WILD YARD STORIES
The Lawn Became A Garden, The Garden Started A Revolution:
BY DAVID NEWSOM
Back Yard Growers is a community, school-gardening and education non-profit in Gloucester, Massachusetts that has become, if not legendary, then something pretty damn close to it. With over 200 family gardens in the ground, an established “seed to table” program in all K-5 classes, and several community gardens across Cape Ann, the organization has revolutionized how fresh food can be accessed and understood by everyone. It’s also, as it turns out, one very badass way to create a Wild Yard.
The beautiful thing about my initial meeting with founders Lara Lepionka and husband/partner Stevens Brosnihan was neither of us really knew a damn thing about one another. But, thanks to the introduction by my mother-in-law (the madly talented artist Mags Harries ), a steady flow of Kettle One vodka, and a thrown-together yet bucolic meal by the bay in Annisquam, Massachusetts, we found ourselves with one hell of a lot to talk about. Finally, the sun went down and the mosquitoes moved in, killing the mood. But, by the time we said, “Goodnight”, I was pretty clear I had to know a lot more about the staggering achievement that is Back Yard Growers. A few days later, I sat down in their kitchen in Gloucester, and heard the whole story. And then some. The actual interview was an hour, and too long to publish here, but as my ideas evolve on the subject of “Just What Is a Habitat Garden”, I became clear about one thing: Edible and Habitat gardens belong together. I also became clear that these two folks know how to get big things done:
WYP: So, Lara and Stevens, let’s have a little set up. What were you both doing before you moved back to Cape Ann and started BYG?
Laura: Oh...ha! Well, we met in grad school at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and that was like in '97, '98...
Stevens: Yeah, we were both visual artists…
Laura: I was doing a lot of community-based, socially engaged art practice, doing all kinds of different projects that had to do mostly around labor at that time. That was my jam.
Stevens: I was painting and drawing. I did lots of bookmaking and printmaking at the time. Very focused in studio work.
WYP: And when did you guys migrate to this area?
Lara: It was right after 9/11, we discovered we were pregnant and Chicago was getting sort of rough…
Stevens: Her unemployment check got stolen…
Lara: (laughs)..Yeah, my unemployment check got stolen! Then I got laid off from my job…
Stevens: It's just like a bunch of things happened at once..
Lara: Then, someone set our car on fire.
Lara: I was like, "Yeah, I think it's time to go."
Stevens: (laughing) “Yeah, umm, we're getting some messages from Chicago right now.”
WYP: Ok, so, now you’re here back home, you’ve started your family and…?
Lara: Sure. So it was in 2008. Great Recession. I feel like so many stories start with a recession or a depression. I was painfully underemployed. Steve was like, "It's super expensive to live here. We're barely getting by. We got two babies." You know how it is when you have the babies, you can barely do anything. We were saying, “I mean, It'd be amazing if I could just make dinner!” But instead, we were running out of money and it was super stressful.
Stevens: Yeah. I was working- and still am- working remotely for the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. That was something nobody did back then, and there was a lot of stress around that…
Lara: We were worried he was going to get canned at any moment. We just had one of those epiphany moments where you just feel like you have no power, no control over basic things in your life. We had this urgency to get back some control over our finances, what kind of food we were able eat, and what kind of environment we wanted for our children.
Stevens: Somehow this got us wondering, “Do we really need to drag this lawnmower up and down this little tiny patch of lawn that's around our house?”
Lara: And, BOOM! We fully just like tore up the lawn, started building beds. (Stevens) knew a bit more about growing than I did. I didn't really have a clue. I was literally, constantly Googling like, “How do you do this, how do you do that?” And we just learned how to do it. And it became very much this sort of exuberant act of defiance because it was all about like, "Oh, you want to grow some food? We're going to grow some food."
Stevens: (smiling) And..we made some huge mistakes at the beginning.
Lara: Ha! Yeah, huge.
