure akin to a tent, wouldn’t be subject to city regulations.

After several discussions with city officials, 16 public meetings over two years, a lawsuit filed by the Virgils, and a subsequent appeal, the city remained unmoved, siding with the neighbor who had filed the original complaint. The Virgils found themselves stuck in a catch-22 of having an unpermitted temporary structure while having no way to get a permit for a temporary structure. Facing a daily fine, they took down their hoop house.

Inside the Virgil's hoop house.

Inside the Virgil’s hoop house.

Why would a backyard hoop house be so contentious? The Virgils are among many home gardeners around the country who have triggered a city or county ordinance that restricts edible gardening. It’s fairly common for local governments to have a broadly written landscape ordinance, which may not explicitly prohibit vegetable gardening but requires grass or similar vegetation and calls for plants within a certain height.

The neatly manicured yard has long been a status symbol; lawns first appeared in the 1700s on European estates, whose owners could afford to have high-maintenance living carpets. And the suburbs have historically differentiated themselves from “ag land.” “A lot of rural land was developed into suburban municipalities, and the zoning code was changed to prohibit agricultural uses—people didn’t want a pig farm to move in,” says Laura Calvert, the former executive director of Chicago-based nonprofit Advocates for Urban Agriculture.

Given the context, it’s easy to see how the neighbors might look down on home gardening as a form of subsistence farming. “People think that it’s beneath them,” says Nicole, who documented her struggle in a recent op-ed for the Chicago Tribune.

The goal of these ordinances, whether they’re about landscaping or temporary structures, is to maintain property values. (The racist practice of redlining, which kept African Americans out of the suburbs, was rationalized in the same way.) However, the perception that growing vegetables will drive down home values is “not rooted in any evidence,” as Calvert points out.

Now the pandemic shutdown is shifting these cultural attitudes. For the first time in a long while, people have seen empty shelves in grocery stores and witnessed hoarding. The past months have been a visceral reminder of how important it is to have access to healthy food, which no doubt prompted many to start planting. Elmhurst’s neighbor, Chicago, is ahead of the curve; it embraced hoop houses in its 2011 ordinance promoting urban farming while still regulating them with restrictions on their size and height. “We have broad mayoral support for urban agriculture,” says Calvert. “It provides all these benefits, including food access, public health, and public education.”

The Virgil's hoop house in winter.

The Virgil’s hoop house in winter.

In addition to these imperatives, there are also philosophical and legal principles to defend. On a basic level, the right to garden year-round can be encapsulated as the right to do what you want in your own yard. The Virgils are advocating for a state Right to Garden bill, which would override local ordinances. They’ve joined forces with attorney Ari Bargil at the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which works on constitutional law cases and helped pass the first such gardening bill in Florida.

Bargil sees restrictions on home gardening as a violation of a fundamental right: “We have the right to use our own properties to grow our own food, as long as that use doesn’t impinge on someone else’s freedom to enjoy their property.” And he feels that landscape ordinances smack of authoritarianism. “If a vegetable garden is attracting pests, it has a bearing on the health and safety of a community, and that should be regulated,” he says. “But if the government is acting like Disney World and specifying what your front yard should look like, that’s not a vision of a free society.”

The Right to Garden bill in Illinois has been through three rounds of revisions and should go before the state legislature in its next session, which begins in early 2021. The Virgils are cautiously optimistic that their cause will prevail. “I’m just trying to do something good,” Nicole says. “I want to help people live well and help each other and have food in abundance.”

This article was originally published by Sierra, and is reprinted with the permission of the author. Photos courtesy of Nicole Virgil.

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View Comments (14)

