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Not a Community Garden

Private lot draws dozens of volunteer green-thumbs


"Greetings Earthlings," bellowed a man with a large gray beard. "I'll be Quazar."

Quazar, whose real name is Richard Quenzer, is one of dozens of volunteers who show up to pick weeds in exchange for veggies from Greg Hayes' 0.2-acre, ditch-irrigated, pesticide-free garden off 32nd Street.

Hayes, a self-employed engineer who moved to Boise from California, has a knack for collecting rusty tools and animal bones in the Boise Foothills and using them to decorate his backyard. Though he'd only ever grown a handful of carrots as a kid, Hayes decided to take on the challenge of converting a piece of his property into the 32nd Street Garden two years ago.

In recent years, the urban farming itch has struck countless others like Hayes across the country. From backyard chicken coops to rooftop gardens and apiaries, the impulse to grow your own grub in a city environment has spread rapidly. But not everyone has the time, space or resources to tend gardens in their own backyards. So Hayes decided to do something a little different.

"It's not a community garden," Hayes explained. "I own the land."

In the fall of 2012, after watching an hourlong video about the benefits of not tilling soil, Hayes covered his property in a layer of cardboard boxes to keep the weeds down. Then, he gathered hundreds of bags of raked-up leaves from around the North End in his little blue Subaru Forester.

"I just drove around and knocked on doors, asking if I could take their leaves," Hayes said. "They'd say, 'OK, but why would you want our leaves?'"

He spread the leaves an inch thick over the cardboard and allowed them to decompose over the winter, expecting the lot to turn into amazing soil rich with healthy micro-organisms.

It kind of worked.

When spring came, he went out with packets of seeds from local organic farms and ran into the still intact cardboard layer. Hayes had to cut through it before he could actually plant anything. But after he finally got his seeds sowed--and added a $4,200 solar panel pump and drip lines--everything started to grow "like crazy."

When the garden became too much to handle on his own, Hayes launched Free Veggie Wednesdays to ease the weeding burden and unload some extra produce.

That also only kind of worked.

Hayes would come out of his house before the garden officially opened and find complete strangers picking through his vegetables without weeding or leaving anything in the tip jar.

"I didn't know who they were. They were just friends of friends. Word spread and they would just show up," Hayes said.

So this season, things will be different.

"Now you have to pay to play. You gotta at least come pull some weeds for a few hours before you can leave with the produce," Hayes said.

Every Wednesday at 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., a dozen or so volunteers will weed Hayes' garden and haul off some of the bounty--including spinach; beets; cilantro; radishes; chives; garlic; arugula; kale; carrots; beans; sunchokes; swiss chard; five kinds of squash; cucumbers; watermelons; pumpkins; what Hayes called "that crazy, frizzy-hair-woman lettuce," otherwise known as "drunken woman frizzy headed lettuce"; tomatoes; and more. One volunteer even set up a bee box in the garden, which Hayes heard can double productivity.

Quenzer, who spends two days a week at the garden inspecting leaves and pulling weeds, discovered the 32nd Street Garden at a time when he needed it most. He had been leasing a one-acre garden plot in the North End that he watered via pump from the Boise Canal, when he says he was "ejected" from the land. Watering a garden using city water wasn't an affordable option for him, so 32nd Street Garden and its nearby ditch worked perfectly.

"It's cheaper to buy organic food at the Co-op than it is to pay for water, if you can imagine that," said Quenzer. "We're just trying to eat good. That's the main thing."

Jordan Street Garden manager Shana Moore echoed Quenzer's sentiments about the costs of water.

"Water is the biggest challenge with urban gardening," Moore said. "Gardening with city water can cost $700 to $800 a year."

Located only a couple of blocks away from the 32nd Street Garden, the Jordan Street Garden is a more traditional community garden. Moore said most of the gardeners are refugees who live in nearby apartments. All told, there are 15 families, representing eight different countries, that share space on the 0.4-acre lot. Moore said they're lucky that the privately owned lot is flood irrigated, which at only $120 a year, keeps the garden free to growers.

But there is still volatility inherent in both urban garden models.

Recently, Hayes had to warn Quenzer that he may have to sell his land someday.

"It's my goal to hang onto it forever, but I always want the option to be able to sell it without disappointing people," explained Hayes. "So when Quazar came, I had to tell him, 'We're doing it this year, but it might not happen next year.'"

And after six years, the Jordan Street Garden faces the same uncertainty.

"It's probably going to be a house someday," Moore said. "This isn't a permanent thing. I'd like it to be, but every year I talk to the landowner in the spring and say, 'Do we get to do it again?' So far, we've gotten to. But it's very valuable property."