Gardening, Mia Vaughnes believes, is community.
Vaughnes explained that her organization, Good Neighbor Gardens, which she launched in 2013, installs and maintains edible organic gardens in people’s yards. A Good Neighbor Gardens farmhand—one of four she employs—comes by weekly to maintain the garden. Homeowners, known as “the Gracious Neighbor” can help, too, and eat as much of the harvest as they like. All this is done for a fee. The rest of the harvest is collected every other week and becomes part of weekly produce packages delivered to their CSA subscribers. She said that they currently have 89 gardens, mostly in the mid-city area.
That’s the for-profit part of the business. Vaughnes also runs a non-profit component, Good Neighbor Schools. At 11 elementary schools, she installs gardens and has a maintenance and teaching relationship with them. Yes, they are part of the curriculum as an outdoor classroom, learning about plant biology, what’s need to help plants grow, the nutritional benefits of what they harvest—and all the problem solving that goes along with working a garden. Plus, they have a farm stand that allows the young farmers to show off their fruit of their labor and share it with other students. Vaughnes said that 20 percent of the revenue from the CSA boxes supports the school program, which she’d like to expand to include cooking lessons for both the students and their parents.
And, with all this digging in the dirt comes bonding between neighbors. I met Vaughnes at one of the Gracious Neighbor homes in Hillcrest, near Park Blvd. The front and back yards of the old Craftsman house were filled with raised beds, which, in turn, were bursting with basil, thyme, corn, patty pan squash, eggplant, bush beans, gooseberries, blueberries, strawberries, and caspar eggplant. Apples were espaliered on a fence. And there were plenty of citrus trees.
Then Vaughnes pointed out other homes on the street that were also Gracious Neighbors and took me to one around the corner. The garden was smaller with fewer raised beds, but what Vaughnes had done was design a yard that was no longer about grass, but about native plants and edibles.
And all these Gracious Neighbors now know each other. Vaughnes organizes “Get Downs” or get togethers for neighbors, such as the recent Citrus Jazz Fest, which one of the homeowners hosted and at which there was live music, along with food.
Vaughnes did not spend her career in the service of either gardening or community relations. For 24 years she’d been a successful financial planner, living in La Jolla and raising her daughter as a single mother.
“But I knew I was put on earth to do more,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have energy and the ethic to do something.’ So I prayed on it.” She said her boyfriend at the time offered to build her a garden and that launched the nugget of an idea. “I’m going to grow food for people and teach them how to connect and love each other.”
Vaughnes apparently comes by this naturally. She was tickled to learn that her great-grandfather was an agriculture professor at Lincoln University, an historically black college in Missouri.
And while her community-based business is a for-profit enterprise, Vaughnes’ approach is much more personal and spiritual.
“I have to hand this world to the next generation in a responsible way, starting with the garden,” she said. “I’m starting to understand the cycle of life and who I am in it.”
To learn how to become a Gracious Neighbor or order a Farmshare box—or support the school program, go to http://www.goodneighborgardens.com.