Melissa Gopp-Warner is a creative nonfiction writer living in Northeast Florida. Her articles and personal essays have appeared in Yoga Journal, The Writer, Jacksonville Mom, Uncomfortable Revolution, and (a) river rising: Anthology of Women’s Voices, among others. An excerpt of her memoir in progress was included in the JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival. She was also among the top 15% of entrants in the international 2021 First Pages Prize, judged by Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Outside of writing, she can be found growing food, raising humans, and adventuring with her life partner. Follow her on social media @melissagopp and online at her author website MelissaGopp.com.
We Can’t Eat Grass
by Melissa Gopp-Warner
We didn’t mean to cause a stir. All we wanted was a home, close to the beach, close to the kids’ school, with character and a yard. For months, my partner and I looked at property after property, but nothing seemed right. One day we visited a wreck of a house owned by the bank in Ponte Vedra Beach. I was the first to shimmy my way inside through the sliding glass door. Doubt reigned as I worked my way deeper into the bowels of the house. Ductwork spilled from a hole in the ceiling. Mold clung to the walls. But rounding a corner, my gaze drifted to a vaulted ceiling above a spiral staircase loft. Sun poured through skylights over a wide-open kitchen. I hurried my partner inside. We’d never seen anything like it. Between the architecture and a yard three-times the size of the house itself, we were sold. Three months later, the house was ours. We knew what we were getting into. The area wasn’t known as a haven for middle-income liberals. Golf courses, GOP signs and gated communities with neighbor-run homeowner’s associations (HOAs) dotted the fancy seaside suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. But we decided that an affordable house a mile from the beach with enough land for gardening and play was worth some compromise. At first, the neighbors seemed genuinely pleased to have us there. On our visit to show the kids what we’d bought, people rolled down their car windows to thank us for taking on the eyesore of the neighborhood. When my partner walked into his first HOA meeting and announced himself as the new owner of home 104, cheers erupted. They even asked him to run for secretary. As far as they were concerned, anything we decided to do would be an improvement. After Hurricane Matthew knocked a tree through the roof in 2016, the property had sat vacant for two years, and it showed. Philodendrons clogged the downspouts. Viburnum covered the windows. Scraps of blue tarp hung like confetti from overgrown shrubs. The only thing partially maintained was a lawn of weeds. The front would need to be resodded, the HOA informed us, but there was no need to rush. We had more important matters to attend to. They didn’t know yet, but our vision was to transform the land into a yard with purpose. Everything would be edible or usable in some way. Ornamental shrubs and Mexican petunias would be ousted in favor of fruit trees and garden boxes filled with vegetables and herbs. After that first HOA meeting, we hired a general contractor to make the inside livable, replaced the dilapidated fence, and got to work overhauling the backyard. Our long-term goal: transform two years of unchecked growth into a suburban food forest. * Unsure of where to start, my partner and I stood in the backyard, surveying the property. Nine pine trees towered over flower beds blanketed in thick layers of vines. We couldn’t predict how many weekends we’d spend caked in dirt, our limbs scratched and bruised. All we knew was we had to start somewhere. No stranger to hard work, I picked up my shears and garden gloves. My partner followed, and together, we started to pull. The first few strands came easily, but the meat of the job called for arms extended, heels pushed into the ground, and bodyweight thrown back as if hauling a truck from the center of the earth. Our first pile of overgrowth was waist-high and three body-lengths wide. Beneath the clearing, we uncovered a rotting bench and a wax myrtle tree with branches arching in a long-distance stretch for the sun. The pines were too risky to keep so close to the house. They had to go. But because we saw beauty, the wax myrtle stayed. Once it recovered, it would make a shaded play area for the kids. I cleared the ground beneath the tree and spread a layer of mulch leftover from the pines. My partner dug a trench, framing the space with wood beams from an old rotting deck. The kids rolled stumps into a line of ascending steps, and the oldest built a bench from cinder blocks and planks. For decoration, we sprinkled painted rocks and shells we found buried in the yard. We can do hard things, I painted on one rock, and on the next, You grow, girl. It took us a few months to tackle the thorniest mound of weeds. A perpetual swarm of wasps and bees guarded the bramble. I feared a wild animal might be living inside. But the day we grabbed our first fistfuls of stems, the thrill of the pull took hold. As a pile of refuse built up behind us, our sense of achievement grew. Five minutes into the frenzy, a faint, sweet scent stopped me mid-reach. “Do you smell that?” I stepped back, then leaned in. “Almost like magnolia.” My partner pulled hard, exposing a branch punching up toward the sky. Sparse green leaves and a lone white blossom clung to its gnarled bark. “Citrus,” he said. I took another whiff. “I think you’re right.” We worked faster, ripping off vines like ribbons on presents until we uncovered our find. What we’d later identify as a Key lime tree stood chest high and quite alive. Its limbs criss-crossed and stretched to the left, reaching for the sun. We marveled at its perseverance, its audacity to bloom despite near strangulation. Within the privacy of our new white fence, our budding food forest began to thrive. Blossoms deflated, then ballooned into Key limes. Red wriggler worms tilled the garden boxes we built from the remains of the deck. Compost and mineral-rich azomite fed the crops. Spring carrots, kale, and radishes gave way to tomatoes, eggplant, and melons of summer. Milkweed and echinacea grown from seed lured monarchs and zebra longwings to the yard. Bees went nuts for the purple-pillared Thai basil flowers transplanted from my mother’s garden. Hummingbirds sipped from leftover canna lilies, tall and crimson red. The occasional black racer munched on toads. Bald eagles nested in the remaining pine trees beyond our fence. It was almost enough to make me forget the HOA’s mandate to resod the front yard. * Once we’d actually moved into the house, we’d been given a 90-day deadline. We never expected to get approval to remove the front lawn. In a community of mostly older, wealthy conservatives, we were the outliers. Still, the thought of planting grass pained me. