Posts

How to start a Grow Free Cart (+ share surplus produce with your community)

A Grow Free cart is simply a cart (or a stand, or a table – any surface really) where home-grown produce, preserves, seeds and seedlings are placed and made available to anyone in the community. It’s the ultimate answer to “how can I share my surplus with my neighbours”, or on a more basics level, “what do I do with my courgette/zucchini glut?”

It’s one of a number of awesome neighbourhood community initiatives popping up all over the world. You’ve probably heard of the Little Free Library movement , which is the world’s largest book sharing movement. Books are placed in little free libraries all across the globe, and people are free to take them, and/or add new books.

The Grow Free movement is the fresh-fruit-and-vegetables version of the Little Free Library.

There’s also Little Free Pantries, which are the dry goods/long-life groceries version, and Community Fridges – sometimes called Solidarity Fridges or Freedges depending on where you are in the world.

All three movements help reduce food waste through sharing, and make good food more accessible to those who need it.

Being a vegetable grower, a Grow Free cart seemed like the best fit for me, with a suitable space on my front verge. A fridge requires power, which wouldn’t be easy for me to set up on the verge. There’s already a Community Pantry two streets away from me, so no need for another so close – plus a local church two streets away in the other direction runs a food bank that I make regular donations to (one of my 2021 resolutions).

You don’t have to be a vegetable grower to start one, of course, but it helps knowing that every week I will have things to put on the cart.

I’ll talk you through the steps to get started. If you’re interested in starting a pantry or fridge instead there will be some differences to your setup, but the process will be pretty similar.

How to establish a successful Grow Free cart, in steps

Setting up a Grow Free Cart: what you need

The only thing you really need is a surface on which to place things, so any table or shelving will do. A lot of cart stewards (as people who have carts are called) use baby change tables, because they are a great size, have multiple shelves, tend to be on wheels for easy moving, and have sides to stop babies (and lemons!) rolling off the edge.

Some people go further and rig up a roof for their cart, to protect from the sun and rain, and even paint their carts in bright fun colours. This is the best one I’ve ever seen (in a neighbouring suburb, and how I first heard about Grow Free)…

I’m positioning my cart under a tree, where it has shade, and the one weekend there was a downpour I relocated to underneath my garage door where it was protected from the rain.

I purchased a wooden baby change table second-hand for $15. I spent a long time trying to find a free one, but in the end I decided to pay for one that was exactly what I wanted. Two shelves as well as the top, and unpainted wood, on wheels.

I’ve got a few different baskets that I picked up on the Buy Nothing website. I could use cardboard boxes, but I tend not to have them lying around.

I also got a whiteboard from Buy Nothing that I’ve use to make a sign, and I wrote on a piece of scrap wood for a second sign.

Other people use Eskies/cooler boxes to store more heat sensitive items. I don’t, but I would use a repurposed polystyrene box that chilled products often get delivered in, or track down an unwanted cooler box on Buy Nothing.

My total cost: $15.

Choose your opening hours.

Unlike little free pantries and community fridges, most carts have opening hours. This is because the produce is out in the open, exposed to the elements, and often quick-to-perish. Some are run by community centres, and so open Monday-Friday 9am – 5pm. Others (like mine) are run by people outside their homes. I decided to open my cart at weekends, for now.

It goes out on Saturday morning, and stays out until Sunday evening. Then it’s wheeled back inside until the following weekend.

Finding produce for the cart and people to share with.

Of course, for a successful cart you need fruits and vegetables! Seedlings, seeds and homemade produce are also permitted. My garden has a few things growing, and I chatted to my neighbour with a lemon tree beforehand to get some lemons.

But the best way to find surplus fruits and vegetables is to tell others what you’re doing! I posted to the Buy Nothing group and a local Grow Swap Share group (both on Facebook) in advance of the first outing to let people know what I was doing.

There’s also a directory on the Grow Free website which lists all the carts across the world. I emailed them as soon as I was ready, and added my cart. There’s a local Grow Free Western Australia facebook group too, which I use, but without a doubt my other community pages draw the most people.

