Community garden space is a precious and scarce commodity all across the country. Many popular community gardens have waiting lists filled with anxious gardeners twiddling their green thumbs for months hoping for a plot to open up. At the same time, millions of acres of privately owned land either grows wild or turns into inedible, costly-to-maintain lawns. It was from the landowner’s point of view that Adam Dell’s vision for Shared Earth took root.
As an enterprising venture capitalist, Dell had neither the time nor the expertise to turn his yard into a garden.
He was also not excited about the prospect of paying landscapers to mow and manicure a lawn; Dell wanted his plot to produce food. As so many do when faced with a conundrum, Dell turned to Craigslist for help. “I posted an ad stating that I’d provide the land, water and materials if a gardener would provide the work,” he explains. “I planned to split the produce fifty-fifty.”
Within a few days, Dell had a number of interested responses. He met with one eager gardener who had experience but lived in an apartment. They worked out the details, and the collaboration resulted in a thriving garden that provides tomatoes, peppers, greens and herbs for two people who might otherwise not have had easy access to homegrown produce, as well as the business model for Dell’s new program: Shared Earth.
Dell quickly realized that the complementary needs of landowners and gardeners could result in beneficial collaboration for people all over the world. “The Internet is the perfect platform to facilitate connections,” he says. “Shared Earth is kind of like a dating site.” Members register for free as either a landowner or gardener and get access to the site’s listings of green space and green thumbs.
Shared Earth is being promoted by Dell as the “largest community garden on the planet.” Currently, the site has nearly 40 million square feet of land being offered up for shared gardening arrangements. Austin’s John Dromgoole, owner of The Natural Gardener, has served as an advisor to the site. “He’s an icon,” says Dell. “He gave us a lot of feedback and advice.” A dozen volunteer ambassadors (appointed local coordinators) throughout the country are helping to spread the Shared Earth gospel.
Austin’s ambassador, Adina Chirogianis, has been reaching out to community groups, schools and organizations around town. As a mother of two, Chirogianis is especially interested in educating children about productive land use. “I believe that every preschool can benefit from having a garden,” she explains. “Kids will learn about eating healthy, gardening and sharing, and the produce grown in the garden can be used for a nutritious, healthy snack for everyone!”
Fittingly, Shared Earth launched this year on Earth Day, and has become quite popular in this economically unstable climate. Gardeners with more time than money are partnering with landowners who have similar visions for what will be grown on their property. One landowner in East Austin is interested in starting a pickle farm and would like to find someone to help grow cucumbers and dill; a downtown resident is interested in helping to care for miniature goats in exchange for milk.
The majority of Shared Earth members are ultimately looking for access to fresh produce. “Food brings people together,” says Chirogianis. “Connecting people in a mutually beneficial arrangement helps to build a greener community. I have yet to meet a person in Austin who doesn’t love fresh produce.”
Dell sees a great deal of potential to turn thousands of acres of otherwise underutilized land into food-producing gardens. Shared Earth has registered gardeners and landowners as far away as Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and Denmark, and Dell hopes to have 100 million square feet of land in the system by the end of the year. Reaching that goal should be achievable if everyone takes it one plant at a time.
Shared Earth, sharedearth.com