Adam Guerrero and three kids from his neighborhood, Jovantae, Jarvis, and Shaquielle, hardly seem like lawbreakers as they turn over soil at Guerrero's Nutbush home.
But the city's code enforcement department has deemed their urban garden a nuisance, and a judge has ordered them to remove the small ecosystem they've been working on for the last two years.
According to the court summons, Guerrero, a math teacher at Raleigh-Egypt High School, was cited for violating city ordinances 48-38 and 48-87: He failed to "remove personal property" that is "unsightly" or a "nuisance," and he failed to maintain "a clean and sanitary condition free from any accumulation of rubbish or garbage."
Shelby County Environmental Court judge Larry Potter upheld the citation, ordering Guerrero to get rid of the "debris and personal property" stored outside his home and trim overgrown vegetation — including cutting down his 7-foot-tall sunflower plants.
"He said it's considered a neighborhood nuisance," says Guerrero, who is a member of the GrowMemphis board. "I asked him to define nuisance for me, and he said basically if it generates a complaint, it's a neighborhood nuisance."
Guerrero's home is certainly unique: eggplant, tomato, and pepper plants grow in the front yard; the backyard is lined with rows of wooden worm bins; barrels for collecting and storing rainwater are stationed next to his backdoor; his garage is stocked with equipment for making biodiesel and soap; and behind his garage are beehives quietly humming with industry. Elsewhere, passionflowers, butterflies, elderberry bushes, and sunflowers fill out the garden.
But with no visible trash or garbage and plants kept off the sidewalk and driveway, Guerrero doesn't understand why a judge would bring his operation to a halt.
"These are direct applications to math, biology, engineering," says Guerrero, who uses his garden as a sort of continuing education for Jovantae, Jarvis, and Shaquielle, the latter of whom is a former student of Guerrero's at Kingsbury High School. Jovantae and Jarvis attend the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE). "I'm proud to know that the students I work with are probably the only students in Memphis City Schools who know how to make their own biodiesel," Guerrero says.
With the glycerin by-product from the biodiesel, the kids have learned to make soap. They suit up in beekeeping gear and harvest honey. They fill worm bins with kitchen scraps from Central BBQ and Huey's — a contract they have with Project Greenfork — and watch as it turns into nutrient-rich soil. Guerrero and the boys have also installed solar panels at the Midtown North Community Garden.
"One aspect of the schools is teaching that every child should be college-bound but [without] teaching them any skills. The kids don't even know how to use a ruler. I'm taking a different approach and teaching them skills," says Guerrero, who has his students at Raleigh-Egypt help with the garden as well, using geometry and basic tools to help craft worm bins, beehives, and small greenhouses from recycled materials.
Jovantae, a junior at MASE, estimates that he and his friends spend three or four days at the garden when school is out and at least one day a week during the school year. They are none too pleased with the judge's decision.
"I don't understand why it's a problem if it's in the backyard," says Shaquielle, a senior at Kingsbury. "We like coming here. We don't want it to go away."
Guerrero returns to court on September 23rd to demonstrate that he has complied with the judge's orders. Last Friday evening, staring out over his backyard, Guerrero was still hesitating to dismantle the project into which he's poured so much time and energy.
Judge Potter was unable to comment as the case is still pending.