Sara Burke was afraid the lovingly tended and productive English garden at the Palm Avenue home she shares with husband, William, was in trouble.
“This was a lifelong dream,” Burke said of the variety of plant growth that fills the yard in their Dean Park Historic District home. She grew up in the Adelaide area of south Australia in the 1980s and ’90s learning the ins and outs of traditional English gardening.
A notice recently taped to their door notified the couple of a pending hearing in May before the Code Enforcement Board of Fort Myers brought about by an anonymous neighbor’s complaint and resultant code violations. The violations pointed to the content and makeup of raised growing beds on the property, items said to be blocking a sidewalk and wood in a backyard area.
Dean Park is a quaint and eclectic mix of homes and homeowners near downtown Fort Myers that gives off vibes of a bygone era. The tree-lined streets filled with homes, some a century old, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
But a thorny vine seeded by modern rules and regulations nearly wended its way here.
The Burkes have lived in the two-story, cottage-looking abode since 2016, transforming what was a simple, Florida-grass lawn into Sara Burke’s traditional English garden.
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The property sports several raised beds — some with wood borders, some without — growing a plethora of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, including sugar cane, bananas, papayas, tomatoes, dill, mangoes, avocados, nasturtiums, collards, okra, radishes, leeks, aloe vera, figs, grapes, rosemary, oregano and more.
Almost all of the produce is used by the couple for daily sustenance.
Some of what the Burkes practice is called hugelkultur, a centuries-old method found in many Eastern European countries which uses raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. The practice results in low-maintenance gardening not needing irrigation or fertilization with naturally good drainage and producing fertile, moist soil.
Dr. Kendalynn A. Morris, and adjunct professor in FGCU’s Department of Ecology and Environmental Studies, promotes gardening such as the Burkes’ practice specifically because Southern Florida has particularly challenging growing conditions; sandy soil, extremes of wet and dry.
“The sheet composting being used at 1576 Palm Avenue is exactly in line with the recommendations of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Florida Friendly landscapes,” Morris said. “The moisture holding properties of the compost helps sustain plants through the dry season, and acts as a source of nutrients. This reduces the need to fertilize and water, which prevents excess nutrients from entering local waterways. Nutrient run-off leads to eutrophication and can contribute to harmful algal blooms, so you can understand why IFAS is promoting practices to reduce these negative externalities.”
The Dean Park community does not have a homeowners association with its own rules and regulations. Activities in Dean Park are regulated by the ordinances of Fort Myers and the laws of Florida.
But not everyone in historic Dean Park agreed with the propriety of such property growth.
“The whole thing started in November with a citizen complaint,” Will Burke said.
In six years one neighbor complained.
According to the code violation description (filed Nov. 29, 2021, and mailed on Jan. 27): “Property is a mess, compost piles, high grass, the sidewalks here are almost impassable, also they have some sort of planter near the sidewalk.”
The Burkes, facing a fine of up to $250 per day, said they complied with the outlined code enforcement issues to the best of their abilities.
The sidewalk (there is one, right in front of the address) is clear and passable and the planter has been removed.
The couple said they were willing to appear at the hearing.
“We’ll plead our case,” Will Burke said Monday. “Then get a ruling.”
But, in a 180-degree change of heart by the city, that will be unnecessary.
Code officer Casey White, who signed the original violation order, sent the Burkes an email that heralded ”good news.”
“Due to lack of regulatory clarity in regard to gardening, organic gardening materials, and compost, the City is now in agreement with you and views your gardening practices as composting,” White emailed. “The raised beds of compost that are along the easement and in the front of the house are now in compliance.”
The only remaining violation, White said, was a large pile of branches, loose pieces of tree trunk, and tree pieces in the rear of the property along the fence line.
“Hurricane season for the State of Florida begins soon-June 1,” White said in her email. “Please understand these sections and pieces of tree material could be picked up by wind during stormy weather and create a safety hazard. Once removed I will be able to close your case.”
The questioned area is at the far back of the property and consisted of lumber used to repair parts of the siding on the 100-year-old house as well as bits and pieces of limbs and branches.
After an inspection by White, another code enforcement officer, and Code Enforcement Manager Mark Campbell at the Burke’s home April 28, some suggestions were made to the couple for complying, which they did, and another cursory inspection was made.
An email sent Tuesday settled the entire question:
“Thank you for letting us know about the work done to the rear garden bed,” White wrote. “I drove by the property and took new pictures. It appears you are now in compliance and your case will be closed. Your case is being removed from the Code Board proceedings and you will no longer need to appear due to compliance.”
Sara Burke, who suffers from a connective tissue affliction and other health issues that make bending down or kneeling for long periods almost impossible, said the raised beds help her with gardening.
“I’m out here all the time,” she said. “Watering, weeding, harvesting things.”
The garden is productive, there is no odor, except for the fragrance of whatever is blooming, and it attracts the constant buzzing traffic of pollinating honeybees.
Sara Burke, who is on the board of the Florida Wildflower Foundation and acts as the organization’s director of communications, said the code violation notice was a shock.
“I have had so many positive conversations with people in Dean Park,” she said, adding that people taking part in the regular walking tours of the district often remark about the Burke’s garden.
“The real shock to me was that one of our neighbors felt that way,” she said. The couple noted that no one approached them and complained or raised an issue.
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The couple has been relatively violation-free since moving in. The only other citations came in 2017 for a very large tree that needed trimming and in 2018 after a fence repair made in Hurricane Irma’s wake came undone.
Both violations were fixed and the cases closed according to city code records.
The couple had been beside themselves especially since they believe in natural gardening methods and don’t rely on pesticides and fertilizers.
“We have to look at selling and leaving the city if they say we cannot garden,” Will Burke said in an earlier Facebook posting about the issue.
While the case was active, the Australian native produced a “fact sheet” with copies available in a case by the front raised beds and on Will Burke’s Facebook page.
The sheet cites some of the city’s complaints, the Burkes’ answers and also cites Senate Bill 82, passed in 2019, which prohibits a county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties.
Sara Burke concedes that SB82 also gives the city leeway in that regard.
“Unfortunately, the law includes a broad carve-out that allows crackdowns to continue so long as they cite any other reason,” she said on the fact sheet. “Like garden beds containing high organic matter content meeting the definition under code of a ‘large compost pile.’”
But the turn of events allowed the Burkes a relieving, deep breath.
“Nobody should go through having their food garden taken away and the city needs to hear from people who love gardening, not just those who like to complain about it,” Sara Burke said.