Turning lawns into gardens


Jason and Jennifer Helvenston’s front yard garden in Orlando, Floriduh

The seed catalogs have arrived, and for the roughly 15 percent of Americans who appreciate the joys and rewards of growing some of their own crops, this is a more encouraging sign than Groundhog Day or even the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training.

Yet several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando, where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables…

But when it comes to the eye of the beholder, weeds are the same thing as beauty: to a gardener, grass is a weed; a row of lettuce surrounded by dark, grassless soil a thing of beauty. To some gardeners, including me, dandelions are a crop.

The situation, then, is not black-and-white. A yard is not either unproductive and “beautiful” — as a lawn — or, as a garden, productive and “ugly.” Many of us can thrill to the look of dead stalks, and even enjoy watching them rot. This is a matter of taste, not regulation.

And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens “could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.”

Ten percent is optimistic; even 1 percent would be a terrific start, because there is a lot of lawn in this country. In fact it’s our biggest crop, three times as big as corn, according to research done using a variety of data, much of it from satellites. That’s around a trillion square feet — 50,000 square miles — and, since an average gardener can produce something like a half-pound of food per square foot (you garden 100 square feet, you produce 50 pounds of food), without getting too geeky you can imagine that Doiron’s estimates are rational.

Gardening may be private or a community activity; people garden together on common land, and most gardeners I know share the bounty freely. (In parts of England and France, people grow vegetables in their front yards and encourage their neighbors to take them.)

…I recognize that turning lawns into gardens isn’t a panacea, but I also recognize that hounding people for growing vegetables in their front yards is hardly the American way.

Florida seems to be out to achieve special leadership in the “dumb as a hoe handle” school of reactionary politics. I posted about some other stupidity earlier today. In fact, one of the blogs I contribute to has a special graphic header just to illustrate “wacky news from Florida” – originally contributed by one of our editors who lived in Florida.

Morality goon squads in Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhoods


Women’s clothing stores warned not to use mannequins – faceless heads are OK

The Brooklyn shopkeeper was already home for the night when her phone rang: a man who said he was from a neighborhood “modesty committee” was concerned that the mannequins in her store’s window, used to display women’s clothing, might inadvertently arouse passing men and boys.

“The man said, ‘Do the neighborhood a favor and take it out of the window,’ ” the store’s manager recalled. “ ‘We’re trying to safeguard our community.’ ”

In many neighborhoods, a store owner might shrug off such a call. But on Lee Avenue, the commercial spine of Hasidic Williamsburg, the warning carried an implied threat — comply with community standards or be shunned. It is a potent threat in a neighborhood where shadowy, sometimes self-appointed modesty squads use social and economic leverage to enforce conformity.

The owner wrestled with the request for a day or two, but decided to follow it. “We can sell it without mannequins, so we might as well do what the public wants,” the owner told the manager, who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals for talking.

In the close-knit world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, community members know the modesty rules…Women wear long skirts and long-sleeved, high-necked blouses on the street; men do not wear Bermuda shorts in summer. Schools prescribe the color and thickness of girls’ stockings.

The rules are spoken and unspoken, enforced by social pressure but also, in ways that some find increasingly disturbing, by the modesty committees…

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Another productive project recycling shipping containers

Yoav Messer Architects’ competition-winning “Econtainer Bridge” will become what could well be the first bridge to be made from disused shipping containers. The bridge will cross the Ayalon River granting entry to the planned Ariel Sharon Park which will transform 2,000 acres of the Hiriya waste dump into a nature reserve to the southeast of Tel Aviv.

The designers of the 160-m bridge intend the reuse of shipping containers to mirror the reuse of the land itself. After developing into a 25 million-ton mountain of waste, Hiriya was closed in 1998. In 2004, a scheme was hatched to rehabilitate the land, and prevent collapse into the Ayalon river.

…When complete, the bridge will connect Lod road from east Tel Aviv directly to Hiriya mountain at the park’s center. The bridge will carry bicycle and foot traffic, and though closed to cars, will see some form of public shuttle vehicle ferry people from car parking into Ariel Sharon Park itself.

Clearly the most notable feature of the bridge is the use of shipping containers, which the project images show being joined two-abreast and end to end with little or no horizontal reinforcement. The conceptual design does depict three vertical legs, each comprised of four uprights arranged in an inverted pyramid. The bridge is currently undergoing detail design ahead of construction, and it will be interesting to see how the scheme adapts to see off the problems posed by the real world…

The company claims that, thanks to the use of shipping containers, 70 percent of the construction work can be carried out at the factory.

So much of our old-fashioned world is rectilinear. Which covers most of what we have to use and reuse. I think shipping containers are just being discovered as a mine of components for ever-more-useful structures.