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Doing Good: San Diego's Good Neighbor Gardens
Enhancing diets and neighborhoods one garden at a time
In our occasional “Doing Good” series, we visit the archives. This time going back to the summer of 2016 for a profile of Good Neighbor Gardens, an urban sharecropping program in San Diego. This article first appeared in Edible San Diego.
By converting lawns to gardens, urban sharecropping has the ability to enhance neighborhoods, lower carbon emissions, and provide really tasty tomatoes.
Urban sharecropping in San Diego
“Over here we just harvested kohlrabi, and over here we just put in some tomatoes.” Mia Vaughnes is standing among several raised beds that run from the front yard to the back of this North Park home that are filled with squash, string beans, and lettuce. “This was our first garden,” she says, as she picks up a handful of dark, rich earth.
For the last three years Vaughnes has spearheaded Good Neighbor Gardens, her urban sharecropping program that is transforming San Diego’s backyards and open lots into a network of food gardens. Her goal is to create the equivalent of one large urban farm, one garden at a time. “There is enough space in the city to grow what we need, enough to feed the city,” she says.
Knowing that many San Diegans would love to garden but lack the time or experience, Vaughnes set up Good Neighbor Gardens to enhance preexisting gardens or put in completely new designs for interested homeowners. For a new participant, Vaughnes and her crew assess the property’s requirements, such as irrigation and fertilization, then present a garden plan to the homeowner. “There are four basic plans that people can get involved with, but we also customize to suit individual needs and circumstances,” she says.
Once the bit of urban farm is installed, a farmhand regularly tends the plants to ensure a proper harvest. Garden hosts, who are also referred to as Gracious Neighbors, can get involved with weeding and planting, but if they don’t want to raise a finger, that’s OK, too.
The extra corn, rutabagas, and tomatoes that garden hosts don’t eat are gathered and distributed to other garden hosts in something of an exchange. For his extra tomatoes, a host receives the extra corn and radishes from other participants.
For those who don’t have a backyard or don’t care to garden but still want to enjoy their neighbors’ bounty, they can sign up with Good Neighbor Gardens to regularly receive a basket of produce. Everything is extra fresh. What is harvested today is delivered today. Good Neighbor Gardens also has four locations where people can pick up baskets of produce every other Wednesday.
Vaughnes refers to the food produced through Good Neighbor Gardens as hyper-local. “The food grown in Pacific Beach is eaten in Pacific Beach. The food for North Park comes from North Park,” she says. As well, the farmhands live in the neighborhoods of the gardens they tend. According to Vaughnes, household gardens combat climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil. “And we aim for zero waste,” she adds.
Vaughnes considerably downsized her life to devote herself full-time to creating the urban sharecropping network. “I had two homes. I lived in La Jolla, but I’d been praying for my purpose,” says the former financial planner.
Collaboration and Convenience
Julianne Markow contacted Vaughnes after a farmhand showed her a Good Neighbor Garden in her neighborhood. “I had all this dead grass in the backyard, and I thought that a vegetable garden would be a lot prettier and more sustainable,” she says. “We met a few times. Mia is very collaborative. She nicely guided me to a better design than the one I had originally proposed.”
Molly Meekin has had a Good Neighbor Garden since January of 2015. “I already had a garden, but I just dabbled. I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. She became a sharecropper after chancing across a presentation by Vaughnes at People’s Organic Foods Market in Ocean Beach “I was so impressed. I liked that my food could also contribute to others. I grow more than I can consume.”
Good Neighbor Gardens helped with an unused irrigation system, and now Meekin gets most of her irrigation from rainwater. She often travels for her work and appreciates that there is someone to tend the garden when she is out of town. “It’s the greatest thing!” she says. “When I’m home and the farmhand comes around, it’s like visiting with a friend, and I’ve learned a lot about gardening.”
From the start Good Neighbor Gardens has involved schools, with the hope of teaching the next generation about the virtues of home gardening. Currently there are four elementary schools involved, with plans of extending the program into middle and high schools.
Besides being an agricultural endeavor, Vaughnes thinks of Good Neighbor Gardens as a social development project. She says, “We’re not just growing food. We’re helping to build communities. All our neighbors know each other now, and that’s super cool!”
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