By Stephanie Paige Ogburn
As the general economic malaise coincides with impending spring fever, recession gardening has come into vogue. Stories of record-high seed sales pepper the news, along with musings about modern-day Victory Gardens saving people money on produce sales.
I’ve been gardening — most recently in Colorado — for a few years, and while I’m not so sure gardening is a de-facto money-saving activity, growing food and flowers is a passion of mine. This season, I’ve just transplanted myself to Oakland, California, where, along with my new housemates, I find myself in the interesting position of starting a garden from scratch.
Along with being the new kid on the block, I’m also a member of the job-seeking class crowding the Bay Area’s verdant streets, so I’ve got some constraints on creating my garden. Meaning, I’ve got a budget of approximately zero money but a relatively unlimited supply of time, coupled with a strong desire to explore and meet people in my new home. With this in mind, I’ve determined to create a raised-bed backyard garden in the little corner of Oakland that has recently become my home, using materials almost entirely scavenged and gifted from the urban environment.
I’m typically a member of the thrift network; in rural Colorado, where I lived for the past two years, if I needed a wheelbarrow, a truck, or a ladder, I would ask my neighbor. I knew where to find cheap excess straw for mulch and which local mills produced lumber leftovers.
In this new city, I don’t yet know my neighbors, and there are probably fewer local sources of straw, but through plumbing the depths of my region’s online community, I've discovered a thriving barter and gift economy in this urban setting. I’ve joined the Berkeley and Oakland Freecycle lists, posting my needs to the group, and I haunt the virtual "Free" box on Craigslist using the search terms “plants,” and “garden.” Through these methods, I’ve found wood for building raised beds, plant starts, soil on offer, and a variety of garden tools — all for free, as long as I’m willing to pick them up.
Carting around the objects I’ve scavenged from the East Bay landscape, I’ve been testing the spatial limits of my tiny 1990 Honda Civic hatchback. Thus far, I’ve wrestled a set of planks (for raised beds) longer than the span of my car into the Civic; they nudged my shifter on one end, making it difficult to enter third gear, and stuck out my hatch on the other, so I very carefully crept back across town, going no faster than 25 miles per hour. The Civic has also recently transported a large, heavier-than-expected old metal wheelbarrow, on loan from a lovely woman who helped me wriggle the thing out of her narrow backyard gate; 24 surprisingly bulky pieces of old redwood fencing, given to me by a sweet Freecycler who also tuned me in to an Oakland seed swap; and a saw, rake, and shovels from Oakland's public tool-lending library.
My bike has come in handy for smaller hauls. I’ve carted recently-thinned nasturtiums (photo, right: an edible and prolific flower here in the Bay Area) and Shasta daisy plants home in my backpack while biking, casting an extraordinarily viney shadow as I cranked up Berkeley’s darkening streets one night last week. I found these plants for free on Craigslist – their owners set them out in boxes and announced the location in their online classified, a treasure on offer to all those on-the-prowl gardeners willing to stop by and pick up the plants. The Shasta daisies, leftovers from the Temescal community garden in Oakland, even came with planting instructions – they could be divided a few times and then planted, the gardener-gifter informed us in a helpful sticky note attached to the plant-bearing box.
This week, I’ve made an appointment with a Freecycle connection in Oakland who has ordered vegetable seeds and knows each packet holds too many seeds for her gardening needs, so she’s willing to share her excess with me. I’ll go down to meet her in a day or two and return with my cache, which of course is much more than a clutch of potential veggies. These seeds also bring with their procurement the experience of meeting a kindred spirit in the place I’m calling my new home.
Thus far, I’ve had a mostly positive experience with Freecycling, and as time passes and I become established in this new home, I hope to give back, little by little, some of the gifts that have been given me. I’ve recently let a woman borrow my food mill for a Tuscan soup recipe she’s trying out, and perhaps down the line I’ll be able to share seeds saved, sourdough starters created, or even my own divided plants, thus returning my karmic debt to the community at large, and inviting some characters into my life in the process.
The end result of this time-intensive Freecycle garden will hopefully be the transformation of a formerly jungle-like backyard into a paradise of food-producing raised beds and pollinator-attracting blossoms. It will also, I hope, be the a significant part of my exploration of a new home and connection with a new community – of gardeners, zero-wasters, frugalistas, and people willing to reach out and connect in a way that is essentially modern, but also essentially human.