PORTLAND, Ore. – Jacqueline Lynch has found her niche in Portland’s gardening economy.
She designs and builds vegetable gardens for people who lack the time, skills or physical ability to get started on their own.
And now that the recession has hit almost everyone’s food budget, the 34-year-old’s services are in high demand.
Four years ago, when she started her garden-for-hire enterprise, she had two clients.
Now she’s preparing to give up her childcare job so that she can go from three days per week to full-time gardening.
"I've done three major installations already this spring, one of which was 800 square feet,” she said, “and I'm maintaining five gardens so far.”
Wide range of clients
Her current clients include a single father with two young sons and a woman who uses a wheelchair but plans to maintain her own garden beds, which need to be built high enough for her to reach them comfortably.
She works with customers to determine how much they can afford and tries to provide the most garden possible for their budget. From her lush, sprawling garden and greenhouse in the South Mount Tabor area, she starts seedlings in her own greenhouse rather than buying them from a nursery and often finds scrap lumber for building raised beds.
“I drive around in my truck and scavenge construction sites and junk heaps,” she says, “or shop at the ReBuilding Center,” (which sells recycled building materials).
Some clients can afford to splurge on a major overhaul of their yard, while others need to start small and keep the cost down. For her 800-square-foot project, Lynch charged $2,000, but she's also created small starter plots for as little as $400 or $500.
"Right now most of my clients are in Southeast Portland, although one is in Lake Oswego and another in Oregon City," she said.
Her green thumb came early on
Her road to gardenista started more than 20 years ago, when she turned vegetarian as a 12-year-old and wore down her father over turning a quarter of the lawn into a garden.
In college she joined the Student Environmental Action Coalition and read the work of Eliot Coleman (“The Four Season Harvest,” “The New Organic Grower”) on food localism, how to eat seasonally, and how agricultural policies have changed our relationship to food and the ability to know where it comes from.
After college she became a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and worked as a teacher in Tanguiéta, Benin.
"It was a small, agrarian village,” she said, “but it was amazingly self-sufficient. The villagers produced virtually everything the community needed.”
Inspired by a local midwife there and a friend’s home birth back in the U.S., she decided to attend Portland’s Birthingway College of Midwifery.
Once Lynch arrived in town, she needed a job with flexible hours and decided to put her green thumb to work. After advertising on Craigslist as a handywoman, word spread and soon she found herself designing and building vegetable gardens.
That was four years ago. This year she decided to put up posters on community billboards, and she has gotten an even greater response.
Getting you through the lean times
For many of her clients, “recession gardening,” as some call the trend, is a real safety net in lean times. She experienced this herself recently when she was laid off from an eldercare job with only two days notice.
“I suddenly realized how glad I was to have planted so much food in my own garden,” she said.
The thread that binds Lynch’s work as a midwife and gardener is a desire to nurture life in a holistic context.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can’t rely on centralized anything,” she said. “Food, healthcare, housing. The big infrastructure doesn’t work; we need to come back to small communities.”
Her home is a microcosm of that process, since she shares it with housemates involved in Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA). She also inherited a medicinal herb garden planted by the former tenant, another Birthingway student.
Her entrepreneurial spirit grows out of her appreciation for how people can share their skills and knowledge. So she welcomes the fact that she's seen more people offering garden-for-hire services like hers on Craigslist these days.
“Whether it's neighbors helping each other, sharing yard space, or paying for help, whatever gets people gardening is a good thing," she said.