Cooperation Humboldt, a Transition Initiative in Humboldt County, California, is empowering their community to grow their own food through a free mini-garden installation project.  They began the project by doing lawn conversions, planting gardens on the lawns of those who applied.  However, Tamara McFarland, a leader within Cooperation Humboldt, was concerned about the group’s ability to reach individuals who would most benefit from growing their own fresh food.  Many of the people applying for the lawn conversions were those with stable income: long-term renters and home-owners with the privilege to convert an entire lawn into a garden.  When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, CH was further motivated to move away from their current lawn-conversion model which involved a group of volunteers working side-by-side for long stretches doing manual labor.

CH’s Mini-Garden project was the perfect solution to reaching those with limited lawn-space and reducing in-person contact during the pandemic.  The mini-garden beds are three to four-foot-long mostly made out of light-weight, fabric grow bags, filled with high-quality soil.  They are delivered fully planted with a variety of vegetable plant starts and basic gardening accessories like tomato cages and Sluggo treatment to repel pesky slugs.  They also provide educational resources for recipients to learn how to care for their gardens moving forward.  CH volunteers deliver the mini-gardens “ready-to-grow,” so to speak, reducing the need for face-to-face contact with recipients during the pandemic.  Recipients are encouraged to reach out for help with any gardening questions they might have.

Cooperation Humboldt Mini-Garden Program, photo by Katie Rodriguez

The free mini-gardens project has been a hit, allowing CH to reach a broad community of people and install 260 mini-gardens throughout the 2020 growing season.  This project helps CH empower mini-garden recipients during a critical time when many people’s income is limited and many are struggling to feed their families.  The mini-gardens offer people an accessible gateway to gardening, growing their own healthy food, connecting to nature and sharing the process with their families.

This year, CH also partnered with the Smart Business Resource Center, a 501(c)3 to secure federal funding toward mini-garden installation.  This funding allowed the group to hire two employees who were previously unemployed and seeking work, and pay them a fair wage to build and deliver the mini-gardens.  This program, though still in its early stages, deepens their reach to empower and resource individuals in the Humboldt County community.

Cooperation Humboldt’s Mini-Garden Program, photo by Katie Rodriguez

McFarland advises others seeking to replicate CH’s Mini-Garden project that it requires a higher degree of resources, infrastructure and group organization than other projects.  The materials for the mini-gardens can be around $100 per garden, so groups should make sure they have ample funding if they hope to offer free mini-gardens to their community.  The project also takes a robust team of volunteers to advertise, build, deliver and follow-up with the gardens.

McFarland emphasizes the importance of honoring the hard work of volunteers, making sure they know their work is meaningful and valued.  She also advises organizers to look out for the potential obstacle that volunteers won’t necessarily have a gardening background and will need training and guidance to build their confidence.  She recommends the solution of training volunteers together at an outdoor, mini-garden-building event.

Cooperation Humboldt’s Mini-Garden Program, photo by Katie Rodriguez

The positive impacts of CH’s Mini-Garden project are plentiful.  Here are a few testimonials from happy recipients:

“In short, WOW! I absolutely love our mini garden. I am looking forward to seeing how the garden changes as it grows. As a first time gardener I really appreciate the size. Thank you for considering our family.” – Jacqueline

“I am so fortunate to have received a mini garden this past Saturday. Thank you to Cooperation Humboldt for affording my son and I the opportunity to learn and eat healthier. We can’t wait to watch them grow and one day cook with veggies from our own backyard!” – Natassia

“The garden is just the perfect size for me, and the timing for fall is spot on. And the greatest thing is I could never have done this for myself. With my arthritis it would be just too much. The young men who brought the pot and soil were so pleasant and a joy to meet. And the ladies with the plants were so swift and did a great job. A job well done by four of the nicest people  I have met in quite a while.” – Tricia

“My family and I are so happy every time we look at our new garden. We are so grateful for the food and experiences we will get from this. Our community is amazing, Cooperation Humboldt you’ve really blessed us! Thank you.” – Khianna

“I was so excited and pleased that I was chosen to receive a mini garden. I am 67 and my wife is 66 and we live in a trailer park with limited space. This small garden will give us purpose and enjoyment in our lives. Thank you thank you very much.” – Ron

For more information about the CH Mini-Gardens project, visit their website:  https://cooperationhumboldt.com/mini-gardens/

Cooperation Humboldt’s Mini-Garden Program, photo by Katie Rodriguez