If you’re planning a home garden operation on your property, it is important to understand both California and local zoning ordinances related to home agriculture.
We have seen a resurgence of the home garden as California homeowners have been shifting their interest to sustainability for the last few. Many homebuyers put yard space for gardening high on their priority list. But homeowners in some communities have been challenged for home farms, particularly if planted in the front yard or used as an income source.
Are Home Gardens Legal in California?
For the most part, yes. In 2014, California’s Legislature added Assembly Bill 2561, Civil Code Section 4750 (Personal Agriculture) to the Common Interest Development Act. The bill provided some definitions for personal agriculture, its importance, and admissibility for California communities.
What is Assembly Bill 2561, Civil Code Section 4750?
Governments are beginning to see benefits to localizing food production. California Assembly Bill 2561 is directed at protecting homeowners who wish to use their property for gardening and agricultural purposes.
A few years ago, State Legislature found that California industrial agriculture is at risk due to water shortages, soil degradation, pollution, environmental, and structural threats to the San Francisco Bay Delta, and the rising cost of oil. Providing Californians with the capacity to feed themselves and their communities would drastically improve local food security and mediate the risks of water, soil, environmental, or fuel-related crises.
Although California is the “bread basket” of the United States and has regions of climate and land ideal for agriculture, a significant amount of California’s food is grown hundreds or thousands of miles from where it is consumed. This results in high transportation costs, energy consumption, and lost economic opportunity for our state. Even food grown in the heart of California’s farming region is expensive to disperse to the rest of the state due to rising fuel costs.
California is no exception to rising obesity and obesity-related diseases in the United States. Two-thirds of American adults and nearly one-third of American children are obese or overweight, putting them at risk for developing chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. In California, one in every nine children, one in three teens, and over one-half of adults are already overweight or obese. This epidemic affects virtually all Californians. Many of these health conditions are preventable and curable through lifestyle choices that include consumption of healthy fresh foods.
One of every $10 dollars spent on health care in the United States goes toward treating diabetes and its complications. Facilitating opportunities for California residents to grow and consume fresh, healthy foods will promote lifestyles and diets that benefit individuals and communities, as well as being a more effective use of public moneys.
Many homeowners’ associations have rules prohibiting homeowners from growing food in their yards or from selling food grown on the property.
Forty percent of Californians live in residences that they do not own, and may, as a result of lease restrictions or disapproval by the landlord, face limitations on their ability to grow food on the land where they reside.
According to a 2011 United States Census Bureau report, California has the highest poverty rate in the United States. Giving California residents the right to grow food where they live will help reduce food costs and the overall burden of poverty for low-income Californians.
Lawncare is resource intensive, at no nutritional gain. Lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the United States. In the urban areas in the United States, 30 to 60 percent of residential water is used for watering lawns. In arid and semiarid regions, this figure can reach up to 75 percent. Annually, 67 million pounds (33,500 tons) of synthetic pesticides are used on lawns in the United States. Furthermore, lawnmowers use 580 million gallons of gasoline yearly. These resources could be allocated to more productive activities, including growing food, thus increasing access to healthy options for low-income individuals.
Gardens and agriculture on public lands help communities increase their access to fresh fruits and vegetables, enhance urban landscapes, motivate healthier eating, and connect neighborhoods.
It is the policy of the state to promote and remove obstacles to increased community access to fresh fruit and vegetables and encourage the practice of homeowners growing food in their private yard space for personal use or for donation to others.
Are There Restrictions To Home Gardens?
California law specifically mentions protection of backyard agriculture, but there is no mention of whether or not farming is legal for the front yard. This has been a murky area for some communities where homeowners have had to fight to keep their front yard vegetable gardens.
If you are planning on using your front yard space for home agriculture, be sure to check your local zoning ordinances. For instance, although L.A. code does not specifically mention vegetable gardens in the front yard, Deborah Kahen from LA City Planning confirmed that front yard gardens are permitted in Los Angeles. In Sacramento, front yard vegetable gardens are expressly authorized under their zoning code, provided that they are properly “landscaped, irrigated, and maintained,” and meet height restrictions in certain portions of the yard.
But, hey, even Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden in the front yard of the White House!
Are There Protections For Tenants?
