Can Tiny Gardens Feed the World?

Note: This is the second time I’m taking advantage of my status as a student in Marylhurst University’s Food Systems and Society master’s program to use some of my writing from last quarter.

I am fascinated by the obsession some of my cohort members have with local community gardens. It seems that many of them actually feel that community gardens might save the world. Have they not seen community gardens? Do they not recognize the theft that occurs? Do they not realize their seasonal limitations? Their limitations of scale?

Community gardens are wonderful things; don’t get me wrong. They provide a place for people who live in “un-landed” domiciles (i.e. apartments or homes on small lots) to be able to experience the joy of working a plot of earth and raising a bit of food. And they create mini-communities of gardeners.

Rebecca persevered and enjoyed many salads!

Beautiful plot grown by my friend Rebecca

But by “a bit of food,” I mean a bit. My friend Rebecca has a plot in the P-Patch in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood (which has appeared in this blog before). We went to see it when I was visiting. I noted the 3-foot-by-6-foot raised bed and thought, “Oh dear, what a tiny area to work with.” And then I realized she only had half of it.

Granted, at the time I was coming from managing a garden that was 100 feet across. But even that was not enough. There is no way I could have grown enough food to sustain my family of two off of that plot. It was something I did for pleasure. And it’s a good thing I enjoy gardening, for it basically commandeered my every weekend from May to September, and certainly didn’t save me any money if I factored in my time.

I don’t think people understand what is involved in growing food. Community gardens are more of a community-building activity than an arrow in the quiver of food security. Additionally, they are usually places of privilege—the P-Patch of which my friend Rebecca is a member has a waiting list, which means anyone who would like to garden there must have a fairly stable life, phone number, address, etc. As Allen notes, “[Community] is defined differently by different people as mediated by income, wealth, property ownership, occupation, gender, ethnicity, age, and many other personal characteristics” (Allen, 2004, p. 179).

So, how can we feed everyone without destroying the environment with toxic chemicals and excessive petroleum-based fertilizers, and exploiting thousands of farm workers? I propose a tiered system of personal (backyard chickens, tomatoes in buckets), local (CSAs and small farms supporting local markets), regional (grow food where it grows best in a sustainable manner), and global (disaster relief, staples, global trade of responsibly grown specialty items) food-growing efforts.

Feeding the world can be done; but it will take more than a few beautiful backyard garden plots.


Allen, P. (2004). Together at the table: Sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood system. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

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3 thoughts on “Can Tiny Gardens Feed the World?

  1. Rebecca (Seattle) says:

    I’m honored to have my plot featured not once, but twice in GYPO’s blog! That garden grew out of sweat equity and is truly a labor of love. For those interested in this garden (Unpaving Paradise P-Patch, in Capitol Hill…east of Belltown, but they have some great gardens, too!), you can view some photos of the ground up efforts of gardeners here,

    The founding gardeners of Unpaving Paradise not only helped raise $ through yard sales, bar trivia nights, and soliciting donations, but also personally hauled and distributed 120 cubic yards of soil to get the garden started and designed and built the shed and compost bins. I wholeheartedly agree that in a lot this small it’s a community-building effort more than anything else – that’s one of the reasons by the P-Patch Program is managed by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, rather than say the Parks Dept. But it’s also inspired a number of us to learn more about bees, birds and cultivating more than carrots and lettuce. I even started canning last year! I am surprised what my little ~80 sq ft. garden can produce.

    I agree that community gardening is not going to resolve food insecurities, but it does inspire gardeners and neighbors alike to eat better…healthier and we do donate a significant amount of produce (as do all P-Patches) to Northwest Harvest, an area food bank. Perhaps it also inspires others to shop at the local farmer’s market and join CSAs. Since starting to garden I’ve become a parent. A few months ago I actually debated whether or release my plot out of concern for lack of time to properly tend to it. After talking with others who know how much I love it, I’ve decided to stay and to use it as a learning opportunity for my toddler. My hope is that it will inspire him to try foods he wouldn’t otherwise eat, to care for living things beyond the cats and to appreciate where food and flowers come from.

    For the record, I now know how to properly slow lettuce seeds. 🙂

  2. Meara says:

    I hear ya, but there is something to be said for aligning oneself and the dirt-under-ones-fingernails to something righteous. One year, I coordinated 16 parking strip gardens in NE Portland that included a once weekly pick up of excess to deliver to a local soup kitchen. That one year, we provided more than 150 pounds of tomatoes, zuchinni and other vegetables. Of course it is not enough, but it is something better than a well tended lawn.

    Perhaps even more gratifying to me was when I saw a homeless guy come by and sit and pull some weeds in the garden. A few days later, he came back and worked for about an hour. I came out and told him that as a member of the group that gardened there, he was welcome to whatever he wanted. He demurred and said he had not planted it, but liked to take care of a garden. Only with some prodding did he finally take a cucumber. The following week, I watched him weed and water and then sit in the sun and eat a tomato as if it was heaven. That moment was worth any amount of work, or delusion about a shared, city garden.

  3. These are great comments; thanks! My goal is to eliminate (or reduce) the need for food shelves and benevolent homeless people. But your points are well taken.

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