In this “get big or get out” world, sometimes small acts have great power.
Scarborough resident Roger Doiron understands this principle well.
Doiron, who is the founder and head of the nonprofit Kitchen Gardeners International, encourages the simple act of planting a vegetable garden in your backyard, front yard or window box.
Both a front yard and backyard gardener himself, Doiron said he does it because, “I might not be able to save the planet, but I might be able to save tonight’s dinner.”
Doiron started the nonprofit in 2003 after working in Europe for an environmental group, where he said the work was critical but not very tangible. To him, gardening offers a hands-on way to improve the health of the planet and the health of his family.
Kitchen Gardeners International became more of a full-time endeavor for Doiron in 2008, when he landed a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship. This also marked the year Kitchen Gardeners International launched its successful White House Kitchen Garden campaign.
The push to encourage the next president to plant a vegetable garden at the White House gained traction when Kitchen Gardeners International’s proposal for the idea garnered the most support on the Better World Campaign’s On Day One contest. The competition encouraged people to submit ideas that the incoming president could implement upon taking office.
First Lady Michelle Obama ended up embracing this initiative and planting a garden that supplies vegetables and fruits to the First Family, guests at official functions and a soup kitchen. The popular garden currently has its own tours, is the subject of the First Lady’s book “American Grown,” and is part of her wider effort to promote healthy eating.
Prior to the White House Garden campaign, Kitchen Gardeners International had fewer than 5,000 members. But by the time the garden was planted — and after the organization was mentioned by major news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal — it had amassed 20,000 members. Today, the nonprofit — with a budget of less than $100,000 — has a global reach of almost 27,000 people.
Once again the nonprofit is in the news. This time the coverage comes as a result of its work to help marshal support for front yard gardeners who run afoul of local zoning ordinances that prohibit landscaping that deviates from manicured lawns and shrubbery.
Kitchen Gardeners International became involved in the fight over front yard gardens in the summer of 2011. Doiron, like many gardeners around the country, was following the case of Julie Bass. At the time, Bass was a resident of Oak Park, Michigan, and was being threatened with jail time if she didn’t remove the raised beds in her front yard.
Doiron alerted the organization’s network and generated emails and calls in support of Bass and her garden. Since then, Kitchen Gardeners International has rallied support for front yard gardeners in Memphis, Orlando and Quebec. In all the cases Kitchen Gardeners International has worked on, the municipalities have backed down from taking action against the front yard gardeners.
Doiron said the Orlando case was resolved much more quickly than the others. He attributes this to the fact that Kitchen Gardeners International was “able to call out the mayor in a very public way because the mayor had launched a communications platform of Orlando as a green city and a garden city. We said it’s important that you walk the talk.”
This public chastising apparently struck a cord, because as Doiron said “it was really a matter of 48 hours from when we hit send (on an alert email to members) to when the director of sustainability for Orlando got out in front of some TV cameras saying ‘We’re not going to shut this garden down.”‘
Doiron doesn’t see the fight over front yard gardens going away anytime soon, as individual communities continue to grapple with the conflict between traditionalist neighbors and the desires of more sustainably minded residents.
“We have to rethink the suburban and urban aesthetics and consider the possibility that what might have worked for the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is not appropriate for the world we’re currently living in,” Doiron said.
In addition to fighting for the rights of gardeners, Doiron’s organization is also working to help others create more gardens. Thanks to series of donations, Kitchen Gardeners International is offering 50 Sow It Forward grants worth $600 each to schools, community gardens, food pantries and other community groups wanting to start or maintain gardens.
“I’m really excited we’re at this point where we can become an enabler of kitchen gardens,” Doiron said. “We have a lot of amazing applications coming through, mostly from the U.S. and some from abroad.”
The grants include seeds from the Ark Institute, supplies from Gardeners Supply Co., gardening books from Storey Publishing, online garden planning tools from GrowVeg.com and $300 in cash from the Johnson Ohana Charitable Trust.
Application must be submittedby Jan. 11.
While a single garden — whether in a front yard or behind a school — is a small act and may not seem like a big deal, Doiron is confident it has the potential to create big change.
“There’s a cumulative effect if we all do some little things,” Doiron said. “It adds up to something quite substantial.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:
Twitter: AveryYaleKamilaPhoto courtesy of Jason Helvenston