SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s the American Dream: a small house in a nice neighborhood with a big lawn. Maybe even a white picket fence.
The house Liberty Bryer bought on Edwards Street last year seemed to match the description. But Bryer wanted something different from her home.
“I just really don’t see the purpose of lawns,” Bryer said.
So she did away with it. Bryer and volunteers from Wayside Food Programs and Learning Works in Portland worked together over the spring to turn what was once a normal, nonproductive front lawn into a thriving agricultural plot.
Bryer’s spread sports six-foot sunflowers and dozens of tomato plants and pole-bean stalks. Pumpkins and squash grow on sprawling vines next to the street. After the first harvest, the fruits of Bryer’s garden will be donated to Wayside Food Programs.
Bryer had been living in the U.S. Virgin Island for more than 25 years before moving to South Portland last year. Her father had taught her to grow when she was a child, and she spent much of her young-adulthood farming in Colorado.
She said the weather and soil in the islands prohibited any real efforts to put her green thumb to use. A desire to grow again was one reason she decided to move back to the states.
She bought the Edwards Street house with a plan to have some sort of garden. One idea was to organize a neighborhood spread, where everyone would contribute time and effort to the project. Another was getting neighbors to each agree to grow one or two crops on their own and share the bounty in the fall.
“It’s a good balance to have a farm here and still be close to the city,” she said. “It’s been my hope that this idea (of suburban farming), or some variation of it, would catch on.”
In the fall, with a lot of free time on her hands, Bryer began volunteering with Wayside’s food kitchens. That’s where she met Carly Milkowski, the organization’s volunteer and resource communicator.
Wayside serves free community meals Monday through Thursday at three sites in Portland and one in Westbrook. The nonprofit also runs four mobile food pantries and a food rescue program, from which they provide salvaged food donations to area soup kitchens and pantries. More than 1 million pounds of food move through Wayside’s warehouse every year, Milkowski said.
Milkowski told Bryer about a Wayside supporter from Cumberland who had donated a portion of her property for the nonprofit to use. Volunteers went there a few times a week to weed and tend to the crops, and Wayside reaped the benefits until the deal was cut short earlier this year.
“The woman who lived there moved and we had to stop using that garden, but that’s a risk we take when we’re using other people’s property,” Milkowski said.
After several conversations with Milkowski, the idea of supporting Wayside’s programs for the hungry trumped Bryer’s other ideas for her own garden. A plan was hatched for Wayside and Bryer to partner to provide fresh, chemical-free produce for the nonprofit’s clients.
In May, volunteers from Wayside and LearningWorks in Portland ripped up Bryer’s lawn. Joined by Bryer, they broke up all the grass clods and were ready to plant by early June.
Bryer said she was very involved with the garden in the beginning, but now her involvement is limited to everyday watering and occasional weeding. Volunteers show up a few times a week to take care of the heavier work.
“All the neighbors were asking questions about it,” Bryer said. “Of course, they didn’t know me yet. But they’ve been supportive and patient.”
At this point, at least one of her neighbors is taken by the sprouting stalks at Bryer’s garden.
Mike Kelley lives a few houses down the street with his wife and son. He said that his family has a small garden, but nothing like Bryer’s.
“It’s incredible the way it grows,” he said. He’s amazed at “the love people put into this thing, people volunteering, and Liberty’s spirit. I keep looking for the giant beanstalk. I want to climb up.”
While there are other farms and organizations, such as the Portland Farmer’s Market, that donate food regularly, Bryer’s garden is the only one dedicated specifically to Wayside’s food programs, Milkowski said.
“Liberty has been just great,” Milokowski said.
According to the state’s Office of Family Independence, 40,187 individuals in Cumberland County — about 14 percent of the total population — received food stamp benefits last month. Among them were 4,542 children five years old or younger, or 29.4 percent of all county children in that age group.
Liberty Breyer tends to one of the plants in her garden on Edwards Street in South Portland. While most of her land is dedicated to providing food to Wayside Food Programs in Portland, Breyer also maintains a small spread for herself, where she grows flowers, herbs and squash.
Beefsteak tomatoes grow in Liberty Breyer’s plot on Edwards Street in South Portland. All the food in Liberty’s spread is donated to Wayside Food Programs in Portland.
A hose snakes along the path between the gardens to Liberty Breyer’s house on Edwards Street in South Portland.
A sign marks Liberty Breyer’s farm on Edwards Street in South Portland. In the background, tomatoes, sunflowers and pole beans sprout from what used to be Breyer’s lawn.