SACRAMENTO, Calif. • Idyllic as it appears, the garden Paul Schaefer tends in Rocklin, Calif.'s Stanford Ranch development was inspired by a tough economy and stories of victory gardens that sprang up during World War II.

What distinguishes this garden from other backyard endeavors, however, is the "sharecropper's contract" that binds landowner and gardener with the produce from the 1,600-square-foot plot.

Schaefer was considering taking out some of his back lawn to make space for a garden when he and friend Lawrence Lee noticed a large unlandscaped area in Eric Muller's backyard.

They approached Muller with a proposition: If Muller would allow use of the land, Lee, who is Muller's backyard neighbor, would furnish the water and Schaefer would supply the labor. And the three families would share the produce.

Neatly mounted seed packages identify rows of lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes and beets, and a decorative wire border surrounds a patch dedicated to herbs. Schaefer's wife, Karen, takes particular delight in showing off an heirloom tomato plant called, appropriately for the times, the "Mortgage Lifter" (it's described as very meaty, with few seeds).

The contract stipulates no marijuana and no crops higher than the top of the fence line. Plus, under no circumstances is the produce to be offered for sale.

"It spells out every contingency," said Schaefer, describing the agreement he signed in exchange for cultivating Muller's plot.

Muller said he and his wife had been planning to landscape the area, once dominated by a live oak that was blown down in a storm. But they were intrigued by Schaefer's proposal.

"We just said, ‘Knock yourself out, as long as it's legal,'" he said.

Muller drew from his experience on homeowners association boards to draft an agreement dealing with issues of liability and parameters for gardening activities.

Schaefer said he spent six hours rototilling before planting thousands of seeds. The garden includes green onions, chives, squash, green beans, and purple, red and yellow peppers. He's also planted assorted flowers to adorn the table.

"The hardest part has been figuring out the watering schedule. You don't need that much water," Schaefer said.
Soaker hoses on timers are set to water 10 minutes twice a day.

Lee admits he had misgivings when he saw the size of the garden.

"I told him, ‘I'm a city boy. I don't do those things,'" Lee recounted.

He's reserving judgment on the wisdom of the project until he sees the first water bill.

Although Schaefer was sporting blisters on his hands by the time the garden was seeded, he said the reward came when the first lettuce plants poked through the soil.

If all goes well, he expects to have produce to share not only among the three families, but with others in the community.

"I used to do some work for Senior Gleaners," Schaefer said. "I think there are food banks that might want some vegetables, too."

Start your own

• Yardsharing is another take on sharecropping. Hyperlocavore brings together networking tools for yard sharing along with information.

• A community garden is another great way to garden and meet your neighbors. Pikes Peak Urban Gardens is the go-to source for information on starting or joining such a project.