(I chose to register my cart with Grow Free because I love the movement and what it stands for. Obviously I can give away vegetables to my neighbours with or without official permission of Grow Free, so there is no requirement to ‘join’, but there’s value in being part of a collection of like-minded people like this and helping spread the word. On their website, Grow Free have some great resources, downloadable flyers, a logo etc and it’s helpful to be able to refer new visitors interested in learning more here.)

Start before it’s perfect.

I took way too long to start my cart once I decided this I what I wanted to do. (Like, twelve months too long.) I was worried about finding the right cart. About whether I’d have enough stuff. That I’d end up with too much stuff and create food waste when I was trying to reduce it. That no-one would come. That everyone would come! That it wouldn’t look inviting.

In the end, I just decided that I had to start. Best decision I made. Sure my cart isn’t beautiful or overflowing, but it’s growing each week and in time it will get to a place where I’m happy with it.

Promote, promote, promote.

For a long time before I started my own cart, I followed along on the Grow Free Western Australia Facebook page. And I noticed that the best carts were the ones that posted each week, saying they were open and sharing their offerings. And so I’ve done the same, and it’s been the best thing for getting people to the cart.

Even though it’s officially on the list as ‘open’ at the weekend, people need reminding. And mentioning what is on the cart also helps with visitors. (Tell people there are passionfruit, lemons and fresh figs and they are there!)

So every Saturday morning, once it’s out, I take a picture of the cart and post to the Buy Nothing group, Grow Free Western Australia group and sometimes the Grow Swap Share group, reminding people that the cart is ready for business and telling them what’s available.

Then on Sunday, I edit the post with an update as usually there’s a heap of different things by then. And people can message to check if stuff is still available before they swing by.

Posting every weekend is a bit tedious and part of me can’t be bothered, but I know it’s the single thing that gets people coming, so I grit my teeth and do it.

Dealing with surplus stuff.

At the end of the weekend, there’s usually a few bits and pieces left. Some things can be popped in my fridge until next week (fresh chillies and lemons will last a week). I usually let my immediate neighbours know if there’s anything left so they can come and take it. I haven’t needed to yet, but I can always post to Buy Nothing if there’s too much for me to use.

Setting yourself (as well as your cart) up for success.

Stewarding a cart isn’t a lot of work, but it isn’t no work, either. I have to put it out each weekend, set it up (which means raiding the garden beforehand for things to share), post about it, and then pack it all away at the end of the day – and then repeat the next day.

I started mine in the hottest month of the year, which meant I had to check back often to top things up (rather than just putting out everything at the start of the day and being done with it).

If this sounds like too much work for you, a Little Free Pantry might be a better often, as they are much more ‘set and forget’.

If you decide to set up a cart, consistency is important for success. I’ve committed to weekends, and so I’m making sure that the cart goes out and that I post about it, every weekend. That way people know to drop things off, they know to come and take what they need. And I can decide if it’s too much work, or if I’d like to do more.

There’s no reason why a cart couldn’t be seasonal (from May – September only, for example) or even just once a month.

(Originally I’d thought about doing a midweek day too, but having been going for about 6 weeks now, I’ve found the weekend is more than enough for me.)

I don’t specifically commit to a time, so I don’t have to drag myself out of bed in order to meet a deadline – I just post when it’s ready. That works better for me.

Why set up a Grow Free cart in your neighbourhood?

Really, the answer is, why not?

It’s a great way to share excess produce with neighbours, meet new people, connect with our local community, reduce food waste, and feel good about taking some kind of positive action in a stressful world.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you heard of Little Free Pantries, Grow Free carts or Solidarity fridges before? Is there one in your area? Have you set one up, or are you thinking of doing so? Any questions about getting started? Anything else to add? Please share your thought in the comments below!

Why I’m Keeping Chickens (for Zero Waste)

I’ve loved the idea of having chickens since my days of renting an upstairs apartment. I was hopeful in my last place that it might be possible, but being a strata (7 units on a single block with 7 owners and opinions – plus tenants in the mix) there needed to be consensus, and alas – there was not.

Since I moved, chickens have been back on the plan, and three weeks ago, they moved in.

Now clearly I’m no chicken expert (!) – although side note, I did read a lot of books on the subject first, more on that in a second – but I thought it might be interesting for you if I explained why I’ve got chickens, how chickens fit with a zero waste lifestyle and what you might like to do if you’re thinking of getting chickens, too.

Why chickens?

