In Austin, Food is Free

When John VanDeusen moved in across the street from his friend Christian Bradley on Joe Sayers avenue in Austin, the block looked like any other low-density urban block – a street, driveways, grass on the lawns, nothing to mark it as unusual.  A few short months later, Joe Sayers avenue is anything but usual.

The First Wicking Bed

The First Wicking Bed

They call it Food is Free and the idea couldn’t be simpler: Grow your own food.  Already, two thirds of the houses on the block have garden beds out front, and words is spreading quick.  Beds are showing up in neighboring blocks, and “Food is Free” bumper stickers are being seen all over the city.

For water-scarce Austin, the key is the wicking bed.  Instead of planting the seeds right in the earth, where they’d have to be watered nearly every day, they’re creating beds with simple water reservoirs underneath the soil.  It sounds tricky, but it really couldn’t be easier.  Put a layer of crushed glass underneath the soil and you have a water reservoir.  The water stays cool, doesn’t evaporate, and the beds only have to be watered once every two weeks.

One of the beautiful things about the whole project is that it’s turning waste streams into food.  The beds are built out of used wooden pallets and post-consumer crushed glass.  John has 6 compost piles on his lawn, and anyone is welcome to throw their organic waste on the pile. Wood chips are leftovers from a local tree removal service.  One of the wicking beds was made from leftover political signs. Says John – “This has to be the best use of a political sign, ever.”

Gardens along Joe Sayers Avenue

Gardens along Joe Sayers Avenue

To start out, John and Christian built one wicking bed, and put a white board up next to it.  They wrote a short manifesto, let a lot of open space, and by the end of the week, the whiteboard was filled with email addresses.  A street full of food gardens in urban America is cool, but what’s really turning people on are the side effects.  Everyone on this block knows each others names, there’s a friendliness to it, and a feeling of shared mission.  People are starting to think about their food systems.  A quizzical look leads to a hello, a hello to a question, and a question soon leads to a new garden bed.

“We’re learning how to retrofit neighborhoods”, says Christian, looking out over an urban block that is growing into something worth talking about.

[ed: John dropped me a note, pointing out a mistake in my chronology.  Here's what he writes: "Christian moved in after me, I've lived on the block for almost 3 years. He moved here in August and this project got kicked off in January. Having support on the block definitely gave the project momentum when I decided to take the plunge with the idea."  Here's to the support of friends!]