Photography by Nicole Lessin
It was logical that the Holly Neighborhood Coalition would ask a team of public interest design graduate students at the University of Texas for a mobile toolshed. Providing money-saving home repairs to fellow homeowners in danger of being priced out of their neighborhood had become the focus of the coalition’s latest initiative—Holly Neighbors Helping Neighbors (HNHN)—and the students needed a volunteer community project as part of their intensive course of study.
Yet when the students canvassed the area, many longtime Holly residents revealed a different aspiration. “There was a lot of interest in gardening—especially among older residents who couldn’t necessarily do it all themselves,” says Teri Sperry, an active member of the coalition. “[They] remembered in the past having really enjoyed growing their own food and wanting to be able to do that—in part to offset some of their food bills—but needed a helping hand.” Last summer, that helping hand came in the form of an eye-catching mobile toolshed just for gardening, which sits most days at the East Side Food Park on East Cesar Chavez.
The four-by-eight-foot unit has become an integral part of the East Side Garden Exchange—a community-led effort to create a network of plantings around the neighborhood. The trailer features an iconic butterfly roof that shades a tiny seating area and diverts water to a planter filled with succulents. Inside, there are storage compartments filled with dozens of gardening tools that individuals can check out, as well as hundreds of free seed varieties for a community exchange. “We just feel really fortunate to have it and love showing it off,” says Sperry, who coordinates the tool-lending library.
Getting the project off the ground required a multi-week effort by the students that included soliciting donations from area businesses, design work and construction. Still, Sperry encourages admirers from all over Austin to try their own versions of the toolshed. “You don’t have to have grad students working on it,” she says. “Get inspired. Look at ours. Think about what your needs are, and maybe do it a little differently.”
Since last summer, volunteers have used the shed to help install seven gardens around the neighborhood. At a volunteer workday in September, neighbors helped install a garden filled with broccoli, chard and other greens in the front yard of HNHN cofounder Elizabeth Walsh, who recently picked some of the bounty. “It’s really fun to have people over and to share from the garden itself,” she says.
“I’ve harvested a bunch of lettuce and had a bunch of peppers from Teri’s yard and shared it with my next-door neighbor.”
Walsh says the garden was planted in conjunction with an HNHN event through which another neighbor received much-needed home repairs. “I needed help building a garden; I’ve never built one on my own,” she says. “And my neighbor needed insulation. So we came together, learned new things, helped each other out and we all get to build a neighborhood we love together.”
Organizers say this type of modern-day barn raising has increased trust and fostered a new sense of community among diverse groups. “I think it has been especially good for bringing together all the different generations,” says Sperry. “We have people who are retirees helping, we have little kids helping and everything in between. It’s really great to find out we have things in common, and we have ways to help each other—no matter what our age.” —Nicole Lessin