Lots of reasons, actually! Chickens have a lot going for them.

Reducing food waste.

Chickens are great munchers of food scraps. They can’t eat everything – they won’t eat rotten or mouldy food (and it is dangerous to feed them this) – but they’ll eat cores and seeds and rinds and stems and bits that might otherwise head to the compost caddy.

Pest control.

Chickens are omnivores and will eat all kinds of insects: grasshoppers, cockroaches and caterpillars, for example. They will actually also kill and eat mice. Because I want to grow food in my back garden, chickens can help keep the bad insects under control.

They are also great for managing fruit fly, which live in the soil for part of their life cycle (the larva and pupa stages) and can wreck fruit crops. Not that I have any fruit trees producing fruit yet, but I will.

Lawn control.

Chickens eat grass. A flock of chickens can easily destroy a lawn – which in my case, is exactly what I want. Much better that it gets eaten than sent to landfill. As well as nibbling the tips they dig around and scratch it up (and poo on it) so it doesn’t stand a chance. Hurrah!

(The bit of lawn I do plan to keep is definite chicken no-go zone. For obvious reasons.)

Chicken manure.

All this eating has to end up somewhere! Chicken poop is high in nitrogen and good for the garden. It needs composting before adding to plants (it can burn young roots).

Chickens make great pets.

I love the idea of having chickens around, rustling around the garden and foraging for insects and eating my weeds. They are much more self-sufficient than dogs or cats.

Eggs.

I left this until last because although it might seem to be the most obvious, there are plenty of other reasons to keep chickens. I’m not particularly fussed about the egg part, as I don’t buy eggs as part of my grocery shop (I occasionally eat eggs from friends with chickens, and sometimes if I order breakfast out).

Most of the eggs I get I intend to give away to family and friends that might otherwise buy eggs. I’ve eaten some too. I’d rather use them than waste them, but I still don’t eat that many.

I know vegans who keep chickens and eat their eggs only (because they know how the chickens are fed and treated ). I also know vegans who keep chickens and leave the eggs for nature (chickens will actually eat their own eggs), but this works better if you’ve got more space. Broken stinky egg in the coop isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

Just to be clear, unless you have a rooster as part of the flock (which isn’t necessary and isn’t allowed in most urban areas), the eggs are infertile. A chicken’s shelled menstruation, as a vegan once told me. So eating eggs doesn’t kill unborn chicks.

Getting started: do some chicken research

Personally, I’m not into ‘winging it’ (no pun intended) when it comes to keeping live animals. I’d rather have a good grasp of the basics and have an idea at least of where to look and where to go if I run into problems. Of course we can’t learn everything beforehand, but having a basic understanding goes a long way.

Read chicken books

I literally borrowed every book in the library to do with keeping chickens (and one of keeping quail) as well as borrow another from a friend. There was lots of stuff in there that was irrelevant for me, such as raising chicks, showing chickens at competitions and – no thanks – how to eat your chicken (I don’t eat meat anyway, but eating your pets seems a little wrong).

But there was lots of useful tips too, and it was helpful (honestly!) to read conflicting opinions on things.

If you’d like to read up on keeping chickens, I found these three books to be the best:

Backyard chickens: how to keep happy hens, by Dave Ingham (Australia)

Chickens: the essential guide to choosing and keeping happy, healthy hens, by Suzie Baldwin (UK)

Keeping chickens: getting the best from your chickens, by Jeremy Hobson (UK)

(All were available at my library.)

Find people in your neighbourhood with chickens

I have lots of friends who keep chickens, so this was easy for me. One in particular (who has been keeping chickens for 5 years, and has a flock of 12) lives two streets away.

It’s handy to have people in your nieghbourhood to ask questions, and also to pop round and look at their setup (they can give you advice about predators, sourcing things like food and advising on good local vets in a way that a book never could).

If you’re not fortunate enough to already know someone with chickens (and even if you are), there are also online communities.

Join an online chicken community

There are heaps of forums dedicated to keeping chickens, and also plenty of Facebook groups so connect with people this way. (If you don’t have local friends with chickens yet, try connecting with local owners here.)