Stevens: We didn’t do beds. We did this “lasagna method”. Had we known how many heavy metals were in our soils. We didn't know anything about that part. We didn't think about it. I'm digging stuff up, “Hey, is that coal ash?" There were old bottles and trash everywhere…
Lara: …Yeah. All of the land here is contaminated around the houses because of the lead paint.
Stevens: Which we know now. I mean we had like paint-coated boards, the first beds we made! They were just scraps we found in the neighborhood.
Lara: Right. Then we learned and then we stopped doing that …and we slowly learned how to do it. Then it quickly became, “How extreme can we go, how can we fit as much as possible in our little yard?” One of our early experiments was, “Can we grow all our own vegetables for our family for the year?” That was really fun and cool for a while….and then, sometime in early March we were like, "Oh, another bag of frozen beans. This is awesome."
Stevens: In the fall it was tough too. It was like processing all this food is a lot of work…
Lara: …Yeah, we don't live in a culture or rural environment where everyone's doing that too...
Stevens: …and they're sharing the work…
Lara: …No! We’re living in a place where no one's doing that. So we were just like the weirdos with vegetables all over the table while we’re working your full-time jobs, and trying to deal with that.
WYP: I think for so many of us, it’s that intense need for agency that makes gardening or creating habitat so compelling. Also, it’s interesting that you're both artists. You already came loaded with a pretty large skill-set, working with tools and making things with your hands. Many people seem so convinced that they can’t make anything.
Lara: Yeah, I've discovered this, too, across the board in a lot of scenarios, where people think they can't. (But), especially in the age of information, now there's no excuse. You can actually do whatever because it's all on the Internet. But yes, being people who always made things might be a help..at least where creating our own garden was concerned. It’s just another creation.
Stevens: It's like we're seeing this lawn not just as this object, but as raw materials for a poem or something.
WYP: So, what was the progression of this vision, from the realization of your own yard, to the neighborhood project and then the non-profit?
Lara: We did our thing for a couple of years, 2008, 2009, our own experiments, our own personal discovery about what we were doing. During that time we also did a block party in our neighborhood. And (laughing), I need to be clear, our neighborhood was not a place where things like that happen. This is Gloucester. People didn't really know each-other and it was like this grassroots door to door (event). But, we're still in the heart of the recession and it was like, “Okay, we don't know each other very well, we're all kind of broke, but we can share, right? We each have something we can share and bring together as a community.”
WYP: What, precisely, was the event?
Stevens: It kinda became a Stone Soup thing, as I recall
Lara: Right. (Laughing) So we did a pageant/reenactment of that (Stone Soup) story. I, along with one of my artists colleagues, just came down the street. We had this huge shopping cart, doing this crazy thing. We're knocking on people's doors, asking, “Do you have any food?” And the poor neighbors- who already think we're nuts, neighbors who are already like, "Jesus, these people across the street with the vegetable garden"- are now dealing with, "Guess what, now you're going to participate in this pageant."
WYP: Like a mini Burning Man. How did they react?
Lara: What are they going to say, "No"? I mean they could say no, but it was so funny because they'd open the door, and they'd be like, "No, no vegetables." It was so awesome. Anyway, we did the whole Stone Soup reenactment where we had a pot and dry ice and people are bringing vegetables and we actually served real soup afterward.
SB: But it wasn’t just about food. People gave all kinds of cool stuff…
Lara: Totally. They ran with it. Someone was a dance instructor and offered free ballroom dancing in the street. So, it was this idea of what can everybody offer?
WYP: And how did this lead to BYG?
Lara: So, there was a house up the street that was really derelict and falling apart. A family there that was in a bad way, and we did a project where we put a community garden in front of their house. We all worked together…
Stevens: …it was about bringing people in…
Lara:..it was that sort of activity that spurred on this feeling of like, "Oh, let's get people involved with growing their own food. We can do this."…So we started reaching out, like, who are the people who care about this work? The farmer's market and other local organizations like The Food Project came and helped us and taught us more things. And so, we started, in our first year, getting like 10 families in our neighborhood. We sat around this table and I trained them in how to plan their garden, and we got free seedlings and we built our beds together; super cute.
