At 27, Kelly Gaspar was in tune with the zeitgeist. She was thinking about what she eats, where her food comes from, and how to get closer to the source of her own food -- by growing it herself. But her condo in Minneapolis' Kenwood neighborhood didn't have any yard space, so in February she looked into a community garden plot. ¶ Too late. The spaces were all taken. So she resigned herself to a couple of patio tomatoes. ¶ Claudia Dengler, a 20-year gardening veteran, grows vegetables, rhubarb, strawberries and grapes in her Linden Hills yard. But this year, out-of-town commitments will keep her from her beloved gardens. With her kids grown, she considered paying someone to tend her garden, but that didn't feel right either. ¶ The two just needed a gardening yenta to bring them together; they found it in the Yards to Gardens website. The site, at www.y2g.org, links people with spare acreage with those eager to start digging. ¶ It's a brilliantly simple design, with welcoming graphics by co-founder Jesse Eustis. It uses icons representing soil seekers and soil providers on a Google map, and visitors can search by category, or enter address or ZIP code for an overview.
This is the site's first full gardening season, and Eustis says postings have mushroomed from 15 in March to more than 100 as of late May. For the moment the Twin Cities remains the hub of activity, but Eustis and co-founder Jonas Goslow hope to see it spread to other cities. Chicago has about a dozen listings, and the pair is in discussions with San Francisco's mayor about urban agriculture, so the site may get a foothold there as well. Eustis even reports one far-flung listing from Thailand.
Because the site is still at the "beta" stage, Dengler admits she had her doubts, but within 24 hours, Gaspar responded
"I just told her I wanted to learn the ropes," Gaspar says. "We started e-mailing, she sent me photos of her gardens, and we talked about how she works. Then we met for coffee. I was a little worried; I didn't want to be a burden, but she told me, 'You're not; I want to pass along my knowledge.' Three hours later, we were working together."
The pair took advantage of the early spring and planted in early April. They've made planned outings together to garden stores, as well as more casual get-togethers. "Sometimes Claudia will just call me up and say, 'Why don't you come over and cut some peonies?' '' Gaspar says happily.
Footprint, food production
Brooke Dierkhising, 40, a Longfellow homeowner, and Alex Strachota, 23, an apartment dweller in Seward, shared philosophical goals along with their practical relationship. Strachota, an agro-ecology grad student, "had a little garden space, but big ambitions," including planting the "three sisters" of permaculture -- corn, beans and squash -- which require a lot of space.
But, says Strachota, "my reason for doing this is not just to produce as much as I can. It's about learning from other people. I think gardening is so much about cultural wisdom, which can't be expressed in charts and graphs or even a book."
Dierkhising and her husband want to live more simply and set a good example for their 4-year-old daughter. Both she and Strachota are seeking ways not only to shrink their individual environmental footprints, but possibly others' as well. Spurred in part by movies like "Food Inc." and the writings of Michael Pollan, they harbor dreams of creating a new model of small, hyper-local food production, perhaps at some point setting up a micro-CSA (community-supported agriculture), a more affordable, often lower-carbon alternative to the traditional models.
Eustis is happy to see the site linking neighbor to neighbor. He sees it as a 21st-century bridge-builder. People feel comfortable making initial connections on the Internet; but now, instead of knocking on your neighbor's door to borrow a cup of sugar, "it's like knocking on the [virtual] door and asking if you can garden their lawn."
To strengthen that community-building aim, a revamp of the site is in the works, Eustis says, to help move the site from one-time use linking gardeners to a community hub. They have plans to add categories, including an event icon and one for container and rooftop gardening, which may come in handy for Goslow, an actor and Web designer who has moved to New York since the site launched.
They'd also like to find a way for people to post their gardens as a map icon, as a path to "micro food economies," where neighbors can trade tomatoes for cukes, for example, or, as Dierkhising and Strachota envision, develop a micro-CSA.
They're still working on the details, says Eustis, but "we want to create a tool that's flexible so people can change it and use it how they want. It might become useful in ways we can't even anticipate."
Judy Arginteanu is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.