Structures, Tools, and Resources

Growing food takes more than seeds and soil. It takes tools, space, water, and knowledge of what’s available and allowed in the City.

This section looks at structures, tools and resources such as what events, workshops, services, and organizations are available to help you; where to find tools and resources to fit your needs and budget, and current applicable ordinances in Des Moines.

Greenhouses, Sheds and other Accessory Buildings Back to Top

It's a fact of life, Iowa has winters during which many foods cannot be grown. To extend the growing season, temporary and permanent structures can be useful to start growing food in early spring or continue into late fall. Greenhouses are often permanent structures with a solid floor or foundation. Hoophouses tend to be more seasonal and temporary with dirt floors for direct sowing of crops.

Other structures you may want to use include pens and buildings for animals, storage buildings for tools, structures for shade, rainwater capture systems, and compost bins or containers.

When it comes to regulation, the Des Moines Zoning Code doesn't specifically refer to greenhouses or hoophouses. Currently, any permanent non-residential building on an individual lot would be regulated as an accessory building and built to the appropriate standard for snow load and wind resistance.

Current Regulations as of August 2021Back to Top

Rules regarding greenhouses, sheds and accessory buildings are covered in the City of Des Moines municipal code. Chapter 26 addresses buildings and building regulations, and Chapter 135 addresses planning and zoning regulations. Read the code


Sec. 26-302. — Building permit exemptions.

(a) A building permit shall not be required for the following:
  1. One-story detached accessory buildings tool or storage sheds, playhouses, pet shelters, and similar uses constructed in accordance with the International Residential Code, provided the floor area does not exceed 120 square feet in area and complies with all applicable zoning requirements located at least two feet from any property line and three feet from any dwelling.
  2. Chain link or wire fences four feet or less in height and all other fences three feet or less in height.

Sec. 135-2.22.1. — Accessory Structures

D. General Development Standards
All accessory structures shall fulfill the following development standards unless otherwise stated:
  1. Yard: Accessory structures shall be located in the side and rear yards unless located within the P1 district.
  2. Parking Spaces: Accessory structures shall not be located upon required parking spaces.
  3. Setback: Accessory structures shall comply with the following setbacks.
    1. Front and Corner Lot Lines. Accessory structures shall not extend closer to the front or corner lot line than the principal structure.
    2. Side and Rear Lot Lines. Minimum setback of an accessory structure shall be five feet.
    3. When a principal structure is not required in association with a P1 district, an accessory structure shall be set back from all lot lines a minimum of 10 feet.
    4. All walls of an accessory structure must be separated from any walls of a primary structure on the same lot, and from any walls of any other accessory structure on the same lot, by the greater of the minimum distance required by chapters 26 and 46 of this code or three feet, to ensure maintenance of all exterior surfaces of the primary and accessory structure(s).
  4. Impervious Area. All accessory structures with roofs contribute to maximum building coverage, and all other structures or impervious paving contribute to the maximum impervious area for the site.
  5. Height. The maximum height is 17 feet, except where a higher different height is otherwise expressly permitted or required.
  6. Roof Type. Roof type should match that of the principal structure when the accessory structure is greater than 300 square feet. Refer to the roof type requirements of the associated building type.
  7. Materials. Materials shall match those of the principal structure when the accessory structure is greater than 300 square feet. Refer to the building material requirements of the associated building type.
  8. Maintenance. Accessory structures shall be designed and constructed to ensure that the long-term maintenance of the accessory structure itself, and of the primary structure on the same lot and of all other accessory structure(s) on the same lot, will not be diminished or impaired due to the location or design of the accessory structure.

Sec. 135-2.22.2. — Accessory Buildings

Accessory buildings shall be fully enclosed, unless otherwise stated. The following are classified as accessory buildings:
  1. Outbuilding and Detached Garage. A fully enclosed building on a lot that is detached from the principal structure on the same lot … including detached garages, pool houses, workshops, barns or sheds.
  2. Side & rear setback. Minimum side and rear setback of an outbuilding shall be 5 feet.
    1. Residential Districts. The lot coverage of all accessory structures… shall not exceed 576 sq. ft or 25% of the rear yard … on a lot zoned Neighborhood (N) or Neighborhood Mix (NM).

Sec. 135-2.22.3. — Accessory Outdoor Paving and Structures

Accessory buildings shall be fully enclosed, unless otherwise stated. The following are classified as accessory buildings:
  1. Gazebo. A freestanding, roofed structure with open sides.
    1. Setback. Must be set back at least 15 feet from front and street-side lot lines.

Buildings for Animals

Sec. 18-7. — Construction and cleaning of buildings for housing animals on acreage.

