rake and shovel - garden sharing

Local, organic food might be the most environmentally sustainable option in terms of feeding the planet, but for many people it means either paying more than they can afford for it or trying to raise a garden with little time or talent for that enterprise. For those who live in big cities it can be challenging, if not impossible, to find the space, and for those who have the space it can often be difficult to produce anything if they don’t have the expertise.

It all seems a bit of a waste. Here they are, actual people who love gardening—even the weeding and all the crappy jobs —but because outdated aristocratic concepts of landownership that limit people’s ability to grow food still govern much of western society, they can’t practice their passion.

Conversely, there are time-pressed, brown-thumbed sub/urbanites with wicked lawns just sitting there doing nothing but growing grass. Nobody needs that much grass. It’s not 18th century France anymore.

Enter garden sharing. It’s an initiative that’s becoming more and more widespread in cities across North America and Europe. Smaller countries around the globe are likewise looking into its potential as a means of feeding urban populations. The concept is simple: garden sharing connects people who want to garden with other people who have actual or potential garden space. A landowner can post an ad on a garden or yard sharing website offering to let somebody else farm part of their property in exchange for some of the sweet, sweet fruits and veggies it produces.

The kinds of partnerships are incredibly wide-ranging and depend on the needs of the gardener and the landowner. In most cases, agreements are reached between individuals, or a group of individuals, who decide what percentage of the year’s crop will be allotted to each party. They also divvy up the work and decide who will pay for the cost of the necessary supplies. Contracts can be written or oral, simple or detailed. Landowners can be as hands on or off as they like, but often report becoming more interested in the process as they watch the former scrapheap of neglect that was their yard become a workable agricultural wonder.

Arrangements between individuals and institutions aren’t unheard of, either, which opens up possibilities for a lot more people to collaboratively farm larger spaces. Schools, churches and community groups in a number of cities have used garden or yard sharing programs to grow food for their members.

Garden sharing has spiked in popularity as an alternative to community gardens or allotments. In fact, some of the earliest yard sharing initiatives were created directly in response to problems facing community gardens. Like garden sharing, community gardens and allotments are parcels of land farmed individually by people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to grow their own food. With the increasing cost of food in the past few years, however, these spaces have had a hard time keeping up with demand, and wait lists for allotments in England, for example, top 100,000 people. There can also be membership fees that might not apply in a private arrangement, since private arrangements are overwhelmingly free.

The process is also pretty simple. To get started, visit a garden sharing website (such as Landshare, Sharing Backyards, or Hyperlocavore) and click on your city to see who’s looking for a plot and who has a plot to share. You can post your own plot/desire to garden and wait for responses, too. Most sites won’t match owners and gardeners together, but will privately provide contact information. Sites like Hyperlocavore offer education, tips and advice to novice growers, as well as a hub for growers to network and share ideas. Some even facilitate tool and seed sharing.

It’s recommended that owners and gardeners interview each other to make sure their needs can both be met by the arrangement. Since the idea is to form a stable partnership with someone you wouldn’t mind nominally spending some time with, finding out enough about that person that you feel comfortable going to their backyard/having them in your backyard is a good way forward. If the other person doesn’t mesh with you, or just plain seems a little murdery, you can always back out.

Although a brainchild of the current recession, the implications of these projects are more than just financial. Their popularity suggests that people are seeing a need to transform urban lawns from decorative to functional spaces that many people can enjoy. They represent a turn away from the solipsism of the private property system and towards a greater realization that sharing a thing, even if it’s the biggest thing you own (i.e. your property), doesn’t diminish its value. Sharing a yard might not close the giant gap between the haves and have nots, but at least it demonstrates that collaboration between the two is not just possible, but mutually beneficial. And also potentially tasty.

image: anolobb (Creative Commons BY)