By Nat West
I live in urban Portland Oregon on an average-sized city lot of 5000 square feet. That's 50 feet by 100 feet. My house takes up almost 1000 square feet, my garage another 750 square feet or so, and an always-shaded driveway about another 500. Throw in a grand old cedar tree on the southern neighbor's property, a nice deck to relax on during summer months, and I find myself happy to have squeezed in about 250 square feet of raised beds.
Now 250 square feet of good dirt produces a heck of a lot of zucchinis, cherry tomatoes, peas and lettuce, provided I plant intensively. But I'm one of the lucky ones because of the orientation of my property, the placement of the house on it, and the surrounding neighbors' structures and trees. Some of the properties on my block could not grow anything more than a few tomatoes in pots, no matter how much grass they gave up.
After a few years of growing on 250 square feet, I decided it was time to expand. I never had the room for voluminous crops like cabbage, winter squash, pumpkins or corn. And I would frequently prune my yellow crookneck squash to a single vine. I've even tried trellising beans, peas and tomatoes, but once I decided to seriously grow food for my family, not just pretty summer fruits, I simply had to expand.
So I did what most urban gardeners do when they find themselves in a similar situation. I found the closest community garden owned by the city and put my name on a waiting list 18 months long.
After mulling it over for a bit, I realized that an "18 month waiting list" is worse than a "twenty minute wait" at a swanky restaurant. The maître d' has no real idea how long it will take to get me seated. She's just guessing that table 22 will get up soon. But unlike eating a meal, gardening never "ends". After all, why would it? There's no forced-eviction after a couple years so everyone gets a chance. You can rent a plot forever, or even sublet it like rent-controlled apartments in New York. The likelihood of getting a plot is even slimmer since, in recent years, many home garden seed suppliers are selling more than they've ever sold before. Those seeds have to go somewhere, and I haven't notice people razing houses and chopping down trees in my neighborhood.
I concluded that I could not wait for a community garden space to open up. I had to find my own garden space.
The first thing I did was to think about my neighbors' yards. Some of my neighbors had patches of relatively unkempt grass. Would they mind if I killed the grass, tilled the dirt and planted vegetables? I would have to share some produce, but they also get out of mowing. And of course I would have to use their water for irrigation. I figured it wouldn't be too hard to put together three or four small parcels, each about the size of my own garden at home.
But as I thought about the daily effort and workload of managing multiple plots, and dealing with multiple people, I realized that it might turn into a lot of work very quickly. What if a neighbor cut me off in mid-season? Or what if a neighbor ate everything, thinking they were entitled? How many sets of hoes, shovels and wheelbarrows would I need to buy? I realized that these issues would have to be dealt with no matter what, but it was in my best interest to have the fewest number of plots as possible. Which meant that I needed to “go big” - find the largest contiguous plots I could.
Other than riding my bike around the neighborhood and keeping my eyes peeled while on walks, I used Google Maps’ satellite view, in high magnification. Starting at my house, I made concentric circles, searching block by block for empty lots or very large back yards. Using this strategy, I was able to quickly identify a number of potential sites that I would not have found had I been searching on foot.
Now that I had a list of nearby large yards and empty lots, I used Portland Maps, an online database of property records. Navigating through the maps, I was able to find the name and address of the owner of each property. The same information could have been found using public records at the county courthouse, but I saved an immense amount of time. In some cases, I also cross-referenced them in the phone book since the address on file with the county is oftentimes not a current address, especially in the case of empty lot owners.
I planned to contact them in person if I could not find the mailing information for a particular lot. I sent an introductory letter to the landowners, explaining who I was, where I lived, and what I wanted to do on their land. I got one response, for a full empty lot directly across the street from my house. 5000 square feet of flat, full-sun dirt, absolutely perfect.
The landowner had recently received a nuisance complaint from the city about the buildup of refuse on the lot. She was elated that I would clean up the lot and turn it into a garden. In exchange for the use of the land, I am providing her with approximately one CSA share of produce for 16 weeks. We drew up an agreement, and she promises to give me as much advance notice as possible should she decide to sell. She also offered me a lot four times the size of this one, about 20 blocks away, which I hope to use next year.
Eventually I came to the realization that my new lot is much better than a community garden plot. I did not have to wait 18 months, or for that matter, 18 years for a small plot. I pay no rent for my 5000 square feet, but I would have to pay rent for a fraction of that size in a community garden. Also, I get to manage crop rotations, soil amending, and pest management holistically.
Community plot gardeners have to either work together or more often than not, grow weaker crops beset by pests because they are surrounded by crops grown using different practices, oftentimes on depleted soils. Working to encourage more collectivism of community gardens would solve some of these problems, but why wait? I’m sure there are usable, empty lots around your neighborhood.
For another ingenious approach, read about Murray Hill Row-by-Row, an urban CSA started by a school teacher in Annapolis, Maryland, who got 22 neighbors to share their back yards to grow food. And for even more stories about how the food system is changing, check out "Fight Back Friday."