  1. Any building or part thereof used for housing animals ... shall be well ventilated, and its walls, floors and ceilings shall be tight and of such material ... that they may be readily washed, disinfected and painted.
  2. All enclosed yards, barns, sheds, or other structures used to house animals as permitted under this article shall be maintained clean, free from manure, insects and offensive odors at all times.
(C42, § 42-4; C54, C62, § 5-8; C75, C79, § 7-7; O.9828; C91, § 7-7; O.11,730, 13,011) Cross reference— Buildings and building regulations, ch. 26.

Sec. 18-137. — Enclosures.

Any enclosure, pen, coop, or hutch in which pets are maintained:
  • shall be cleaned at a minimum of every other day
  • shall be located at a minimum of 25 feet from a neighboring dwelling
  • No animal may be enclosed or fenced in the front yard.
(C91, § 7-54; O.11,730, 15,819)


Fencing in urban farming serves multiple purposes:

  • Keep animals out (dogs, deer, rabbits) or keep animals in (poultry, goats, small livestock)
    • Consideration: Bury fence at least 6 inches deep to keep rabbits and other animals from digging under fence.
  • Can be used to define a space
  • Useful for privacy and/or hiding unsightly areas from public view

While fencing is optional for residential uses, a perimeter fence is mandatory for community gardens (see section 134-3.7(G) of Des Moines building code).

Here's a summary of what the zoning regulations include regarding fencing:

  • Allowed? - Yes, fencing is allowed in all residential districts
  • Permit - Not required for chain link and wire fences less than four feet in height or all other fences under three feet in height. (See Des Moines Building Code Sec. 26-302)
  • Location - Up to any property line with some exceptions
  • Height - In general, max is 6ft, with some exceptions, in side and rear yards. Max height is 3ft in front yards.
  • Material - Most types ok. Barbed wire, concertina, and electric wire is only allowed for agricultural animals.
  • Chain link and types used for penning animals are not allowed in the front yard (animals cannot be fenced in front yard re: Ch 18).

Sec. 135-7.11.1. — Fence and Wall Requirements

  • Intent. To reduce the negative impacts of fences and protect the economic and aesthetic values within the City.
  • Applicability. The following applies to all fencing in any district.
  • Sight Clearance at Intersections. Any fence or wall shall conform to the vision clearance triangle and clear zone requirements of the City Engineer.
  • Permit Required. No fence shall be erected until a permit has been approved from the building official except the following.

Sec. 135-7.11.2. — Location and Placement

  • Front Yards. Fences in any zoning district may be constructed in a front yard up to a front property line. No solid fence may be located in any front yard in the NX or N districts, or on any property used for residential purposes.
  • Side Yards. Fences in any zoning district may be constructed in a side yard up to a side property line.
  • Rear Yards. Fences in any zoning district may be constructed in a rear yard up to a rear property line.
  • Face Direction. All fences shall be erected with the “good,” “decorative” or “finished” side facing outward.

Sec. 135-7.11.3. — Height

  • Front Yards. No Fence more than three feet high shall be constructed in any front yard in any district except fencing required for buffers …
  • Side, Street-side and Rear Yards.
    • In I1, I2 and Cx districts - eight feet …
    • All other districts - six feet, except for: fences required for frontage buffers; or where interior side yard in an N district is less than five feet in width (the max height of the fence is four feet when adjacent to a primary structure); or rear yards in N districts where the lot abuts any MX, CX, EX or I district, (the max height of the fence is eight feet)

Sec. 135-7.11.4. — Types and Materials

  1. No fence shall be constructed of barbed wire, concertina wire, razor wire or ribbon, except in districts I for the confinement of agricultural animals
  2. No fence shall be electrified unless … used to confine agricultural animals …
  3. Chain link and wire fencing is prohibited in any front yard, except for sports fields and playgrounds
  4. Chain Link fencing used in an N district developed as a large scale development shall have black vinyl-cladding.

Sec. 26-302. — Building permit exemptions

A building permit shall not be required for the following:
  1. Chain link or wire fences four feet or less in height and all other fences three feet or less in height

For residential fencing that exceeds three feet in height, or chain link and wire fencing that exceed four feet, a permit is required from the City. A copy of the required form can be found here. Once filled out and signed, the form can be emailed to

Any use designated as a community garden must have a fenced perimeter (134-3.7(G))


As Iowa’s climate continues to change, the trend is projected for wet springs and dry summers with intermittent intensive storms in between. To keep your garden produce alive during the summer, it may be necessary to water on a regular basis.

During dry periods, pay attention and follow any recommendations from Des Moines Water Works on when and how to water your property. There may be restrictions as to how much and how often you can water.

In general the City asks you follow the Des Moines Water Works “Use Water Wisely” Recommendations:

  • No irrigating on Mondays
  • Even numbered addresses (Ex: 120 Main Street) should water on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m.
  • Odd numbered addresses (Ex: 123 Main Street) should water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m.
  • No irrigating during the hottest part of the day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
  • Ensure outdoor garden hoses and spigots do not have leaks, and water is not left running when not in immediate use

Additionally, deep watering encourages deeper and stronger root growth. Therefore, watering gardens about 2 inches (5 cm.) or so once a week is preferable. Watering more often, but less deep, only leads to weaker root growth and evaporation. Watering during the daytime can also lead to the sun burning leaves with water drops on them.