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with grasses like centipede and zoysia. They could absorb carbon dioxide, filter stormwater runoff, and help reduce erosion. But keeping any grass in line with both the HOA’s standards and our environmental values would be impossible. Without the use of herbicides, it would only be a matter of time before weeds took over the grass. In the backyard, weeds had their seasons. Clover dominated winter. Dollar weed owned summer. Both were green, healthy for the soil, and welcome behind the fence, where they couldn’t be seen. In front of the fence, suburbia ruled. I’d lived under the purview of an HOA before. They’re great for ensuring people clean up after their pets and don’t turn their front lawns into junkyards for unwanted vehicles. But God forbid someone paint their trim the wrong shade of beige or change the stain on their back deck. There’s a reason Americans have a love-hate relationship with their HOAs. No matter how friendly everybody seemed, I knew. Weeds would lead to HOA fines and mandates to resod, on penalty of risking a lien on our house for failure to comply. As climate-conscious people living in Ponte Vedra Beach, we had to come up with an alternative to grass. * More than a decade into her own food forest project, my mother stood in our front yard drawing lines in the air with her finger. She traced imaginary rocks and mulched beds as I sketched her design in pencil. With the help of a local nursery, my partner and I filled in the details and submitted our plan to the HOA. A week later, my eyes widened when my partner, now the secretary of the HOA, gave me the news: They approved. “We got approval!” we assured each person who parked in front of our house and stared. The kids danced as a truckload of gravel arrived in the driveway. A mound of dirt followed. A Bobcat earthmover arrived next in the shadow of our sago palms, an overgrown azalea, a moss-covered crepe myrtle, and one sabal palm. Utter destruction ensued. My partner looked like he was playing a video game as he scooped up piles of turf and uprooted the biggest sago, its leaves dusty white with an incurable case of plant herpes. When the azalea came up, a short, fat stump with alien-like vines emerged from inside. After he deposited the rootball in the dumpster, a glass lizard hurled itself over the side and back into the yard. We’d ruined his home, his tiny ecosystem disrupted by our well-intentioned plans. On the third day, we admitted we were in over our heads. We recruited two helpers, an old friend and the next door neighbor’s lawn person. Together, we persisted. Over the next few days, we revived the irrigation system and installed a mostly edible landscape. Front yard vegetables were forbidden, but the HOA’s landscape rules failed to mention herbs and fruit trees. With the board’s blessing, we planted avocado, pomegranate, fig, and satsuma trees. A U-shaped path of gravel cut through mulched beds of rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, strawberries, and beautyberry. On the seventh day, we finished. Our skin was smeared with sweat and dirt. My partner and I posed for a picture in front of the beautyberry under the remaining sabal palm, framed by a semicircle of baby herbs. Next to leftover mounds of dirt and rock, we each held shovels with straight faces and mimicked American Gothic. Later that evening, I posted the photo on social media. “We installed an edible landscape in Ponte Vedra Beach,” I wrote. We were living our values out loud, out front. We were proud. * We were making a difference. By fall, people started following our lead. With each afternoon stroll through the neighborhood, it seemed a new fruit tree appeared in another front yard, the frame of a new vegetable garden just visible from somebody else’s side lawn, or fresh gravel where a patch of grass once lived. Not everyone followed the HOA’s landscaping rules to the letter, but most had good intentions. At each board meeting, they held our yard up as the way to do it right, a prime example of a well-maintained, Florida-friendly landscape. That winter, a few weeks after new HOA board members took office, a notification burst our utopian bubble. Our gravel path was a problem and would have to be removed. Shocked by the sudden communication, my partner contacted other board members, trying to understand. After months of being praised at meetings, the general consensus had changed. Not everyone was happy with the new look, and suddenly our whole yard seemed in jeopardy. The flowering ground-cover of perennial peanut and sunshine mimosa looked too weed-like. Some people thought the new look brought property values down. Most yards in the neighborhood had less than five varieties of plants. Ours had too much diversity. The anonymous naysayers wanted it to be fuller and lusher through winter. Nobody said a word about Ponte Vedra Beach’s community of naked crepe myrtles. With their bare branches cut short in the yearly landscaping phenomenon known as crepe murder, they were somehow exempt from the full and lush standard. The HOA had us hooked on a technicality—something about our gravel and the end of the road, a minuscule variation from