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One Woman's Quest To Get Back Her Vegetable Garden Results In New Florida Law


A new law went into effect in Florida this week. It says local ordinances can't prohibit residents from planting vegetable gardens. And if that sounds pretty specific for a state law, that's because it was inspired by one woman's pursuit of the freedom to cultivate. NPR's Laurel Walmsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Hermine Ricketts lives in south Florida, and she loves to eat the food she grows. She showed NPR around the garden in front of her house in Miami Shores a few years ago.


HERMINE RICKETTS: This is a peach tree that I put in, and around it, I had kale, Chinese cabbage and I also had yellow Swiss chard.

WAMSLEY: Ricketts is 63, and she's a retired architect. Her garden was architectural, too, mixing flowers, fruits and vegetables in a curving design where the only grass was the pathways through it. That is, until one day in 2013.

RICKETTS: A code inspector came into my garden that I've had for over 17 years and told me I had to remove my vegetables.

WAMSLEY: It turns out that the village had made a rule that vegetable gardens are permitted in rear yards only, meaning that her front yard garden wasn't allowed. The inspector told her she'd be fined $50 a day until she removed the vegetables. But Ricketts looked out at her garden and she wanted to know what exactly counted as a vegetable. She pressed village officials for a list of what she couldn't grow, but they wouldn't tell her.

RICKETTS: I pointed out to them that I could go outside the front door of their village hall and pick the flowers from a hibiscus tree and eat the flower. So they have edible plants in their front yard. But they ignore that. They figured the only thing that was edible is what they could find in a supermarket.

WAMSLEY: She took her issue to the village board where her vegetables got a grilling.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have vegetables?

RICKETTS: Yes. I have vegetables.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. Are you cultivating these vegetables?

WAMSLEY: Ricketts had no choice but to uproot her garden. She also reached out to Institute for Justice, a group that fights for property rights among other libertarian causes.

ARI BARGIL: It simply makes no sense to ban somebody from growing vegetables on their own property.

WAMSLEY: Ari Bargil is the attorney who took on Ricketts' case. He filed a lawsuit against Miami Shores to strike down the vegetable ban as unconstitutional, arguing that it was arbitrary and irrational.

BARGIL: Bear in mind, the village allowed people to grow fruit, flowers. You could have garden gnomes. You could have pretty much anything under the sun in your front yard in Miami Shores except vegetables.

WAMSLEY: But they lost in appeals court, and the state Supreme Court wouldn't take up the case. By then, Ricketts' vegetable patch was famous, and a couple of Republican state legislators took up her cause, introducing a bill that would pre-empt any local bans on vegetable gardens on residents' properties. The bill passed with bipartisan support, but not everyone is happy. Scott Dudley is legislative director at the Florida League of Cities, which opposed the bill.

SCOTT DUDLEY: It's a local decision. It's not something that should be decided by the legislature.

WAMSLEY: He says that more and more when legislators don't like something in one city, they move to pre-empt it at the state level.

DUDLEY: The local community knows what they want the character of that community to look like. And they may not want cornfields in your front yard.

WAMSLEY: Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law six years after this veggie tale began. Ricketts had won, but time has been hard on her health, and she uses a wheelchair now. So this week, friends helped her plant a new garden. They put in peppers, tomatoes, squash and okra. Ricketts says her hope is that more people will plant vegetables instead of grass.

RICKETTS: And if they don't have enough sunlight or space in their backyard, they can consider using their front yard.

WAMSLEY: Now in Miami Shores, they can. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OL' DIRTY BASTARD'S "SHIMMY SHIMMY YA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.