Watering technology that most people are familiar with includes sprinklers that can remain in place and often rotate or swivel to cover a swath of your garden for a period of time. They come in a variety of styles and costs and can be easily found at a neighborhood hardware or lawn & garden store. They may come with a timer or you may have to set your own. The advantage is you can put it in place and walk away. One can also water with hoses and a spray nozzle, the drawback being someone needs to take the time to stand and spray the garden for a length of time. For small pocket gardens, a watering can can be a sufficient tool for watering specific plants individually. You will probably want all of these tools at different times during the growing seasons.

Drip Irrigation

For the Urban Gardener who is farming a large plot of ground, drip irrigation is a good way to use water wisely. Drip irrigation hoses lay on the garden and have small holes throughout that allow the water to drip directly into the ground, eliminating overspray and evaporation to a large extent, and getting the water directly to the roots of your plants. If your intent is to farm a large area of ground, investing in drip irrigation, though pricey up front, can save you in water costs in the long run and worth the upfront cost of investment.

Drip irrigation hoses can be purchased at most Lawn and Garden shops, neighborhood hardware stores and online.

Rainwater Collection Systems

One way to save on water costs is to create a Rainwater Collection System. This can be done with the purchase of one or more rain barrels connected to a property’s gutter system. There was a time when below-ground cistern systems were popular, though it is rare to see them implemented these days. If you’re working on a property that doesn’t have any buildings or water access, creating a shelter for worker shade that has a gutter and rain barrel system may be an option too.

The City encourages rainwater collection as part of a Stormwater Best Management Practices program called The Rain Campaign in an effort to reduce stormwater runoff and erosion from entering our streams and drinking water system. The City will reimburse property owners 50% of the total cost of their project, up to a limit of $2000, provided the project and property owner meet the requirements of the program. Learn more about the City of Des Moines Stormwater Subsidy Program (rain barrel cost share).

Water access – Hydrant meter

When alternate sources of water supply are not available, Des Moines Water Works issues hydrant meters to qualified contractors or civic organizations. Meters are issued for a specified time period not to exceed eight months. All hydrant meters issues shall be used only at the location specified on the application and may not be moved without permission from DMWW.

  • Available to Civic and community organizations
  • $670 deposit; refundable
  • Needs to be self installed
  • $30.00 mo/plus use

There is a limited supply of hydrant meters, and they are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. City, County, and State projects are given higher priority. For more information see, visit Waterworks Hydrant Meter Rental (for civic organizations).

Sec. 135-2.22.4. — Accessory Utility Structures

  1. Cistern and Rainwater Collection System
    1. A rainwater collection system is exempted from inclusion in the site impervious area calculation.
    2. Below ground systems may be located in any yard.
Additional Resources

Learning ResourcesBack to Top

OpportunitiesBack to Top

Community Gardens

Des Moines Parks and Recreation manages three community gardens. We understand the value and need for neighbors to grow and harvest their own produce and encourage gardeners of all backgrounds and skill levels to come garden with us! Learn more about community gardens at Des Moines Parks & Recreation.


Habitat for Humanity's ReStore provides pre-owned and discounted supplies and building materials that you can buy and rent.

FAQ Back to Top

What tools are needed to grow food?

Starting seeds

  • Cold frames - an outdoor starter box that can be made from recycled wood and old storm windows (See How to Construct a Cold Frame or Hotbed - ISU Extension)
  • Grow lights and bulbs, or a sunny, south facing window area
  • Planting trays and cells (egg cartons, milk cartons, recycled soup cans can also work for this)
  • Seeds (order online or purchase at local garden centers/hardware stores/grocery stores)
  • Seed starter soil and/or potting soil
  • Watering cans


  • Cages for tomatoes, peppers, etc.
  • Cardboard, garden cloth and/or old black plastic sheeting for weed control, solarization, etc.
  • Chicken wire for fencing (mostly for pest control)
  • Hand tillers, trowels, dandelion diggers
  • Hoes, rakes (garden and leaf)
  • Hoops (small for row covers, large if creating a hoophouse)
  • Hoses, and spray attachments or sprinkler
  • Mulch (purchase at garden store or use lawn clippings)
  • Pitchforks
  • Pots
  • Rain barrel
  • Raised beds - lumber, hardware, cover cloth or cardboard to suppress weeds
  • Row cover, sheets, blankets, netting
  • Shovel
  • Soil Testing kit
  • Spade
  • Stakes - various sizes garden stakes, fencepost, etc.
  • String, twine
  • Tree wrap and tether
  • Trellises
  • Wheelbarrow, carts