Sharing Tools Makes Gardening Cheaper, More Accessible

Jun 8, 2016

Alexandra Maxim and Greg Short shovel top soil at the Garden Resource Center on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.
Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Gardening can be expensive. Buying or renting tools for turning the soil, buying vegetable starts or investing in fancy lighting systems to start seeds at home, buying soil, compost and mulch – it all adds up.

But growing food at home doesn’t have to break the bank, said Jeremy Fleishman, coordinator of Grow Pittsburgh’s Garden Resource Center in Larimer.

“A lot of people can’t afford to buy all of these tools, so we wanted to make it a resource that was available to people with lower income who maybe just wanted to rent a couple of tools and work on their garden,” Fleishman said. “We wanted to remove as many barriers as we could to people having access to healthy food.”

For an annual membership fee of $40, the GRC offers a variety of garden tools – from hand spades to gas-powered tillers – along with top soil, compost, wood chips, hay bales and soil amendments such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

“My two favorite parts are the library with all of our books and the free section where other users and sometimes organizations drop off things just to give for free,” Fleishman said. “There are seeds and hoses and hand tools and plants, and it just changes throughout the year.”

On a recent afternoon, Alexandra Maxim of Squirrel Hill dropped off some cucumber starts for other users and picked up top soil and compost for her garden.

Garden Resource Center coordinator Jeremy Fleishman wheels a wood chipper out of the tool shed at the GRC on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.
Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Maxim volunteers with Grow Pittsburgh’s Edible Schoolyard program and will begin work on a master’s degree in sustainability this fall at Chatham University. She said she's been a backyard gardener for about two years now, and that it’s important to know where her food is coming from and that it is free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“I feel like it’s so difficult to farm in an urban environment if you don’t have these resources," she said. "But Grow Pittsburgh makes it very easy."

Fleishman said the GRCE has about 200 users on the books as its second full year of operation gets underway. The program began in fall 2014 as a way to further its mission and promote the idea that, according to its website, “access to locally-grown, chemical-free fruits and vegetables is a right, not a privilege.”

According to the National Gardening Association, in 2013, one-third of Americans were growing food at home or in community gardens. Growth was particularly strong among millennials, with 63 percent more people between the ages of 18-34 gardening in 2013 as compared to five years earlier.  

But Fleishman said the popularity of the Garden Resource Center reflects another societal shift, beyond increasing interest in healthy, organic food.

“It’s not only just the gardening, but the sharing is a movement,” he said.

According to localtools.org, which creates software used by tool lending libraries, there are about 100 such organizations in North America, in big cities and small towns from Alaska to Kansas to Louisiana.

Jeremy Fleishman feeds branches through a wood chipper at the GRC on Wednesday, June 1, 2016.
Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA

Many of those libraries were represented at a symposium of tool lending libraries hosted by Station North Tool Library in Baltimore this spring. Piper Watson is co-founder of the library and helped organize the symposium.

“Sharing is kind of an interesting thing, especially in Western societies and in America, where you’re kind of brought up to be consumers, to own things and to have your own things,” she said. “It’s a lot easier for millennials to jump on board because they’re seeing it in so many different aspects of their lives.”

Watson likened tool lending libraries to services like Uber or Airbnb, with the main difference being that the libraries are typically run as non-profit organizations. But unlike the “sharing economy,” tool sharing is not a new concept; one of the longest-running libraries, Rebuilding Together’s Tool Library in Columbus, Ohio celebrates 40 years this year.

Some libraries focus on garden tools, while others, such as the Baltimore library, offer access to heavy machinery or tools for home repair. Even TechShop could be considered a kind of tool-lending library, though the tools there never leave the building and annual membership can cost as much as $1,650. There has been some interest in starting a tool lending library with a broader home repair focus in Pittsburgh, but those efforts haven’t yet gotten off the ground.

The Garden Resource Center is hosting its Grand Re-Re-Opening party this Saturday; the Re-Opening was originally scheduled for April but was snowed out. The event is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 147 Putnam Street in the Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh.