Homeowner Huili Gao (left) stands with gardeners Jeff Sullivan (center) and Patricia Sanders in the backyard garden of Gao's home in Santa Monica on Tuesday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SUNSET PARK — Jin Yang and his wife, Huili Gao, had a problem that many people in Santa Monica wish they had — a spacious backyard, perfect for gardening.

Unfortunately, they also had no time to tend it.

Step out of their Sunset Park home, and you see a tiered yard with dedicated plots that boast more weeds than roses, or healthy trees that cry out for a good pruning.

“I leave for work at 7 in the morning and come back between 6 and 7 in the evening,” Yang said. “The kids go to school. There’s no time to take care of the garden.”

Enter Patricia Sanders and Jeff Sullivan.

Both enjoy gardening, if for very different reasons. Neither have a garden of their own.

Sanders grew up in South Carolina on a 10-acre property, where farming and tending to the land was a way of life, not a pastime.

“It’s just what you did,” she said.

Since, Sanders achieved her Master Gardener degree at Clemson University, and took extra sustainable gardening classes through Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

She views gardening as a way to engage with the plants, soil and earth, and get away from the grind of working on her novel.

Sullivan sells himself as a “lazy” gardener, who focuses on sustainable, perennial plants that produce the expensive fruits and vegetables that you’d otherwise buy in stores.

He works a 12-by-4-foot space in the Venice Community garden, but was looking for something more.

“I don’t have a yard, so I’ve been looking for someone else’s yard,” Sullivan said.

The three parties found a unique solution through the Garden Sharing Registry hosted by Santa Monica’s Community Recreation Division, which hooks up plotless gardeners with homeowners without the time to tend to their yard.

City staff put together the idea for the registry in 2009 and the program got off the ground in 2010, said Wendy Pietrzak, of the Community Recreation Division.

There was a demonstrated need, Pietrzak said.

“The city has three gardens with 120 plots,” Pietrzak said. “At one point, the waiting list was above 200.”

That number is now closer to 140, but without much turnover at the plots, it’s difficult to whittle down the list.

The shared garden program sought to link up those hundreds of willing hands with people who otherwise wouldn’t cultivate.

Potential gardeners give information on their gardening background and style when they sign up, and then the registry gives a list of names and profiles to the homeowner to choose from.

The program has only made five matches from the 21 homeowners that signed up.

The system had kinks, Pietrzak admitted, because applications began at the beginning of winter, when no one was thinking about gardening, and the participants were handed a list of a dozen names of gardeners to choose from.

“It was a little intimidating for the homeowner,” she said.

Now, the program narrows down the list to around five names based on criteria set by the homeowner.

So far, the match has worked well for Yang, Gao and the two gardeners.

Sullivan got started a month ago, putting mulch in on a raised garden bed and working on improving the soil quality by putting down cardboard to promote natural composting.

Sanders, who linked up with the family a week ago, plotted out the rest of the garden with Gao, parsing out which areas got the most or least sunlight and choosing plants accordingly.

She expects to spend two or three hours a week prepping the garden, pulling out weeds and improving the sandy soil, before beginning to plant the vegetation.

Pietrzak hopes that the symbiotic relationship can be replicated elsewhere in the city.

“It’s just a matter of doing continual outreach,” she said. “Initial matches have been very successful.”


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