How yard-sharing can help feed communities

When Rhonda Teitel-Payne first got involved with yard-sharing programs in 2009, she wasn’t sure whether Torontonians would want total strangers digging around in their backyards—but as it turns out, they did. In fact, Teitel-Payne, who is co-coordinator for Toronto Urban Growers, has watched the yard-sharing movement grow exponentially. “It’s a great way to form connections in your community,” she says. “I’ve seen amazing relationships develop, and there are people who have maintained their gardening friendships for years.”

Yard-sharing pairs urban home-owners with landless gardeners to mutual benefit: people who may not have the time or energy to grow their own vegetables offer part of their property to someone who does, and share in the harvest. There are now waiting lists full of people looking for patches of ground to sow in the city, but it’s not a phenomenon restricted to residential backyards—community gardens are springing up outside apartment buildings, restaurants and other businesses. “Container gardens on pavement work beautifully,” Teitel-Payne says. “Often people grow things they can’t find in stores, or that would normally be imported, or expensive. It’s an opportunity to grow things that mean something to you.”

The arrangement benefits homeowners and green thumbs alike; many split the bounty half and half, while others join programs, such as Not Far From the Tree, that donate a portion to food banks, community kitchens and shelters. A few years ago, Sonam, who came to Canada from Tibet, learned about The Stop Community Food Centre while attending ESL classes and became involved in the organization’s yard-sharing program. One small garden blossomed into three, and eventually she launched her own business, making momos (Tibetan dumplings) from the produce in her gardens and selling them at local farmers’ markets. “I can’t see her now without her giving me food,” Teitel-Payne laughs.

For a yard-sharing program to succeed, Teitel-Payne recommends both property owner and would-be gardener put an agreement on paper that covers things like how the space will be used and what will happen to the produce. Homeowners should find out what kind of growing experience their gardener has, and should outline whether there are any time restrictions when it comes to accessing the space. Then, there are garden-specific things to consider, such as soil quality, light and availability of water. When starting out, Teitel-Payne suggests planting greens, peas and beans, which are easiest to grow, then branching out from there. “Experiment with small amounts of a bunch of different things,” she says. “Keep going with what works and try a few new things every time.”

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