Backyard Buds: Pairing the Landless With Those With Soil to Share

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By Christina Ianzito
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 19, 2009

What do you do if you've been fired up about getting down in the dirt and growing your own food but live in a tiny apartment? Meanwhile, there are hundreds -- thousands! -- of great back yards across Washington growing nothing but grass.

That has been the frustration for friends Alexandra Goldschmidt and Esmeralda Stuk, fans of eating locally and organically who are eager to create their own urban gardens. To help others like them, the D.C. residents are coordinating Sharing Backyards DC (http://www.dc.sharingbackyards.com), a project to match would-be gardeners with those who have untended land they're willing to share.

Stuk, 23 and an economist with the Treasury Department, lives with two roommates in a Bloomingdale rowhouse whose back yard is a paved parking spot. Goldschmidt, 25, a communications associate at a nonprofit organization, lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Dupont Circle. She has plastic planters tied with rope atop her tiny balcony's railing that bear a few brown stems poking up forlornly. They're the remnants of a modified herb garden that didn't do so well because, Goldschmidt says, "I think there was not enough sun." Inside is a large pot with a few shriveled sprigs of mint that she rescued from the balcony.

"There's still no replacement for being able to grow things in the ground," Goldschmidt says, bemoaning the fact that the nearby West End community garden has a waiting list of 40 would-be gardeners pining for one of a dozen rarely relinquished lots.

A few months ago, Stuk was cruising the Internet for solutions to her landlessness and discovered Sharing Backyards (http://www.sharingbackyards.com). The Canada-based site was created about two years ago as an answer to overbooked community gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. Creator Patrick Hayes, 27, a green economist and geo-mapping whiz, calls it "basically just a brilliant idea that couldn't go left untouched."

Sharing Backyards connects users who have offered or asked for garden space by submitting their location, an explanatory note and an e-mail address. A user's spot on the map is marked by an image of a fuzzy clump of grass (signifying "I am sharing my yard") or a pair of binoculars ("I am looking for space").

The ground rules need to be hammered out between the space sharers, though the matchmaking site does offer a list of talking points, such as "Do you have tools to share?" "Who will harvest the food?" and "What types of [soil] amendments or additives are acceptable?"

The project, run through an environmental organization called LifeCycles, has no budget to speak of, but Hayes and his roommate, Christopher Hawkins, 28, who volunteers as the project manager, hope the concept is simple and useful enough to take off "in every city in North America," Hawkins says. The mapping tool can be used anywhere, though the project requires local partners like Stuk and Goldschmidt to take the reins and promote it. There are now a handful of offshoots including busy programs in Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., and a fledgling site in Cleveland. Stuk and Goldschmidt worked with the Canadian coordinators to spearhead the Washington version.

The D.C. site started off slowly but in the past few weeks has had a burst of postings from Fairfax to Greenbelt, though most are clustered in Northwest Washington.

They include space offered by Ross Margulies, 24, whose house in Petworth, bought in the fall, has a back yard that's a sad-looking rectangle of dirt and weeds. A researcher by day and law student by night, he's too busy to do the work himself, he says, but thinks leaving it unproductive "is a waste." He read about the site on a local blog and since posting last month has received two notes of interest, one from a woman who wrote that she's "craving some green in my life." He responded that the yard is "in need of some love," but she has yet to follow up with him so they can set up a meeting.

The initial meeting is important, Stuk says, because the potential partners need to agree on logistical details, such as how much of what's grown will be shared, how often and at what time of day the garden will be tended, and whether the yard owner would like to take part in the gardening.

"I'm imagining that the person who [offers the space] would be like, 'I don't really mind watering the garden when I come home from work,' " Stuk says. "Then you wouldn't really have to be there every day. But that's one of those discussions that one would have." Some homeowners' postings propose a basic plan. One example: "[I] have a small piece of land in my townhouse backyard that I would be happy to let someone else cultivate for a share of the 'profits.' We can split the costs for seeds, plants, fertilizer, etc."

A few of the postings seeking land have been from either Stuk ("I'm looking for anything more than my little porch. I'd be happy to share whatever I grow.") or Goldschmidt ("I'd be interested in any plot of dirt anywhere close to here!"). Stuk has yet to get a response, and Goldschmidt received two responses to her post, which she has since taken down. She decided that as a site administrator she should pass the offers to others: "Space is a scarce resource, and I didn't want to be greedy."

Still, the two are nothing if not determined. Last summer they attempted some so-called guerrilla gardening, planting radishes, carrots and squash in an empty lot, but they gave up when they heard the area might have been sprayed with rat poison. Goldschmidt appropriated a sliver of the land surrounding her apartment building to plant basil, which flourished, and a pumpkin plant, which yielded one small dark-green fruit. A handyman uprooted the sunflowers she was trying to grow.

She plans to plant in the same spot this spring, and Stuk has a friend renting a house in Arlington who has invited them to farm his entire back yard. In the meantime, they're hoping for even more postings on the site, spreading the word through gardening e-mail lists and a recent visit to the Dupont Circle FreshFarm market, where they found plenty of yardless shoppers. Goldschmidt says: "I asked one woman, 'Hey, do you garden?' And she said, 'I wish I gardened, but I don't have space.' It's a real barrier."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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