our approved plan. If we left the yard the way it was, with a strip of mulch between the gravel path and the road, the HOA would issue a citation. If we modified the yard to comply with our original plan, with the gravel path meeting the curb between our yard and the road, we would be in violation of county regulations that governed the number of driveways allowed, whether they were intended for use by vehicles or not. The only way forward was to submit new front yard plans and hope for approval from the new board. Time after time, our submissions were denied. After each one, the HOA would insist on another modification. Incorporate more green. Pull up more gravel. In favor of keeping the peace, we’d cringe, swallow our pride, and comply. Then they’d make another demand. With each turn of the cycle, the stakes rose. The plans crept further and further away from our values. They consulted their attorney. We consulted ours. While my partner lost sleep, I dug in my heels. When friends got mad on our behalf, I felt vindicated. Florida-friendly statute was clearly on our side, or so I thought. “They won’t approve our new plans unless we plant grass,” my partner said when the final ruling on our submission came in. I sat motionless on the couch and tried not to cry. The money, the sweat, our principles were all for naught. “They can’t do that,” I said. “The law says they can’t make us plant grass.” My partner sat down beside me. “Babe, it’s not worth the fight. Let’s just move on.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This from the man I so admired, who wanted a career in corporate sustainability and spent his free time volunteering at cleanups. “Don’t you get it?” My voice pitched high. “If we can’t have an environmentally responsible yard with all our motivation and resources, who can?” He sighed. “In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? We’re one yard.” I rolled my eyes and launched into the numbers. Taken as a whole, American lawns are biodiversity wastelands that, according to a NASA satellite study, cover 49,000 square miles of ground. That’s an area almost as large as Greece. Imagine the volume of fertilizer, herbicides, and fossil fuels needed to maintain a lawn the size of an entire country. Now consider the barriers to change: HOA regulations, social pressure to conform, unrealistic standards of beauty, money to implement plans, and funds to defend them in court. If we couldn’t transform one yard within the confines of one HOA, in the context of one state’s environmental legislation, how could anyone else? “You’re right,” my partner conceded. “I’ll try submitting again.” * After spring break, the kids never went back to school. The COVID-19 pandemic launched into full swing, and my partner resigned from the board. The wax myrtle died. Weeds reclaimed the play space. Partly out of panic from empty grocery shelves and partly from needing time to myself, I headed to the backyard to pull fistfuls of weeds from the ground. The night before, I dreamt government tanks drove over the fence and destroyed my garden boxes. I needed more boxes. I had to take up more space, produce more food, and harness my growing anxiety. A month into the pandemic, a handful of neighbors met at the four-way stop, a makeshift location for a board meeting that couldn’t wait. We could see them from our loft window, pointing and yelling at each other. We knew why. Too many homeowners were ripping up grass and planting fruit trees. In a housing development marked by manicured lawns and crepe myrtles, this was problematic. As the HOA furiously revised their landscape rules to prevent future situations like ours, other neighbors took to planting fruit trees and dumping gravel over scorched patches of grass. In one yard, a rogue vegetable box peeked out from a privacy fence meant to hide trash cans and recycle bins. I tried to be nice. My partner was fresh off a year of service to the HOA and was relying on the full force of his negotiation skills. When people stopped to compliment us on the yard, I did my best to not reveal our full drama. When a car slowed and snapped pictures, I refrained from sticking my middle finger out the front door. Eventually, we reached a compromise. In lieu of grass, the HOA accepted our proposal of Asiatic jasmine. The non-flowering ground cover isn’t native to Florida, but it requires less water and less mowing than grass. We agreed to replace a third of our gravel path with Asiatic jasmine. They allowed us to keep our fruit trees and most of our herbs. Our yard was the last exception to the new landscaping rules, which were voted into being at the four-way stop. No more fruit trees. No more herbs. At least not this year. It wasn’t the black and white victory we wanted. Like nature, our change was messy, with forces at work beyond our control. Still, we felt accomplished. We’d dared to take up space and accept responsibility for our own lot. Today, we’re minding our business and living an example of what a new normal could look like. The play space in the back has evolved into a permaculture experiment. The wax myrtle left its roots to decompose in the ground. Paths of recycled bricks, stone, and wood wind through herbs, flowers, beans, and seasonal crops. Hay covers the earth where I’m establishing perennials like yarrow, sweet potato, and flowering ground-covers transplanted from the front yard. The kids have their own garden spaces, where they’re learning about weeds and how nature hates a vacuum. Behind the white fence, I’m letting nature do the work. I’m smothering grass and vines with compost and cardboard, weighing them down with sturdy rocks to enforce the boundary between what I want and don’t want. If all goes as planned, I’ll have fertile, bare ground in a few more weeks, just in time for the cool-weather garden and another round of HOA elections. The new board members, if they care to look, will see that our front yard has evolved into a grudgingly acceptable version of suburban living. But it’s not really me. Behind the white fence—that’s where I really live.