Annie Hamilton didn't have a real garden until this week.
She used to have what she calls "holes in the lawn" for her couple of tomato plants, one green pepper and one broccoli. Last weekend, a crew with 1,000 New Gardens brought shovels and muscle to her Missoula home and dug out the grass in much of her backyard, a task Hamilton's arthritis didn't let her do herself.
"I'm so grateful that you're doing it," Hamilton told the team of diggers Saturday. "It's absolutely wonderful. I've wanted a garden for years and years and years."
Her new starts of broccoli, lettuce, salad mix, yellow onions, kale and strawberries waited in the yard, and for Mother's Day, her husband and daughter planted them.
"I can't wait to really get in there and weed," Hamilton said. "I know. It sounds crazy, doesn't it?"
Starting up gardens like Hamilton's is the aim of 1,000 New Gardens, or 1KNG, a loose-knit group of gardeners, conservationists, students and foodies who have been helping people get past the grass and into the garden since the last growing season.
1KNG isn't too formal. It isn't a nonprofit, its members don't pay dues, and one organizer said that even the goal in the name is arbitrary. But its energetic volunteers are helping new gardeners create vegetable plots, and its more veteran gardeners are doling out advice at 1000newgardens.ning.com.
"Call us anything but grass-roots. We hate grass," said 1KNGer Geoff Badenoch.
Badenoch said the idea for the group hatched when he and friend Maximillian Smith talked over lunch one day about Chickasaw Place, an Orchard Homes development that threw the loss of agricultural soil in the limelight. The friends discussed losing farmland - and then hit on a way to find it again.
"Not all the farmland has gone away. It's disguised as people's backyards," Badenoch said.
He said he let a phrase slip in the conversation - "We should have a thousand new gardens in Missoula" - and Smith decided to run with it. So 1,000 New Gardens was born.
Badenoch said the biggest thing that keeps people away from gardening is grass, so volunteers borrow shovels from the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project and cut out and compost sod for budding gardeners.
"If we can help them get over that barrier to the point where they can stick seeds in the ground, they'll be hooked," Badenoch said.
Zach Brown led the team of diggers in the Hamilton's backyard on Saturday. Brown is a University of Montana student, and the other four crew members were from Hellgate High School's National Honor Society.
In roughly 3 1/2 hours, with help from backup 1KNGers, the team ripped out a garden plot about the size of a parking space. Brown said he liked listening to Hamilton chat with an expert, 1KNGer "engine" Morgan Hartford, about where to place which plants for the best sun exposure.
In fact, those conversations are probably one of the most important aspects of 1,000 New Gardens for him. Brown said he got involved with 1KNG because it's tied to so many areas of sustainability - local food, climate change and water use, for example. But for him, the way gardens and gardeners build community is the most fulfilling.
"People really come together around food and drink, obviously, and people involving themselves in their own food production and growing their own food is such a powerful thing," Brown said.
So far, the group counts more than 60 new gardens, with more than 30 put in last year and the same this year. Smith, who helped start the group in Missoula and has since kicked off a chapter in Bozeman, said the response has been great.
While informal, 1,000 New Gardens is a club recognized by the Associated Students of the University of Montana. Smith said students, especially ones who live in the dorm, like the tangible connection to the soil 1KNG offers.
"People are really interested in helping others, and really finding an outlet for all the intellectualizing of the food system that's going on right now," said Smith, who's studying sustainable food and bioenergy at Montana State University.
He said the group doesn't have a deadline for building 1,000 new gardens, and in fact, the goal isn't scientific or set in stone.
"I've been telling people that is the most arbitrary goal in the world right now, or in Montana at least," Smith said.
He imagines success would be one new garden in every block, and neighbors peeking over their fence and asking each other for advice. From there, he figures the gardens will grow exponentially.
This year, one new idea was the parking space garden, said Badenoch.
UM intern Morgan Hartford found 10 gardeners who agreed to plant a garden roughly the size of a parking space, 8 feet by 15 or 20 feet. Badenoch said 1KNG wants to publish the results at the end of the growing season.
"You can show people that it's possible to have a meaningful amount of food off a parking space," he said.
Because most of the volunteers are students, and the students are leaving town, the digging is done for the season. To sign up to dig or get help in the future, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smith said the group also is on the hunt for people who are willing to offer up at least 100 square feet to a willing gardener who doesn't have space. He called it a "land to lend" program.
This fall, Badenoch said crews will help people build "lasagna" gardens, or stacks of newspaper, manure, compost leaves and grass clippings that cook down in the winter and turn into a garden bed to be planted in the spring.
"We thinking having gardens is a good way to build neighbors," Badenoch said.