Falcon Heights bans front yard victory gardens this year

By: - May 19, 2020 6:00 pm

Quentin Nguyen stands in front of his Falcon Heights home where he hoped to plant a community vegetable garden until the city banned them in front yards. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Quentin Nguyen had already dug up his more than half-acre front lawn, given away the sod and shipped in 40 cubic yards of soil for a vegetable garden, when he got a letter from the city of Falcon Heights.

It said the City Council had voted the day before, on May 13, to ban growing vegetables and herbs in front yards for one year.

“It was a shock to me,” Nguyen said. “If we own the property, we should be able to grow our own foods.”

Nguyen’s plan was to make it an informal community vegetable garden. He was going to call it “Q’s Victory Garden,” hearkening back to the vegetable plots people kept in their yards during the world wars.

But once he started to dig up the yard, the city started hearing concerns from other residents about the increase in traffic the garden might bring.

“There’s some people that are concerned about this whole idea of someone trying to create a community/commercial community garden,” said Falcon Heights City Administrator Sack Thongvanh. “I don’t think a lot of people buy their house thinking there’s going to be a commercial garden in the front yard.”

In fact, Nguyen’s property abuts an actual farm run by the University of Minnesota at the back of his property. With no room in back, he decided to grow his veggies in front.

As for being commercial, Nguyen says he had no intention of charging people money for using the garden or taking vegetables from it. He did solicit donations for dirt, seeds and other supplies, but ended up spending much of his own money.

The Falcon Heights City Council unanimously approved banning front yard vegetable and herb gardens for one year.

“It was mostly for myself and for other gardeners in Falcon Heights so whenever they have free time, they can stop by and work on the yard,” Nguyen said. “Then we can have some fresh produce to eat or give away to others.”

City Council Member Yakasah Wehyee said in an interview that he wasn’t aware that the ordinance he voted for banned all front yard vegetable gardens. He said the council’s discussion centered on concerns about commercial front yard gardens, and that’s what he thought the ordinance would address.

“I’ve never stood by banning all (front yard) vegetable gardens. That was never my intention in voting for the ordinance,” Wehyee said. “My belief was this was going to be a much more narrow ordinance that was supposed to target a very specific type of gardening.”

Asked why city staff drafted the ordinance to temporarily ban all vegetable gardens in front yards, and not just commercial ones, Thongvanh said, “Because the council is trying to determine how to regulate it. They’re trying to figure out what’s acceptable in the community and what the council would like to implement.”

Since the new ordinance was passed, Nguyen says he’s been overwhelmed by hundreds of supportive messages — more than he’s been able to respond to — including from lawyers who’ve offered their services because the ordinance could be illegal.

Cities cannot create laws targeting a single individual, but Thongvanh and Council Members Wehyee and Kay Andrews said in interviews the ordinance was created directly in response to Nguyen’s yard.

Thongvanh also said the city wasn’t trying to single Nguyen out, but “are trying to go through a thoughtful process (before) we potentially allow something like this to happen within our community.”

The City of Falcon Heights sent Quentin Nguyen a letter after they passed an ordinance temporarily banning front yard vegetable gardens.

Nguyen also heard from other Falcon Heights residents who’ve had front yard vegetable gardens for years without any complaints.

Randi Winter says she’s grown herbs and tomatoes in her front yard — the only place that gets enough sunlight — since she and her husband bought their house in 2013.

“In theory, we need to dig up our perennial herbs,” Winter said. She added: “I find it frustrating that it was hastily passed without the opportunity for the community to weigh in, particularly given the pandemic when lots of people want to be growing what food they can at home to avoid going to the store.”

In February, the city council revised a longstanding ordinance that mandated turf grass in front yards to allow for native plants. Nguyen, who also owns a house with a fantastical yard in St. Paul, was part of the push for that change because he wanted to plant a garden that would be beneficial to the environment and pollinators.

Nguyen says he doesn’t want to break the law and instead will plant something else this year if the ordinance isn’t repealed.

“I will put down different plants as long as it doesn’t break the city ordinance,” Nguyen said. “I believe the city and I can work together, and I think this can be resolved.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.