When Suzanne Barish founded the Please Pick Project she envisioned a town-wide food forest in which people could harvest food right in their own neighborhood and connect with nature. The community permaculture project, started in Nyack, N.Y., a culturally diverse suburb of New York City, encourages residents to create sidewalk-side gardens full of organic fruits and vegetables for neighbors and passersby to pick for free, in combination with community garden spaces maintained by volunteers. We sat down with Barish to learn more about this community-wide movement toward healthier gardening and eating.
What motivated you to start the Please Pick Project?
Suzanne Barish: Two unrelated incidents converged on one afternoon, and this really simple idea resulted from the collision. My husband, son and I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Nyack, and we learned that more than 100 people (mostly from Nyack) rely on the soup kitchens each week. On the way home, we came across a peach tree languishing in the front yard of an abandoned house downtown, and I just casually noted to my husband that we should all grow food in our front yards for people to pick for free. It seemed like a simple way to feed a community and strengthen our connection to nature and real food right in our own neighborhoods. I floated the thought around to a few people, and everyone responded pretty enthusiastically. Soon, it crystallized into a solid plan.
What are your goals for the project?
SB: Short-term: Create front-yard gardens along the town’s sidewalks full of organic fruits and vegetables that neighbors and passersby can pick for free. We input the gardens into the Map of Edible Nyack, a digital map that tracks where you can find sharing gardens in town and what you’ll find growing in them. In addition, we have one large volunteer-maintained public garden space in the backyard of the Nyack center, a civic center in the heart of town.
Long-term: Little by little, we can tranSBorm the town into a sprawling food forest. We’re working with a patchwork of small front lawns all around town, so if one out of every 10 homes adds a garden, a fruit tree, a line of berry bushes, a patch of edible native “weeds” or even an herb pot in their front yard along the sidewalk, then we will collectively build up a sustainable, food-producing ecosystem. It would be great if we could add fruit trees in public spaces along Main Street and Broadway and even in public parks, too. And, it doesn’t need to stop with Nyack. I would like to make this happen wherever it can work within an existing town’s infrastructure.
Are you working with other community organizations, the local government or businesses?
SB: Yes. An incredible group of students and teachers from Nyack High School grow the majority of our plants in their greenhouse during the winter. It’s a great experience for all of us to work together, and the feedback from them has been overwhelmingly positive.
I’ve also benefited from the generosity of Nyack Center. The students at Nyack Center spent time learning and harvesting in the garden there last year, and they were really excited about some of the after-school salads that they made with their pickings. This year, I plan to increase the education offered through those gardens because it was so succesSBul last year.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension was also gracious enough to help me by asking some of their Master Gardeners to give participants a few organic gardening workshops. A local carpenter, named David Scharf, actually built all of our raised beds for the public gardens completely free of labor costs—I only had to supply the cost of the materials. Summit School students visited the gardens and helped maintain them in the beginning of the season. People to People, a local food pantry, and some soup kitchens also send people to the gardens to pick food. It’s been a real community effort!
What challenges have you been confronted with so far, and how are you dealing with them?
SB: The biggest challenge is making cooperative gardening in our front yards commonplace. It’s asking people to make a huge cultural leap from maintaining a patch of lawn to producing food to share with neighbors and complete strangers. Many people have embraced the idea, but there are some people who are understandably skeptical. I think that the success of our first year was a game-changer for a lot of skeptics, though. When you see kids picking peas during their walk into town, or families doing their grocery shopping right from the earth, or a gardener hugging a total stranger who is thanking her for sharing her tomatoes, you realize that this is about more than just spinach and beets: It’s about connecting people to each other, to real food and to the earth.
There are plenty of logistical challenges that I address with every participating homeowner. One is that this only works when we plant food within reach of the sidewalk. It’s not a good idea to make people actually walk onto your lawn to pick the food. The second is that if your front yard is overrun with deer, then you can’t realistically have a Please Pick garden. There are plenty of natural ways to negotiate with smaller pests, but deer will wipe out a garden in one night. Fortunately, there are plenty of regions in Nyack that don’t have many deer, and those are the spots that have the potential for community permaculture to take root.
In many urban and suburban community gardening projects, people vandalizing, stealing or taking more than their share is an ongoing issue. Do you have measures to help prevent this from happening or address the problem if it does occur?
SB: I was warned last year that gardens would be vandalized and plants would be stolen because it happens so frequently in the gated community garden in the same neighborhood as the Please Pick public gardens, so I braced myself for the worst. But, there were zero cases of vandalism or theft over the course of 30 weeks in 2015. I’m not saying that it won’t ever happen, but I believe that people have an inherent respect for free, natural food sources, even if they don’t personally use them. We do place signs in every Please Pick garden space, so people will be able to identify which gardens are sharing gardens and which ones aren’t.
How are you organizing volunteers to get the project going?
SB: I started with social media, which is still my strongest communication tool. Then, I organized public meetings, sent letters and just generally infused this idea into the community. I also did a small Kickstarter to raise the money for wood to build the raised beds in our gardens at Nyack Center. As a result of my initial communication push, I linked up with Nyack High School and Nyack Center. Local news media began to cover the project, and from there, we picked up a lot of momentum.
Last year, we had a diverse range of front-yard gardens around town, plus a container garden outside of Nyack Library, and of course, our public garden outside of Nyack Center. We grew 1,000 pounds of food, and dozens of people came to the gardens to harvest regularly.
This year, the momentum is continuing to build around the community, and I already have nearly twice the amount of front yards pledged to grow gardens to share. I have been asked to do a TEDx Talk about it, so I’m hoping that the talk will really kickstart this year on a positive note.
Do you have any advice for others who are interested in starting a similar project?
SB: Dream big and start small. People will generally support the idea of an edible town, but getting people to participate (especially in the first year) requires a lot of work. Set realistic goals when you begin, and take comfort in the promise that it gets much easier after the first year. For a town-wide plan like this, it’s always a good idea to approach local government to help you learn about potential challenges unique to your area and to know if there are any land-use laws that will complicate things. Always test the soil for lead, and make sure to build up a lot of new organic soil and compost in the public garden spaces. And, don’t let naysayers bring you down. There will always be opponents to a new idea, but they don’t stick around for very long.