From Lawn to Table: This Nonprofit Will Help You Grow Veggies in Your Yard

Two people harvest vegetables from a lawn garden in Orlando, Fla.
Catherine Witt, left, and Morgan Witt, 14, help harvest vegetables from a garden lawn during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

What has your lawn done for you lately?

If you’re like most, the answer is probably, “Nothing.”

But what if your lawn gave you community connections, education for your children and a delicious bowl of salad?

That’s exactly what the organizers of Fleet Farming want. “Grow food, not lawns” is their slogan.

What is Fleet Farming?

Fleet Farming, an initiative developed by the nonprofit IDEAS For Us, takes neighborhood lawns and turns them into mini-farms, affectionately called farmlettes.

Here’s how it works: homeowners donate space in their yards and volunteers install, maintain and harvest the plots. The homeowners keep a portion of the produce, and the program sells the rest to local restaurants or at local farmers’ markets.

And the “fleet” part of this farming program? Twice a month, dozens of volunteers come together for Swarm Rides, where they travel on bikes from home to home to tend the gardens.

Saving Families More Green

Fleet Farming
Vegetables are harvested from a lawn garden during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Right now, the program tends to about 20 farmlettes in the Audubon Park neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, which is where Fleet Farming was developed back in 2014.

More than 500 households are on the waiting list, according to program manager Caroline Chomanics.

Families who are accepted into the program pay a $500 initial fee and sign a two-year contract to have their gardens installed, tended to and harvested.

When you break down the cost, it evens out to $20.83 a month. A family can easily spend $4 at the grocery store on a mix of organic salad greens that would last one meal.

“All the proceeds go back into creating more farms, buying the seeds [and] tools,” Chomanics said. “There’s a number of things that it takes to run a farming program.”

Fleet Farming installed a farmlette at Sarah Gal’s Audubon Park home in May 2016. The Gal family’s garden grows Swiss chard, watermelon, sorrel, butter lettuce and Siberian kale.

Gal said her family tries to eat a salad using greens picked right from her front yard every day.

“I never knew how much better fresh-from-the-garden greens tasted,” she said.

The farmlettes can also help cut down on landscaping costs. HomeAdvisor states homeowners spend an average of $3,394 nationwide to install traditional landscaping.

Benefitting More Than Bank Accounts

Fleet Farming
Fifty people help harvest vegetables from a lawn garden during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

In December, Fleet Farming volunteers installed six raised beds in the side yard of Chris Schafer’s home, right down the street from the Gal family.

Schafer said it has helped his family save on groceries, though he hasn’t calculated exactly how much.

And the benefits go beyond financial.

“A lot of it is the education for my children,” he said.

The farmlette gives his three kids — 13-year-old Aylin, 11-year-old Rowan and 9-year-old Cason — an opportunity to learn how to grow food. They’re actively involved in the growing process, putting in requests for what they’d like in the garden.

“The kids were all about carrots the first go around,” Schafer said. “One of my sons loves tomatoes. Now we’re in the season where we can plant tomatoes.”

The family is also growing kale, Swiss chard, radish, beets, peas, herbs and various salad greens.

Gal also said the experience brings a lot more than just fresh produce for daily salads.

“I occasionally will bag up some greens and walk them over to neighbors, which has helped us develop stronger relationships with our immediate neighbors,” she said. “It’s a great community building tool.”

Gal said she feels like being involved with the program keeps her neighborhood safer.

“Fleet Farming volunteers, who are in branded shirts or [come with] carts [or] wagons, are randomly stopping by my yard to harvest or check on the garden,” she said. “I believe this helps make my house less vulnerable to being targeted for burglaries.”

Helping Mother Earth

Fleet Farming
Children take off on their bikes to help harvest vegetables during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Beyond the personal benefits for homeowners and their communities, one of the missions of Fleet Farming is to better the environment.

The veggies are transported by bike to restaurants and farmers markets within a five-mile radius, which reduces air pollution caused by shipping food hundreds or thousands of miles.

“[Fleet Farming] decreases the transportation of all of that food to come to the store or for you to go to the grocery store,” Chomanics said. “So it helps to [reduce the] CO2 that’s emitted into our environment.”

Lazy Moon Pizza is one of the restaurants that receives produce from Fleet Farming. Phil Jimenez, one of the pizzeria’s managers, said the restaurant makes its salads using spring mix greens from the nearby farmlettes. Having local produce helps ensure the salads are fresh, he said.

On April 9, Fleet Farming volunteers delivered a 15- to 20-pound box of Swiss chard, sorrel and Bibb lettuce that was literally plucked from the ground less than two hours earlier.

It doesn’t get much fresher than that!

A Growing Movement

Fleet Farming
Adelyn Vargas, 15, helps harvest vegetables from a lawn garden during a Fleet Farming swarm ride in Orlando, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Fleet Farming is still a young program, but it has garnered significant buzz.

Audubon Park is the main branch, but the program has expanded to Oakland, California and Jacksonville, Florida.

In October, Fleet Farming received grant money from the USDA to expand the program to Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood, a community that has been deemed a food desert.

Fleet Farming Director Lee Perry said they’ve received over 1,000 inquiries from people all over the world who want to bring Fleet Farming to their homes and communities.

“The demand is definitely there,” she said.

However, Perry said she wants expansion of the program to be strategically thought-out, as each region will pose different challenges to growing crops.

“We have to find a way to customize our technology to each location,” she said.

By the end of the year, organizers plan to launch two branches in Texas — one in Austin and one in Dallas.

But even if there isn’t a Fleet Farming branch nearby, Chomanics encourages people to start growing their own food wherever they are.

If you’re interested in starting a branch near you, donating your yard or money, or just volunteering with Fleet Farming, check out this page to learn more about getting involved.

Your Turn: Would you turn your lawn into a garden?

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves fruits and vegetables and intends to start a garden after she purchases her first home.