Backyard gardens become income generators in lean times

Locking up his station wagon, the one with the scratched paint and unpaid bills covering the floor mats, Cam Slocum crossed the parking lot and stepped into the kitchen of the swanky French restaurant Mélissein Santa Monica.

A cook set down his knife and walked over to greet the stranger. Slocum held out a Ziploc bag filled with lettuce.

“Hi,” said Slocum, 50, his deep voice straining to be heard. “I grow Italian mache in my backyard. It’s really good, only $8 a pound. Would you like to buy some?”

A few feet away, chef de cuisine Ken Takayama glanced curiously at the lanky stranger in jeans and a worn plaid shirt. He’s heard this sort of pitch before.

“Every day, every week, it’s something new,” Takayama said. “You name it, they have it.”

Since the economy took a dive three years ago, Takayama and others say they’ve seen more and more people showing up unannounced at restaurants, local markets and small retailers, looking to sell what they’ve foraged or grown in their backyards.

No one keeps track of the number of people selling their homegrown bounty, but scores of ads have cropped up on Craigslist across the country, hawking local produce, home-filtered honey and backyard eggs.

One Los Angeles resident with a lemon tree posted an offering on Craigslist to let customers “save over 50% over Vons, Ralphs, etc. $1.00/pound.” At the Orange County Swap Meet, officials said the number of people selling home-canned beans and other homemade edibles grew to 30 vendors this month, up from eight vendors in early 2007.

In the South, hunters are selling venison and wild boar meat. In the Midwest, people are combing the forests for morel mushrooms, which can fetch $10 to $40 a pound.

Tacey Perkins decided her best customers may be the neighbors around her Riverside County home. Last fall, the mother of two and former real estate agent posted a sign on her front lawn in Mira Loma advertising home-grown pumpkins. She sold $100 worth.

This summer she plans to have a farm stand on the family’s picnic table with baskets of zucchini, peppers and eggs.

“My husband works in the construction industry, and while he still has a job, things are slower,” said Perkins, 35. “Every little bit helps.”

The trend harkens back to the U.S. depression of 1893, when cities encouraged owners of empty lots to let unemployed people farm them and sell the excess produce, said Laura Lawson, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It was seen as engendering the capitalist ideal of this country, that people were bettering themselves by being outside and working,” Lawson said.

She said that changed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when civic leaders, reluctant to create competition for struggling farmers, advocated gardening for food — not profit.

In Los Angeles, it’s unclear whether such entrepreneurship is legal: A 1946 zoning ordinance allowed “truck gardening” but didn’t define what that meant or identify what could be grown for sale in residential areas. Because of the ambiguity, the city has shut down some backyard enterprises, but not others.

An outcry by urban farming advocates last summer prompted Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti to introduce a motion dubbed the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, which would allow people to grow “berries, flowers, fruits, greens, herbs, ornamental plants, mushrooms, nuts, seedlings or vegetables for use on-site or sale or distribution off-site.”

The city’s building and safety department has stopped enforcing the old ordinance for now. The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance Friday.

Many people, though, can’t afford to wait.

Slocum, a furniture dealer, saw his paycheck dwindle to zero after the real estate market crashed. The only thing he owned was the clay soil beneath his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.

So he ripped out his backyard weeds and planted beefsteak tomatoes and baby mache, a salad green often prepared like spinach. The dime-sized leaves carpet his half-acre lot in lush emerald rows.

Slocum started selling at farmers markets and on online blogs, and cold-calling local restaurants. Today he has 10 restaurants that are regular clients. He needs another 20 to pay his bills.

Stepping into the Mélisse kitchen, Slocum opened the bag of mache and handed the chef a curling leaf to taste.

“It tastes sweet. Like rose,” said Takayama as he chewed.

“It’s good, right?” Slocum said. Takayama nodded. Still, he wasn’t buying.

“I have enough right now,” Takayama said.

Slocum grimaced in frustration as he walked back to his car. As he drove away, his eyes scanned the street, looking for possibilities.