WYP: And that was 2010?
Stevens: …Pile of loam in our driveway…
Lara: …We went from having 10 families in 2010 and now 10 years later we've had hundreds of people go through our backyard garden program and we have like 10 community gardens that are either partnered with housing communities or with local nonprofits. And then we have a district wide school garden program in Gloucester that serves 100% of pre-K through seventh grade..
WYP: That’s just insanely impressive. And the other thing that’s happening, at least in your yard, is that there is a staggering amount of LIFE! Wildlife of all kinds, right in the middle of downtown Gloucester. It’s by no means a “native garden”, but it’s definitely a habitat garden. There is a staggering number of pollinators flying around here...
Lara: (laughs) Yup. They're here. Doing great.
WYP: When I came to visit the site, I stopped counting at something like 20 different kinds of native bees. Is that intentional? What's your philosophy or your relationship toward pollinators and habitat, in the context of an edible garden?
Stevens: I mean initially we were really weeding like crazy. But now it's like it's sort of like companion planting in a way.
Lara: Also just protecting the soil.
Lara: So when we first started, we were just fixated on growing food and then all of the cool things are happening, bugs are coming, critters are coming and it's wonderful and we're embracing it. But it was never the driving force. But, then when I started to become obsessed with ponds…
WYP: …Well, if you have a robust lineup of pollinator plants and water, you have a pretty dynamic habitat…
Lara: No sh*t! That is when we saw new kinds of critters coming and it was like wherever there's water, there's this very different life thing going on. It was at that point that I started to really start to think about habitat more and I'm like, "We're an oasis in the middle of downtown!" And for the brief time that we had bees, it was pure magic, just sit by the pond. And I had like a slope going in for animals and the bees would just gather around the pebbles there to drive just like bliss out watching this and I just felt like drink up children. I felt like I was helping provide these resources for these animals.
WYP: Yes! the presence of water amplifies the wildness and the biodiversity of any yard, and here, well, there's a lot of things flying around. And what I love about your yard is there's a really natural progression from an orderly edible garden to something that's a lot more organic in terms of how it functions and all the critters around. It's really cool. In fact, I was talking to your neighbor, who also has one of your gardens, and he was talking about how impressed he was not just with the edible food, but with all the bees and birds. “I never knew there were so many bees!”, he said. He was really excited.
Lara: And so now I'm getting more interested in that and thinking about how we can help support that kind of love fest.
WYP: Yes! Backyard Growers Habitat Gardens. I dig it!
Lara: Ha! One thing at a time… first and foremost, we’re about building kids relationships to dirt, and giving them the same agency we were after. And what has been cool about it is we've been doing this now for a number of years and we want to try to figure out like how to measure what that looks like when you go into school as a kindergartner and pick your first carrot on the second day of school and then you do this for years, how is that changing your attitude and behavior towards eating fresh food and being connected to nature and understanding how things grow and being able to extrapolate..
Stevens: …The chance you'll have a garden as an adult?
Lara: It's like the chance that you're going to think about food systems is awesome.
Stevens: ..Where your food comes from.
Lara: The goal is to normalize where your food comes from. We've had a lot of really profound experiences with kids in gardens. Not a lot of kids have access for whatever reason. And although it's really cool, the kids who have gardens through our backyard program or they have a community garden, then it's like they go to school and there's a garden. They go home and there's a garden or they go to a service agency that they use and there's a garden. So it's like, “ This is normal. It's normal to grow!”. Half of our job is just to normalize growing food. People overcomplicate things all the time. We're like, "No, it's about getting kids excited about trying a carrot." That's great. That's an achievement, getting kids to be involved with that process and to get that kind of power like we were talking about before. I mean, the kids all have experienced, "Look what I grew."
WYP: And soon we’ll be doing that with habitat gardens, right?
LL/SB: (laughs) Yes! When are you coming back?
Find out more about the amazing programs and gardens of Back Yard Growers here: http://www.backyardgrowers.org/