Forums and groups are a great way to ask questions and find knowledge; however it’s not always obvious which advice is right or who to trust. It also depends on the question and the consequence of wrong advice. Particularly with sick chickens, the advice of a vet will be better than trying a homemade remedy from somebody you don’t know whose chickens you’ve never seen.

Talks and workshops

It goes without saying: if you can get to a talk or workshop by a chicken owner, you’ll learn heaps. I went to one by a vet, and it was really helpful – there was a big focus on chicken welfare with lots I hadn’t considered before.

Getting ready for chickens: setting up home

There are a more things few things to consider before actually getting chickens and bringing them home. Including their home!

Rules and regulations

You’ll want to check with your local council whether chickens are allowed, how many you can keep and if there are any other restrictions (such as being a certain distance from the house, or away from fences).

The fences rule might seem arbitrary but actually, a lot of fences in Australia were sprayed with toxic chemicals such as Dieldrin right up to the 1970s. It’s worth getting eggs tested if you intend to eat them to check that your soil isn’t contaminated – whether with Dieldrin or something else. If it is, there are remedial measures (removing and replacing the soil, or building a concrete base for your coop).

Choosing a suitable home

It’s important to choose a home that’s suitable for the climate, and predator proof.

I’m in the fairly unusual situation of living in a suburb that doesn’t have foxes. Fox-proofing my chicken coop isn’t necessary, but for most people, it’s an absolute must. Some people may have to think about snake-proofing, too, and also birds of prey.

The only threat where I live is hawks, and they tend to only take chicks and maybe young ones, but not full-grown hens.

Ideally, chickens need shelter from the elements, a dark space to lay eggs, and somewhere secure and well ventilated to sleep. The need shade, access to dirt for dust bathing and also space in the sun.

I’ve read that chickens can manage on 1m2 per chicken. Manage maybe, but when you factor in all these things, plus the fact they will poop in this space too, more space is really better. Allowing them to graze somewhere else during the day makes for more sanitary conditions and happier chickens.

It’s possible to buy coops or make your own. I was very stressed about this, not having any skills to make my own but really wanting to find something second-hand over buying new. Even with plans, I think a DIY coop would take me months to build.

My prayers were answered when one of my readers (Alison) saw I was reading chicken books, and donated her second-hand but unused coop.

This is Alison’s Retirement Home for Second-Chance Chickens:

Another friend lent me some fencing so that I could create a run for during the day to extend the space. She also lent me a couple of feeders to use, and gave me some crumble (a type of chicken food) to get my flock started.

Honestly, I think she was impatient I was taking so long! I don’t like to rush these things…

Bringing chickens home

The books all write about going to reputable breeders, but I only want to rehome or rescue chickens (I don’t want to add more animals to the world). Factory farmed (battery) rescues aren’t recommended for newbies like me (both the books and an experienced friend told me this) and so I rehomed some chickens from a family who had a change in circumstance and could no longer keep them.

I took my friend with me when I got them (honestly, I’d never have caught them without her!) and she gave them the once over so that if there was anything that needed treating, we could deal with it. I wouldn’t know what to look for. One came with lice and mites, but we’re working on that and she has a clean area to dust bathe (which suffocates them).

I only planned on getting three, but there was a cute little teenager there who I couldn’t resist bringing with me…

She’s called Alison, and she is an araucana. The other three are all different breeds.

One is an ISA brown called Billina, who is the boss of the flock, mostly because she is the bravest. The others run for cover when I come, but not Billina. She trots up to see what’s on offer.

The black chicken is an Australian breed called an Australorp. She is huge with a black beady eye and she is called Dark Emu. Despite her size she is scared of everything. Half the time I think she has escaped because she blends in so well with the shadows.

The chicken with the collar is a welsummer called BossyBoots, mostly because she is bossy even though she is not the boss. She pecks at poor Alison (definite mean streak, this one). She is also extremely loud, announcing when she (or anyone) has laid an egg – and sometimes announcing even when there is no egg. People can hear her on the next street (I wish I was joking).

And that’s the flock! They’ve been here three weeks, and so far so good. It’s amazing to discover all their personalities and I’m very fond of them all already. Looking forward to more chicken adventures as the months unfold…

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have chickens? Tell me more! Are you thinking about getting them? Do you have any questions about keeping chickens, or any advice for newbie chicken keepers like me? Let’s get the conversation started: share your thoughts below!