Grow food for free in your front yard with the help of this Tacoma group

It doesn’t take much to start a garden.

That’s the consensus of those involved with Food is Free in Tacoma.

“It doesn’t take you anything really,” said David Thompson, who founded the group. “Just a table and a few pots and stuff. You don’t even really need a garden. You just do it with pots.”

Food is Free, a nonprofit organization that teaches people to grow their own food, originated in Austin, Texas in January 2012. Since then, it has expanded to about 300 cities around the world, including Tacoma, Spokane and Olympia.

Thompson started the local project in 2015 at his South 65th Street and Tacoma Avenue South property and has expanded it to at least four other locations within the city with plans to grow even more.

Food is Free will build gardens in public parkways, that space between a sidewalk and the street, almost every Saturday through the end of July. The next will be June 29 on the Eastside.

The Tacoma Food is Free project started with growing a little too much produce.

“The garden bug hit me, and (the garden) just got bigger and bigger — I couldn’t give all my (produce) away,” Thompson said recently. “I tried to give it to family, and nobody would pick it up.”

He said he would drop it off at neighbors’ houses, too, but there was still too much. That’s when Thompson founded Food is Free.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool,’” Thompson said. “We needed one in town, and we didn’t have one, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just put a table out front and a sign.’”

And he started giving produce away.

Now Thompson is focused on growing a lot of food in a small area at 6515 Tacoma Ave S. He said there is about 3,000-4,000 square feet of property.

He said he doesn’t have to do a lot of work since the garden is established, doing as little as possible and just letting it grow.

Thompson said he’s able to operate his garden and start others using free resources from the city and the community, but funding from places like the Spark Grant helps pay for tools.

The Spark Grant is a micro-grant “designed to bring people-powered ideas and dreams to Pierce County,” according to the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation website. The maximum amount of money a person can receive is $1,500.

Thompson plans to purchase a sod cutter and other implements to help with building new gardens throughout Tacoma. The tools then will be donated to a tool library.

Thompson said gardens don’t take much to get started — people just have to be willing to put the work in.

That’s how Sarah Reid got started. Reid said she took a 4-pound bag of potting soil, cut an “X” in it and planted cucumbers in the middle of her backyard.

“It was beautiful and it produced marvelously,” Reid said. “Life wants to happen, right? Everything wants to live and wants to exist, and if you just let it, you get more seeds and you can grow your operations.”

She said that’s the idea behind donating time and resources into helping others establish their gardens — the more people who garden, the more seeds that exist. Reid has a few garden spaces on her property on South 52nd Street and South Yakima Avenue. In the back she grows some herbs, wild arugula and flowers.

In her front-yard garden, or “yarden,” she uses a garden tower, which is a vertical growing system where plants feed off nutrients from the compost dropped into the center of the tower.

Reid said she is able to grow about 50 different plants, including bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, oregano, sage and garlic. She plans to donate much of the produce to Food is Free.

In her parkway garden that is open to the public, she grows lettuce, broccoli, green onions and more. Reid said she hopes to install a raised gardening bed soon, as well as a covered table so the produce doesn’t get wet or subjected to the weather.

“Gardening is always a work in progress,” Reid said. “I’ve been watching David for probably three or four years, and as he’s converted his space, I’ve been inspired and went through permaculture training and did all of the different experimentation in my own space.”

More gardens are popping up in Tacoma that are dedicated to Food is Free. Reid said most of the placement is purposeful and follows the Pierce Transit Route 45 bus.

Some are in different parts of Tacoma to spread the gardening community.

Mary Graham, who moved back to Tacoma in December 2018 from Vietnam, has the newest Food is Free parkway garden. Thompson, Graham, Reid and her children, and two others worked from 9 a.m. to noon June 22 to build Graham’s parkway garden in the Lincoln District.

“It really was strengthening, the fact that there is a really solid community in Tacoma to have people come to somebody’s house they don’t know and volunteer their time,” Graham said. “It was powerful to see community members come and help.”

Graham said she found Food is Free through the Lincoln Community Garden Facebook page.

She said Food is Free was offering to come set up parkway gardens and thought her house served as a great location.

She contacted Thompson and set up a time and date for them to build.

Graham said this is her first garden and hopes she can keep it alive. She also wants to participate in other Food is Free garden setups.

“I think it’s such a really good grassroots movement,” Graham said. “I think food is a basic human right, so the more we can work together in communities to provide that for each other, the better that is.”

Food is Free will build its next public parkway garden at 9 a.m. June 29 at 4009 E. C St.

“I want to see Food is Free everywhere,” Thompson said. “I want to see it all over the town. I want to see nearby towns have it. It’s a worldwide movement and I think the Pacific Northwest is really right for this, and I think we can make it happen.”

Get involved

There will be garden installments June 29 and July 6, 13 and 27. Volunteers are welcome at each event. Those who would like to start a “yarden” can contact David Thompson on Facebook, by email at davidthompson@foodisfree253.com or reach out on the Food is Free Project Tacoma Facebook page.