A new community project is providing gardening space to people without a yard. Sharing Backyards matches yard owners with potential gardeners.
With spring on the horizon, gardeners are planning for their 2013 harvest, checking seed catalogues, turning over compost, examining garden tools, and fantasizing about future tasty tomatoes. However, as cities become more urbanized, gardening space is harder to come by. A community project—Sharing Backyards—is stepping up to help fill the gap.
Gardening close to home
To meet an increasing need for inner-city garden space, Sharing Backyards (sharingbackyards.com) took root because of long waiting lists for community garden plots. In communities across Canada, homeowners are teaming up with gardeners to share green space, knowledge, muscle, and enthusiasm.
The project’s inspirational leader, Christopher Hawkins spreads his motivational message to potential gardeners: “You can garden! If you don’t have a garden, grow one. If you think you’re bad with gardening, grow one. If you are concerned about your future in the city, grow a garden. If you don’t trust your government, grow a garden. If you feel insecure, grow a garden. There are so many things that gardening is good for!”
A devoted gardener, in between his job as a website developer, Hawkins has grown everything from luscious grapes to practical beans and fragrant roses. He fervently understands the gardener’s passion, emphasizing how Sharing Backyards allows green-thumbed urban dwellers to garden close to their own home. Receiving over 1,000 website hits per month, Sharing Backyards facilitates the creation of hundreds of gardens across North America, including about 400 in Canada.
An online bulletin board and matchmaking service for gardening enthusiasts, Sharing Backyards connects people who want to grow their own food. Through a website map, homeowners and potential gardeners register, each placing a free ad communicating their respective needs. Potential matches can then meet and determine their own suitability and arrangements to garden share.
It is an easy, confidential way for landowners and gardeners to meet up, and, if compatible, establish conditions for use of the space, time allocations, tools, costs, and sharing of produce. Some matches may even draw up a simple gardening contract.
A wide cross-section of people is signing on, including condo and apartment dwellers, young families, professional couples, seniors, single-parent families, singles, and students.
A bountiful Toronto match
Toronto’s urban core can be a difficult place in which to find suitable sunny growing space. When he moved to Toronto, Andrew MacPherson says, “I didn’t have a sunny spot to do gardening.” Fortunately, he found Melissa Jacot through the Sharing Backyards program.
“We both contributed tools,” says MacPherson. “Melissa joined in the watering and together we shared the produce. The only money exchange was in the first year that involved amendments to the space, as it was a lawn that needed to be cleared, dug, and, enriched.”
Peas, kale, four tomato varieties, garlic, basil, onions, and banana peppers were part of their abundant crop. They both appreciated the fresh produce. After transforming the yard, they even expanded the growing space after year one. Homeowner Jacot often comments on “the great joy of looking out upon the beautiful growth.”
Their main challenges were their respective busy lifestyles and the need for regular watering, particularly during the extra dry summer of 2012. Some neighbourhood raccoons also enjoyed the delicious vegetables, necessitating preventive deterrents. Chicken wire may be needed! Otherwise, this successful horticultural match flowed smoothly and didn’t require a written contract.
A Vancouver backyard thrives
Homeowner Mary Natchel operated a daycare for 30 years in Vancouver—including a backyard children’s playground. After retiring and seeing her grandchildren grown up, Natchel says, “My backyard is a very large lot. Now that there won’t be children playing in it, I wanted to make use of my yard in a different way.”
She matched up with a local minister and his family who garden her property. “The corn grew taller than me!” she explains. Potatoes, squash, tomatoes, beets, and corn were their main crops. Natchel particularly appreciated the garden’s garlic, and even volunteered to help with watering. The family brings their own tools and stores them in her garage. A productive partnership has been created.
A burgeoning Halifax garden
Mary Ellen Sullivan has been sharing Sylvia Mangalam’s yard for two years. “We have a fine working relationship and friendship, along with the joy of growing plants together,” says Sullivan. Their common interests include volunteering for the Food Action Committee of Nova Scotia’s Ecology Action Centre. In a recent email between the two, Sylvia writes: “Next time, don’t forget to take some kale. It is burgeoning all over the place. Had some last night mashed with potatoes, onion, and garlic …”
Homeowners joining the Sharing Backyards network express many reasons for participating. They have busy lives without the time, energy, or resources to maintain a large yard. Some report their property is all grass and they want to convert it to vegetables, but they don’t have the gardening experience to make the transition. Outside expertise is welcomed. Owners desire a yard that looks lived-in and weed free to beautify their neighbourhood. Seniors with health limitations restricting their gardening ability see it as a way to remain residing in their own homes.
Potential gardeners sign up because their living situation offers little or no yard or a location with minimal sun. Access to fresh, organic produce for a family by growing their own food is another motivator. Newcomers to a neighbourhood report that garden sharing can be a great way to meet new people. Some are also inspired to contribute part of their harvest to feed the hungry.
People are planting in backyards, front yards, side yards, raised beds, containers—anywhere that has sun exposure. Sharing Backyards has grown from three Canadian communities in 2008 to 40 communities in 2012. Major urban centres such as Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax have attracted the most interest, although even smaller communities such as Cranbrook and Thunder Bay participate. Cities in the US and New Zealand are also listed.
As part of Victoria’s LifeCycles Society, this project was originally created by Linda Geggie, with website and customized mapping designed by Patrick Hayes. In each local community the site is often facilitated by a sponsor agency. For example, in Toronto the eco-gardening group Growing for Green monitors the site.
Organizers hope to spread the word and further expand the concept globally. Mainly volunteer-run, the project appreciates help in communicating its message. In 2013 the organizers aim to upgrade the site with additional features, therefore welcoming contributions and charitable tax donations from individuals and businesses.
Garden sharing checklist
Questions to consider when searching for a gardening match:
- Scheduling: which days and what time can the garden be accessed?
- Supplies: what tools and storage will be needed?
- Soil: will the soil require improvements, and are there any compost facilities?
- Planting: are there any restrictions on what plants can be seeded?
- Water: is there access to water, and are there any costs for water and space?
- Harvesting: who will pick the crops, and how will it be shared?
- Security: who is permitted entry to the garden, and is it secure?
- Facilities: is there bathroom access?