The media image of the vegetable gardener is the typical suburban house in beautiful surroundings with plenty of space to grow things. In reality, many people who want to grow their own food don’t have a large back garden or convenient access to a plot of land. Particularly in cities, living in a shared house or an apartment can mean that there is only room for a few pots of salad by the back door. So what do you do if you want to grow more food but don’t have the space? One option that is becoming increasingly popular is the idea of sharing someone else’s garden or backyard.
The idea is simple: in any built-up area there are plenty of people who for one reason or another do not want to use the space in their gardens or who are unable to manage them. People who are often away from their home can’t commit to the regular maintenance a garden would require. Likewise the elderly or those with disabilities may long for their garden to be used but are not able to physically tend it themselves. So why not match these gardens to people who need more space?
For the gardener as well as finding somewhere to cultivate this immediately solves another common problem – how far you must travel to get to the vegetable patch. Gardens need a lot of regular attention and it is much easier to spend 20 minutes on plants which are only a few streets away than it is to travel a few miles to the nearest rentable land. It doesn’t have to be close to home: some people find garden space in places they have to regularly travel to or on the route back from work.
For the owner, this kind of partnership also brings many benefits. Rather than asking for rent, the produce is usually split between them so they get fresh fruit and vegetables from their garden area for free. Having the garden looked after is always a bonus and for many people the fact that they don’t need to employ a professional to look after it is a significant saving. Plus for those who are unable to get out it can be rewarding to have neighbours (perhaps with their children) visit to garden.
Several schemes have emerged to enable this kind of garden sharing. Matching people to plots is the tricky bit – there are plenty of people seeking land but usually less offers of gardens to work. I think this is largely because it is a relatively new concept: many people are asking where they can find land but few home-owners are aware of shared garden schemes as a way to meet their needs. There are also the legal implications to consider: if the gardener injures themselves or the owner is not happy with how the garden is kept, what is to be done? Tenancy agreements and insurance may seem to be unnecessarily bureaucratic but they may be preferable to having the relationship turn sour because conditions were not carefully spelled out at the start.
In the UK, a few local services to match gardeners to gardens have been running for several years. Landfit was one of the first in the London Borough of Lewisham, although this is now being passed to the Capital Growth project. Due to launch soon is a national scheme called Land Share which is being endorsed by TV station Channel 4 with celebrity chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Details are a little sketchy at the moment but already more than 30,000 people have registered on the site. If you want a more formal approach then Home Grown UK is offering a tenancy agreement, newsletter and support service for an annual subscription.
In North America, Sharing Backyards has a great website which allows you to search a Google map of your area to see who is looking for or offering backyard garden space. Significantly they aim to work with local partners where possible so it is a great place to find out what is being organized in your area. Taking an even wider picture is Bright Neighbor, currently available in Portland, Oregon, which is a complete community-sharing and enabling site that includes garden sharing and has plans to launch across many cities.
Shared gardens have a great future and I believe they will become more and more important in urban areas where people want to grow their own food but don’t have access to enough land. They are only part of the picture of course – there is a real need for politicians and property developers to make space for local garden areas, rather like the ‘Dig for Victory’ gardens of the second world war era or the over-subscribed allotments in Britain. Schools, community groups and even some hospitals are making great steps towards getting people gardening and taken together, this community approach can be seen as preparation for a more sustainable food system. Shared gardens offer better use of land, better connection with neighbours and better healthy food – surely a winning combination!