Is the future of our food security as close as our own backyard? Alas, it’s not that simple, because “wicked problems”, like rebuilding local food systems, never are. But our backyards have a vital role to play.
Years ago, when I saw a documentary about how Cuba survived being cut off from its oil supply after the fall of the Soviet Union (“The Power of Community,” 2006) I started to understand how essential it was to reinvent how we grow food. Everything about our current global food supply depends on oil — the petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, the scale which requires gas-powered machines, and of course the transportation of food from distant lands. When Cuba was cut off from oil overnight they began a grassroots food-growing effort that continues to inspire me.
When our country went into lockdown this spring, and it was clear that many more in our communities would be food insecure, people started talking about “victory gardens.” This was successful in the 1940s, when the government encouraged planting food gardens at residences and in public parks, which eventually provided 40 percent of the nation’s produce.
The moment was ripe for an effort I’d been thinking about for years. I’d watched and supported other efforts to start public and private food gardens. When I met a master gardener at a regional local food summit who explained to me the volunteer hours she had to fulfill to meet the requirements of the CSU Extension program, a light went on.
I had experimented with a backyard garden before, but I never felt like I knew what I was doing. I was winging it. And it never produced enough to make me feel like it was worth all the time, effort and water.
But what if it were possible to match folks who wanted to start backyard gardens with a master gardener who would be their personal mentor for a whole growing season? And what if it were possible to get those folks compost, topsoil and other materials that would make starting a garden easier?
With that kind of support new gardeners would know where to put their garden, how to prepare the soil, how to set up irrigation, how to do “companion planting”, how to deal with pests and disease, etc. With all of this support a new gardener could create a highly productive garden — maybe productive enough to have extra produce to share with our local food pantries.
All of this did happen this summer — and the Home Food Garden Project was a beautiful bright spot in an otherwise very challenging summer. Through a partnership of the Roaring Fork Food Alliance, CSU Extension Master Gardener Program, and UpRoot Colorado, this beautiful vision came to life through 20 gardens started from Rifle to Aspen.
As I’ve spoken with some of the gardeners who participated, it sounds like it was truly empowering for them too. There’s nothing like watching things grow. There’s nothing like that first home-grown kale salad, or tasting that first tomato or cucumber. And if you end up with more than you can use, there’s nothing like sharing what you’ve grown with those who really need it.
Like with any multi-institutional collaboration, this year was about starting to build relationships and organizational infrastructure. It was about being patient with not being able to serve everyone the way you may have hoped. But it was mostly about trusting that it’s possible to put existing resources together in creative ways to meet community needs — and it was extraordinary.
I got pretty excited about the project and with my family started four new garden plots, so I could experience and test the program first-hand. Since I don’t have a backyard, two of them are at the Demeter Garden, the community garden at the Third Street Center in Carbondale, where lots of the gardeners were already growing extra food for the nearby LIFT-UP food pantry.
With the help of my Master Gardener mentor, our gardens have been so productive that I am often overwhelmed with the amount of vegetables they keep producing. But what I love most is the village I see in my garden — the gallons of tomatoes that have come from the 15 starts donated by a friend, the huge squash jungle from Wild Mountain Seeds starts, the gorgeous broccoli grown from Zephyros starts, and the marigolds that line my beds from a friend’s seeds whose flowers I always admired.
The next step is to continue to hone the program over the winter, so that next year we are able to reach more people who want to start gardens. Hopefully we will be expanding into more counties to continue to test the program and make sure it works to house it institutionally within CSU Extension. This could be a big victory for an effective backyard garden movement — one that will build greater connection, health and resiliency in our communities.
One small step into the backyard, one big leap for our future.