Yards to Gardens

Growing Food, Flowers, and Friendship

Earth Island Reports

Megan Schuller was in a quandary. She wanted to experience the “little bit of magic” that comes from watching seeds grow into dinner, but as an apartment dweller in Minneapolis she lacked a yard where she could garden.

Three blocks away, homeowner Aaron Landry faced the opposite dilemma – too much yard space. Landry’s multiple jobs, which often involved travel, left little time for home maintenance. The result was an overgrown, weedy mess.

Enter Yards to Gardens, a website that links prospective gardeners with yard space where they can dig in the dirt to their hearts’ content.

artwork of green pumpkins

Landry posted a notice on Y2G looking for a gardener. Within an hour, Schuller responded. The two discussed the space and the areas that would lend themselves to Schuller’s gardening goals. Fast-forward a few months, and cucumbers, sweet peppers, eggplant, purple cauliflower, beans, and a host of other vegetables were emerging from the four raised beds that Schuller built in Landry’s backyard. Landry provided the yard, water, and storage for tools. Schuller provided all the equipment, supplies, and labor – and kept all the produce.

Y2G, which is only a year and a half old and just recently became a fiscally sponsored project of Earth Island Institute, uses a Google Maps interface to facilitate hundreds of such gardening connections. Already, tens of thousands of square feet of grass across the country have been turned into vegetable and flower garden space.

The website’s co-founders, Jesse Eustis and Jonas Goslow, are delighted with the results. Co-owners of a Web development and design firm, the two had long been interested in finding ways to marry their passion for sustainable living with the potential of social media.

“The question we were asking ourselves was, ‘What if, instead of grass, all of these lawns were growing food?’” Goslow says. “It’s not just a question of cheaper, healthier food, it’s about energy resources. Grass – the mowing and watering, the fertilizers and pesticides – it’s one of the most resource-intensive things you can grow.”

The results, according to a recent Y2G survey, have been dramatic. Gardeners report getting more exercise and homeowners report more beautiful views out their windows. Homeowners and gardeners alike have lower grocery bills and improved diets. But the most interesting outcome has been the effect on individual relationships. “Typically, the Internet gets used to reach people across the world, but we’re using it so people who live a block and a half away from each other can find a common cause and goal,” Eustis says.

Y2G starts a relationship between homeowner and gardener with some basic questions: What will be planted? Who will do the work? Who will provide seeds and supplies? Will the gardener have unlimited access to the space or are some time blocks “off-limits”? Often, this modest collaboration turns into friendship.

“Aaron was really good about being open and excited – he knew at least half the benefit was going to be that his yard wasn’t going to be overgrown anymore,” Schuller says. “When I’d come over, Aaron would come out and we’d have a neighborly conversation. There was a sense of community there that I wasn’t anticipating.”

Landry agrees. “I thought of Y2G specifically as a transactional system where you exchange needs and wants – like Craigslist,” he says. “But it allowed me to connect with someone who ended up being my friend. I didn’t realize it was connecting me with people.”

artwork of green kale

Outcomes like these are what Eustis and Goslow were hoping for when they built the site. “Two human beings, meeting in real time, is unavoidable with Y2G – thank God,” Goslow says. “Y2G means less grass and more vegetables, yes, but it’s more than that. It can reinvigorate neighborhoods.”

In an earlier era, vegetable gardening was so fundamental to American life that it was considered a patriotic duty. During World Wars I and II, a huge War Department budget was devoted to producing posters, pamphlets, and other propaganda romanticizing “Victory Gardens.” The campaign helped the war effort by preventing food shortages and cultivating neighborhood morale and self-sufficiency.

Garden plots sprouted everywhere from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the White House lawn. Gardeners were provided information on how to grow, store, and preserve food using canning and drying techniques. The effort was wildly successful. By the end of WWII, American gardeners were producing 40 percent of their own fruits and vegetables.

After the wars, a mix of factors drastically reversed that number. Industrial food-production techniques were evolving quickly and government policies favored corporate agriculture’s interests. Processed and fast food became widely available. The American romance with the lawn grew, nurtured by the invention of gas-powered lawnmowers and potent new fertilizer and pesticide products from chemical weapons manufacturers in need of post-war revenue. In time, homegrown food in Americans’ diets dropped to less than 1 percent.

Now the numbers are changing again. Research from the National Gardening Association shows that, in the last few years, gardening has experienced a major resurgence. Between 2007, when the US was officially declared to be in a recession, and 2009, the number of homes growing gardens jumped 40 percent.

“This kind of opportunity is one that we haven’t seen in more than 50 years,” Eustis says. “And what’s prompting it now isn’t a War Department budget but a grassroots movement, driven not only by people’s economic insecurity, their distrust of industrial food production, and their frustration at the obesity epidemic, but by a genuine desire for a deeper connection to their food. It’s the perfect time for Y2G.”

Eustis and Goslow are searching for funding to promote the site so that more neighborhoods and cities can benefit from it. They also want to make it more user-friendly and offer a wider range of services. For example, they plan to develop a section devoted to skill sharing, where people can search for a neighborhood expert willing to pass on knowledge about specific subjects such as canning, composting, or organic lawn care. Another idea in the works is setting up a vegetable-sharing section that will let people trade or share vegetables within their community.

“Our food system is broken. Our model of food production is inhumane, unsustainable, and harmful to our bodies, but it wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Goslow says. “With Y2G, we can help give more people a relationship with food that’s fulfilling, satisfying – and sustainable.”

Learn more at www.y2g.org.

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