by Peter Rothbart
[When I heard about the Seattle-based We Patch, I immediately asked executive director Peter Rothbart to write up a summary of its history; it’s a great idea, a super project, and one that I hope goes viral. Peter is also an editor at FOUND Magazine and a killer dodgeball player (he says). - mb]
One afternoon in the spring of 2009, I was biking down Olive street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood when I passed a man standing at the edge of a small traffic island, staring intensely at an unkempt strip of soil. Circling to see what had captured his attention, I noticed how he was dressed: a faded t-shirt, dirt-crusted gloves, and a pair of pruning shears hanging from the back pocket of his raggedy work pants. A split second later, I took in the double-wide tire track that had carved a rut across the island, and the scene snapped into focus like an optical illusion in a M.C. Escher print.
Such traffic islands, which are ubiquitous in Seattle, are often staked out by local gardeners who have nowhere else to plant. The city encourages the practice, offering maintenance tips and a list of recommended plant varieties on its website.
But the territory is mostly ungoverned, and gardeners run the risk of having their crops looted or destroyed. Looking over the traffic island on Olive street, it was clear that a large vehicle had careened over the curb of the island and across the intersection, crushing the carefully tended garden in its wake. Whether the crime was perpetrated by a big rig that couldn’t maneuver properly around the circle and decided to simply go over it, or by a late-night reveler, the damage was done. The gardener shot me a forlorn glance, and I shook my head sympathetically. Unable to help, I offered him my feeble condolences and rode off.
That same evening I went to a barbecue in Madrona, a quiet, well-kept neighborhood on Seattle’s east side. As I sipped a soda and watched a game of horseshoes, I overheard the hostess nearby chatting with a neighbor about wanting to cultivate a few garden beds during the approaching planting season. The hostess was excited to grow her own vegetables, but worried about being able to care for them adequately.
“I’d really like to grow something back there” she said, gesturing toward the manicured but vacant expanse of her back yard, “but I don’t know what I’m doing, and I just don’t have the time to figure it out. I wish I could find someone who does.” Like the swelling pandemonium of a baseball stadium crowd when a homerun ball is in the air and hasn’t yet left the park, my encounter with the hapless gardener on Olive Street came roaring back through my head, and I thought: I have to bring these two people together.
Soon after, I founded the We Patch Organization, whose mission is to connect people looking for gardening space with those who have space to offer. Through our website, We Patch facilitates local, small-scale agriculture by enabling users nationwide to post listings in search of either garden space or gardeners in their area.
Urban agriculture is rapidly gaining ground across the United States, as city dwellers adeptly make use of the space available to them by dangling herb pots from window ledges, planting edibles in sidewalk strips (and traffic circles), slyly tending clandestine gardens in public parks, and building farms on roofs.
But many would-be urban gardeners lack adequate turf to make their efforts worthwhile. There is a clear demand for public gardening space, but municipalities have been slow to respond.
Urban garden shares like those offered at We Patch provide a simple, elegant solution to this problem. There are no waiting lists or applications, and the service is entirely free; users can register and then create or respond to listings in minutes. Once a match is made between a planter (someone looking for space) and partner (someone with space to offer), they decide together what to farm: vegetables, fruits, ornamentals, or even livestock and honey bees. The planter gets a patch to nurture, and the partner gets to share some of the fresh produce.
By improving access to local garden space, such collaboration not only helps individuals plant their own produce, but also strengthens neighborhood communities and promotes environmental stewardship. We Patch urges members to meet each other face to face, where the spade meets the dirt, and by doing so to make their neighborhoods more familiar places. We Patch also explicitly supports sustainable agriculture practices. Members are discouraged from using chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and are encouraged to conserve water and use organic seeds.
Whether you’re a novice or experienced gardener, whether you have an acre lot or a small raised bed to offer, We Patch can help bring homegrown produce and camaraderie to your table. Create your own listing today and see what grows!
(Photos: Without adequate land for planting, some gardeners cultivate traffic islands and other public spaces: Hannah Bartley (left) and Rachel Mills tend their shared garden in Seattle.)