Gardener’s Notebook

Grow Your Garden
into a Local Food Network

By Joshua Burman Thayer | Illustrations by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Small is beautiful. Henry David Thoreau’s most famous foray into agricultural writing arose out of observing a patch of beans he had seeded outside his cabin at Walden Pond. That simple act in the 19th century is still inspiring people today, and beans are an accommodating crop to try if you are just starting out with gardening.

Delving into growing your own crops can at first be a personal, quiet, and inward journey, but it easily leads to collaboration and sharing. Start small. Imagine yourself, right there, eating a few things that grew under your own attention and efforts. Then imagine the start of something more, perhaps a project to bring people together around creating a neighborhood food network.

Take a Walk

Become a thoughtful observer like Thoreau. Amble around your neighborhood to see what’s growing well on your block. Is there a community garden thriving nearby? Is there an abandoned lot where plants are doing well in spite of neglect? Observing the conditions of flora growing around you can help you assemble a list of plants that are likely to succeed as you plan your garden. If you see a neighbor growing certain veggies successfully, take note. Start a conversation and see where it leads.

Set Goals, Document, and Share

If you’re new to gardening, or if you’re working in a new environment or want to take a new approach, setting first-year goals can help you take your ideas from head to hands. Be like Thoreau and start with beans or another easy crop like peas, culinary herbs, citrus, or pomegranate. To document, Thoreau had only paper and pen—well … plus quite a reputation as a writer and thinker. You, however, have social media to document your process. Your posts could spark a chain of encounters with others who are also turning on to local food-growing actions.

Many Hands and Many Yards Make For More Abundance

Try recruiting neighbors for a garden workday followed by an evening potluck. You can achieve a reasonable work goal while having a blast, and if it goes well, you might do the same thing next month at a different friend’s home. More sharing will naturally follow, as everyone now has a stake in each other’s food production.

By planning ahead with neighbors, you can try scaling up production on a crop like apples. If several yards host the same type of apple tree, at harvest time you could all chip in to rent a crusher and cider press from the Oak Barrel in Berkeley to process all those apples into fresh juice for sharing among families. You can then freeze the cider and enjoy it through the winter, perhaps transforming it into mulled cider to share at gatherings. Apply the same idea to growing a particular cooking tomato, like Roma or San Marzano. Plan a processing day when you meet to cook and can the sauce to enjoy at winter pasta parties.

Grow and Share in Every Season

Here in the Bay Area we get a true winter for less than 50 days, usually mid-December through mid-February. Compare this to the climate across much of North America (Thoreau’s Concord, Massachusetts, perhaps) and you’ll see that we get nearly double the opportunity for productivity. By mapping out your growing year, you can plan to harvest something delicious through every season. Growing winter crops like brassicas, kiwi, and citrus helps close the gap during the lean months of winter. Start a crop-sharing group (or see if there’s one already flourishing near your home) to share your excess produce and benefit from the bounty of other gardeners.

Enhance year-round production with a small, simple, inexpensive DIY greenhouse, where you can grow tender plants through the winter and also produce veggie starts to share with your network. I created mine using a steel carport structure covered with commercial-grade 3mil polyurethane plastic for a total of $300 (plus some sweat equity). Through social media postings, I have been able to sell my plant materials as well as barter excess produce, seeds, starts, tools, and know-how.

Sharing Spaces

In 1845, Thoreau went to live beside Walden Pond on land owned by his mentor and fellow writer/poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even today, some of us have land, while others have unmet passions for growing. For each person with a desire to tend a garden there’s a willing farmer or property owner who can’t manage all their land. Intergenerational partnerships between eager growers and farmers can connect disparate resources and lead the way to local food abundance. Turn that idea around and offer up your own backyard for food production, splitting the bounty with the people who farm it.

Find the Networking Links

Looking for links? If you go online to edibleeastbay.com and click on the Gardeners Resources menu, you’ll find an ever-filling treasure chest of information specific to this article, such as crop-sharing groups, urban farms where you can volunteer and learn, worm sources, soil-testing services, and much more.

Grow and Save Some Painted Ponies

Join your East Bay neighbors in a new gardening project where you’ll grow beans and learn to save seeds. One Seed, One Community is a group-grow and seed-share campaign with big ambitions: to distribute and collectively grow 25,000 Painted Pony variety bush-type beans, which can be enjoyed fresh or dried for pantry storage.

Don’t know how to save seeds? The organizing group, East Bay Local Seeds, is setting up networking activities and classes so you can learn. As a participant, you’ll help preserve local seed diversity by drying and returning saved seeds to share in your neighborhood and region.

Painted Pony beans are best planted by the end of June. Number of days to harvest for fresh snap beans is 60, and for dry beans (ideal for soups) it’s 80. Pick up your seeds at seed-lending libraries in Alameda, El Cerrito, Fremont, Hayward, Oakland, Richmond, and San Leandro, as well as at Berkeley’s Ecology Center. Find the link to more info on the Gardeners Resources page. ♦

Joshua Burman Thayer is a permaculture designer and educator. He writes a monthly “Gardener’s Notebook” for the Edible East Bay newsletter in addition to the magazine’s regular gardening column. He has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find Josh and his work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.

Publisher, editor, and designer Cheryl Angelina Koehler founded Edible East Bay in 2005 in conjunction with Edible Communities founders Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian. Her writing has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Lonely Planet publications, and on KQED radio. She is the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published by University of Nevada Press in 2007. Reach her at editor(at)edibleeastbay.com