Tinder for gardening: Why these women are matching gardeners with landowners in Charlottetown

·6 min read
'We'll scale up if needed,' says Rhea Szarics, an avid gardener.  (Submitted by Rhea Szarics - image credit)
'We'll scale up if needed,' says Rhea Szarics, an avid gardener. (Submitted by Rhea Szarics - image credit)

Erin Bateman and Rhea Szarics joke their idea to match up gardeners with homeowners in Charlottetown and Stratford is like Tinder for gardening.

"We've been joking about it quite a bit," said Szarics with a laugh.

The green-thumbed friends met this past winter when they were both forest educators for the Sierra Club's Wild Child Program, and came up with the idea of matching homeowners with gardeners without land but want to grow their own food.

Szarics is an avid gardener who moved into an apartment in Charlottetown this winter. She said she found herself approaching the growing season with no space to garden, and with community garden plots in short supply.

She found a friend with a backyard who agreed to let her use the space to garden.

"She's a busy professional, loves cooking, but definitely does not have the time to grow fresh ingredients herself. So it was an ideal arrangement."

How it works

"I just thought to myself, I can't be the only person in Charlottetown with this problem," Szarics said.

She and Bateman came up with a plan to share the solution with others in the capital-city area. It's called the Charlottetown garden-sharing initiative, and it's free.

Here's how it works: those who wish to garden, or those with land, can visit the initiative's website, chtowngardenshare.ca, where they can download a form to sign up. The deadline is May 10.

The women will match up a homeowner and a gardener based on criteria participants indicate are important to them such as location, amount of space needed and what they might like to grow.

The idea is the gardener provides the knowledge and the labour, and the homeowner provides the land and the tools, and pays for inputs like seeds, compost or tomato cages. If a gardener is inexperienced, they may be matched with a homeowner who wants to mentor them, or they could garden with a third, more experienced gardener.

There is an element of satisfaction both in gardening 'with' people and gardening 'for' people. — Rhea Szarics

There will be a two-week trial period where the two can get to know one another and make sure the arrangement suits them both. There is an opportunity to be re-matched if needed.

Participants must then draft a written agreement that outlines things such as garden size, a crop plan, a list of tools that will be needed, an estimated budget and how they'll divvy up the garden's bounty.

After that, the organizers will hold a virtual meeting with both parties to review the agreement and make sure they're on the same page. This is what Bateman and Szarics jokingly call "gardening marriage counselling." Everyone signs the agreement, then the gardening can begin.

Szarics said she and Bateman will check in on participants every so often, to see how things are going.

"Part of the beauty of this initiative is that we give homeowners and gardeners a lot of freedom in deciding what they want out of their partnership, so people can kind of choose the route that they want to go."

Will you let strangers dig in your yard?

So far, six people have signed up for the initiative. Organizers are looking to keep the project fairly small in this pilot summer.

Erin Bateman in her home garden in Charlottetown.
Erin Bateman in her home garden in Charlottetown.(Submitted by Erin Bateman)

Szarics said right now they have more homeowners than gardeners looking for garden space, which surprised them.

"Erin and I both thought that we would have the opposite issue — that it might be a little challenging to convince the residents of Charlottetown to let a stranger come in and dig up their yard," she said.

There are only a few rules. The biggest is that participants must not use chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. The program also encourages participants to use organic growing methods as much as possible. Participants must follow provincial COVID-19 guidelines such as wearing a mask when in contact with others and wearing garden gloves. The program is providing a free kit for participants to sanitize any shared surfaces such as tools.

Other than that, the pairs can decide how they want to handle who does what. Some homeowners may choose to pitch in on garden labour, while others may not.

"We don't really want to tell people what to do," Szarics said.

'Anyone can learn to garden'

Szarics worked at Legacy Garden in Charlottetown for a couple of summers and said she enjoyed the community aspect of public gardening.

There's a number of really fantastic positives that come with having more home garden spaces. — Rhea Szarics

"Having the opportunity to garden with other people was one of the most fulfilling parts of that job. And working with people also offers lots of opportunities for sharing knowledge about gardening, which I always get really excited about. But there is also something fulfilling about creating a space for someone that they'll enjoy being in," she said.

"I think there is an element of satisfaction both in gardening 'with' people and gardening 'for' people."

A couple of city organizations are partnering on the garden-sharing initiative. The Desbrisay Community Garden will be a central location for any programming and give our participants a chance to connect with a group of gardening enthusiasts. And participants will get a half-price membership to the Charlottetown Tool Library, which loans out everything from rototillers to shovels.

Bateman and Szarics have also reached out to the two Charlottetown-area high schools, which have gardens that may go unused in the summers. They may pair up a gardener with a school.

Szarics said the goal of the garden-sharing initiative is not just to enhance food security or create meaningful connections among neighbours — it's to create more "beautiful, productive urban green spaces" in Charlottetown and Stratford.

Gardens could be large or small, depending on the size of yard the host provides.
Gardens could be large or small, depending on the size of yard the host provides. (Getty Images)

"There's a number of really fantastic positives that come with having more home garden spaces," she said.

Worried you don't have what it takes? The women said they're there to offer support and direct participants to resources in the community.

"Almost anyone can learn to garden," she said. "Doing it on a small scale is a really great way to acquire the skills that you need to scale up."

A similar garden-sharing program was piloted in Charlottetown in 2017 by the P.E.I. Food Exchange. It was designed as a self-serve website, but fell apart because participants needed more support.

"The time is ripe, and perhaps it wasn't when we floated the boat out a few years ago," says Pauline Howard from the food exchange. "I do believe, knowing Rhea and Erin, that this will happen."

More from CBC P.E.I.