Luscious Lawn: Former Resident Harvests Front Yard To Feed Hungry

Liberty Bryer shows off some of the fruits of her labor and big smile.

Former St. John resident Liberty Bryer is making a big impact from her front lawn in Portland, Maine.
Bryer, who sold her Coral Bay home in May 2010, has converted the 50- by 70-foot space on her new property in South Portland’s Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood into a source of fresh food and local inspiration.

“I wanted to have the opportunity to give back and encourage other people to grow as much of their own food as they could and they desired,” said Bryer, who moved to St. John in 1985. “I wanted to grow things as well, and I don’t see much point in grass quite frankly.”

Teaming up with Wayside Food Program, Bryer turned over her lawn’s soil in early May and planted crops the first and second weeks in June. Bryer’s former lawn is now a fruitful garden brimming with 48 tomato plants, several rows of green beans, 30 sunflowers towering over eight feet tall and an array of herbs including cilantro, basil and parsley — crops which benefit the local organization’s four soup kitchens.

The idea was first conceived this past December when Bryer was volunteering at a local food drive and met Carly Milkowski, Wayside’s program and resource coordinator. After hearing about a similar project that fell through, Milkowski said Bryer generously offered up her lawn for the garden.

“I think it is an unusual project which has brought a lot of attention to what we are doing — and hopefully this has inspired some people,” Milkowski said. “We are showing people how they can grow their own food. Liberty tore up her whole lawn, but people can use a much smaller space to give back to the community in the same way.”

The produce also benefits Wayside’s Community Meals Program, which provides free supplemental meals to low income families in Portland and neighboring Westbrook, and also gets distributed among a multitude of the community’s mobile food sites that don’t have access to established food pantries.

“One of our goals is to increase access to fresh and nutritious food to our clients — and there are pretty significant barriers to that sometimes,” Milkowski said of the Wayside Food Rescue program which redistributes food that would normally go to waste. “Traditionally, food pantries have been heavy on non-perishables and light on fresh foods so that is one of the things we are trying to change.”

Bryer’s garden is a huge step in that direction. Wayside receives fresh food donations from many surrounding farms, but Milkowski said tomatoes and green beans are two universally-liked crops the organization often lacks. Although harvesting began just two weeks ago, Bryer’s green beans are prolific and the tomatoes are turning fast — Milkowski said she picks an entire bushel several times a week and student volunteers show up weekly to do the same.

Bryer couldn’t be more pleased with the way the project has developed — and remains modest about its success — claiming she’s been a mere conduit to grow food for those who don’t currently have the ability to do so.

“It’s been absolutely wonderful and more than I ever thought it would become,” Bryer said. “I just provided the space, but Wayside has really done most of the work.”

While Bryer sold her Coral Bay home 15 months ago, she said she hasn’t fully moved away from the island.

“My heart is still there big time,” admits Bryer, who has already been back several times and plans to spend the winter there. “But I wanted to do other things in my life. As we all know, St. John is wonderful but has its limitations.”

With a passion for eating healthy, the quarter-century St. John resident said one of the biggest drawbacks about living on the island was the lack of access to fresh food and natural barriers to growing her own produce. She said her Portland garden gets full sunlight all day long and there’s never a need to fret about water.

“I had this lot the house was on, and knew I wanted to grow food to give away but couldn’t do it all myself,” Bryer said. “With Wayside’s access to volunteers and distribution areas, this was the perfect way to satisfy my desires, not only to grow things but to give back.”

Discussions are already underway between Milkowski and Bryer to get the funding to build a cold frame and create a mini-greenhouse of sorts which will enable them to grow crops during the early months. But her real dream is for this type of project to take place in other parts of the world.

“It would be wonderful if it would be possible to do this type of thing on all islands in every part of the world so people everywhere could have access to fresh food,” Bryer said.