If you rent your home and don’t have land of your own to start your garden, fear not. California has you covered. Landlords are required to allow tenants to participate in personal agriculture on the premises. If there is not a space available for a garden or if the landlord does not want to allocate yard space for a personal garden, the landlord must allow portable containers approved by the landlord in the tenant’s private area.
The tenant, then, is responsible for the maintenance of the garden. The tenant is required to regularly remove any dead plant material and weeds, with the exception of straw, mulch, compost, and any other organic materials intended to encourage vegetation and retention of moisture in soil, unless the landlord and tenant have a preexisting or separate agreement regarding garden maintenance where the tenant is not responsible for removing or maintaining plant crop and weeds.
The tenant must make sure the plant crop will not interfere with the maintenance of the rental property and that the placement of the portable containers does not interfere with any tenant’s parking spot. The placement and location of the portable containers may be determined by the landlord, and may not create a health and safety hazard, block doorways, or interfere with walkways or utility services or equipment.
The cultivation of plant crops on the rental property other than that which is contained in portable containers shall be subject to approval from the landlord. A landlord may prohibit the use of synthetic chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, insecticides, or any other synthetic chemical product commonly used in the growing of plant crops and may require the tenant to enter into a written agreement regarding the payment of any excess water and waste collection bills arising from the tenant’s personal agriculture activities. The landlord has a right to periodically inspect any area where the tenant is engaging in personal agriculture to ensure compliance with the code and the agreement.
What About Homeowner Association Rules And Other Restrictions?
Many leases and condominium documents have a long list of prohibited activities, and some deeds contain restrictive covenants or identify easements that cannot be obstructed. The California statute applies only to yards that are designated for the exclusive use of the homeowner (or tenant), and does not prohibit a homeowner’s association from applying rules and regulations on community areas. However, if a member of the HOA has a “private area,” they are only allowed “reasonable restrictions” that do not significantly increase the cost of engaging in personal agriculture or significantly decrease its efficiency.
Check Local Zoning Laws
Most municipalities specify to some degree what can (or can’t) be grown or used as groundcover in front yards. For example, some zoning codes will expressly state what kind of plants can be used in front yards (shrubs, grasses, annuals, species, etc.), the permissible spacing and/or height of vegetation, the minimum percentage required for front yard vegetation, or whether free-standing arbors and trellises are allowed. Check with your local Department of City Planning for the regulations in your area.
Advice For The Front Yard Garden
For the most part, personal agriculture in your own backyard is no big deal. But if you want to take things to the front yard, proceed with caution. Although it is unlikely you will have any trouble with the local authorities, limiting your risk for neighbor complaints will ensure your garden’s success.
Everything in your front yard is on display for everyone to see. As a gardener, you may believe even the homeliest vegetable plant is beautiful, but your neighbors may not see it that way. Your front yard garden needs to be well-planned and maintained. And don’t leave tools and equipment strewn about the yard.
Be Friendly. Share.
Your neighbors are more likely to like your garden if they like you. You don’t need to be BFFs with the folks across the street, but it’s good to be nice. Make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Chat about the weather. And, if folks ask about the garden, share it with them. Take them for a tour. If they are gardeners too, ask them their opinion.
I can’t think of a better way to promote front yard vegetable gardens than by sharing the fabulous taste of homegrown produce. Give your neighbors a just-picked front-yard-grown tomato. Go ahead and give them the best one you picked that day. It’ll be worth it; the next day, you might see them taking a shovel to their front lawns. Grass just doesn’t compare to homegrown tomatoes.
No Mercy For Unhealthy Plants
This circles back to the “looks matter” point. If your garden looks diseased and infested, your neighbors are going to mind. This is about being vigilant in the maintenance of your front yard garden.
Be Flexible. Use Containers.
Containers are a great asset for home gardeners. Plants can be moved around and swapped out easily. Containers add additional style and elevation changes to the landscape and can even be useful in maintaining the soil environment for your plants.
Plan For All Seasons
Your front yard is visible all year long, make sure it doesn’t look barren and sad come January. Think about incorporating trellises, fences or sculptures. Consider adding non-edible plants or flowers for their winter color.
Don’t Forget The Flowers
Besides adding color and charm to your garden, flowers are beneficial for your edible plants as well. Plant varieties that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Some flowers are even edible!