  1. Carol
    Saturday, October 17th, 2020
    I agree they should be able to garden in their back yard. Their neighbors are just troublemakers. Especially now that the food supply is so unstable
  2. Saturday, October 17th, 2020
    You know why the governments don't want you to grow your own food because they would be losing annual income from shipment they receive to the grocery stores....need to go back to the backyard growing so government has no control over your food sources or start buying direct from the farmers instead of the grocery stores. As long as government has some way to control food they will continue to control the people
  3. Mechtelde
    Saturday, October 17th, 2020
    I have dealt with this, too. I lived in a pretty neighborhood outside of Washington DC. I wanted a vegetable garden, but the only sun was in the front of the house. So I built several cute cedar 4 x 4 raised beds just outside my front door. When my plants were small, the garden was attractive. Neighbors stopped by to watch the progress. But when the tomatoes got high and spindly, and the beans, and the Jerusalem artichokes, it looked pretty bad. I got no complaints from the neighbors, but I knew what they were thinking. They are in the federal government and the military and have to be able to sell their houses quickly, so the last thing they need is a neighbor whose house looks like she doesn’t care about it. By law, we weren’t allowed to have privacy fences in our front yard, so I tore the whole garden out, sold the house and moved the wood beds to a new house in a new neighborhood where there was sun in the backyard and, because of some pine trees on the boundary, no one could see it. Keywords there are “no one could see it.“ Unless you’re in a neighborhood where everyone gardens in their backyard, a hoop house wrapped in plastic sheet should be hidden behind a privacy fence or trees. It’s neighborly not to leave your messy projects, even if they are “temporary,” out where everyone else has to see them. Would you like the guy next door who loves working on old cars to leave his junk vehicle out where you have to look at it? Being neighborly is not too difficult, and it makes other people feel good, so it’s a win-win. Consider it peace on earth in your own little piece of the earth.
    • Kathleen
      Friday, October 23rd, 2020
      Please look at the last photo in winter...there is a 6 foot high privacy fence next to the 9 foot tall hoop house. The neighbors see only the top 2-3 feet. And there are usually regulations that fences cannot be higher than 6 feet!
  4. Janis Cortazzo
    Sunday, October 18th, 2020
    This should b a universally accepted & endorsed by the gov’t option regardless of HOAs etc. had a friend visiting from Sweden (I lived in a row home in PAat the time); he could not believe that all my neighbors didn’t have veggies, nut trees & fruit trees & canes in every yard. I agreed with him. Told him there was a time our gov’t endorsed gardening & Victory Gardens... so very sad our own gov’t doesn’t stand up for this anymore. Shameful.
  5. Judy Shepard
    Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
    There should be no reason whatsoever people cannot grow their own food period. It helps out many different ways. And maybe if that neighbor were a better one they might have got to enjoy the bounties from them. So sad today's world is turning out the way it is. Then depending on election it could get worse. I'm growing my own don't care what anyone says.
  6. nick contorno
    Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
    The "New Normal" is NOT growing your own food. We traded freedom for security, you can't complain now. You have to depend on big daddy government for all your needs. Plus Bill Gates has lab grown food to sell you. Dr. Gates can't make his money, if you're growing your own food.
    • Tabea Rochka
      Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
      Exactly!
  7. Lori Lathrom
    Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
    We live in an apartment, and though it is feasible to have a container garden on our patio, it is not allowed. We are allowed 2 pots. Period. I would love to have a refrigerator sized green house, but it is not allowed.
    My only other option is plants indoors with grow lights.
  8. Wednesday, October 21st, 2020
    I want to wish you all the best for your brave ❤️ heart to want the best
    for us All in being healthy by growing food! I hope you win in court! God bless your endeavors!! All things are possible with God. Never give up!
  9. Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
    The PermaCulture folks worked for edible landscaping since 1984 or earlier. I attended their First International Conference located south of Seattle in 1985. I was born and raised on farms, and have owned 3 of my own farms. I lived and worked on a farm in New Zealand in 1968-69. Without fresh produce, I would have starved as a child. As an adult, I was able to give away tens of thousands of pounds of produce to rescue centers that fed the homeless and to Senior Centers that fed the elderly.
  10. Tabea Rochka
    Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
    What a sad neighbor to complain about somebody growing food. Wait till the day he/she needs to grow food and won't be able to! Ridiculous!
  11. Friday, October 23rd, 2020
    This is a deplorable violation of the Virgil’s constitutional rights. I pray to the GOD of heaven that HE will defend & justify the Virgil family so that there will be no restrictions to the clever, hoop house which will reap a bountiful crop, no doubt. May they win their day in court, & win big for all who love liberty. Twisted, corrupt govt officials who don’t understand justice need to be uprooted & weeded out of office at every level. Unjust laws need to be overturned. U.S. citizens have become enslaved to tyrannical, elitist politicians & their ruthless rulings & regulations. We are not a free ppl to steward our property— to be self-sufficient? In Hitler’s discourse on the propaganda of war, he stated, “A nation without honour will sooner or later lose its freedom & independence.” (Hitler, Adolph, Mein Kamf, Jairo Publishing House, New Delhi, 1988, p.168). Here we are. It’s a sad day in America when a disgruntled neighbor can wield an evil weapon via the courts just b/c he doesn’t like the neighbor’s garden.
  12. Gretchen Nicholson
    Saturday, October 24th, 2020
    Go Virgils! My husband and I are totally behind you! Praying for minds to open and change!