Front yard gardens feed neighbors for free

Lois Albrecht

Backyard Abundance volunteer Mary Kirkpatrick hands out cherry tomato seedlings Saturday for the “Pick Me!” project.
Lois Albrecht Backyard Abundance volunteer Mary Kirkpatrick hands out cherry tomato seedlings Saturday for the “Pick Me!” project.

When neighborhood kids picked and ate tomatoes from Mary Kirkpatrick’s garden last year, she was thrilled.

They weren’t stealing — they were following her directions. She planted a cherry tomato plant and basil in her front yard, with a bench and a sign that said, “Please help yourself!”

“The kids in the neighborhood have just loved it,” she said. “They sit on the bench and chat and pick tomatoes.”

She and others are hoping there will soon be more such experiences like Kirkpatrick’s around town.

She and other volunteers with Iowa City gardening non-profit Backyard Abundance are encouraging residents to plant an item or two in places where passers-by can pick fruits and vegetables freely.

“It feels good to share with people in your neighborhood,” Kirkpatrick said. “And it helps kids learn about where their food comes from.”

Backyard Abundance director Fred Meyer envisions people being able to harvest free, fresh produce all around town. The idea is based on similar projects in other cities, such as the Food is Free project in Austin, Texas.

On its website, Backyard Abundance has “Pick Me!” signs participants can print and post next to the plants. “Free, healthy food for everyone!” the signs read.

People are encouraged to take pictures of their free-to-the-public plants and send them to Backyard Abundance at info@Backyard for posting on the group’s Facebook page.

At a plant sale Saturday, Backyard Abundance gave away more than 60 cherry tomato seedlings donated by volunteers. The caveat was the recipients should plant them somewhere accessible with a “Pick Me!” sign.

Kirkpatrick said the dozens of people she talked to at the sale seemed interested in the idea and agreed to participate. She hopes others will take up the plan as well.

“I like the idea of edible landscaping and having food so easily available,” she said. “We donate a lot of our extra produce to the Crisis Center food pantry anyway. I just like the idea of food being available everywhere.”

She admitted there are barriers to overcome — people may be reluctant to actually take food from a stranger’s yard. She said last year, plenty of kids helped themselves, but their parents did not.

“We have kind of a mindset of not trespassing,” she said. “Part of the purpose of this project is to help people think about sharing food more readily.”

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