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Frugal Happy: Introducing the Share Shed

How a front yard garden became an opportunity to build community

The idea for a Share Shed started with a bountiful garden. In the end, it became a way of building positive relationships in the community. (Photos: Wen Lee and Chris Stratton except where noted)

Editor’s Note: This post is one of a series by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee, a husband-and-wife team living in the Los Angeles area who are turning their 1963 suburban house into an all-electric, zero-net energy home. They chronicle their attempts at a low-carbon, low-cost, and joyful lifestyle on their blog Frugal Happy. This post was written by Wen.

This summer, our front yard vegetable garden was especially bountiful. We found ourselves with more squash, tomatoes, and eggplant than we could eat on our own. I started putting extra veggies on a chair on our front porch to share with our neighbors. This sort of worked, but since people couldn’t see what was on the chair unless they walked up to the porch, it wasn’t very efficient.

This made me think: What if we moved the chair next to the sidewalk? Also, what if instead of a chair, we had a cute little stand? And what if we invited all neighbors to contribute items, too?

The idea for the “Share Shed” was born!

I’m not an architect or designer whatsoever, but I made some simple sketches and showed them to Chris (who actually understands how to build things). He seemed to think we could construct something like this in a weekend. Well, then, I said, let’s go for it!

My first construction project since the seventh grade.

Here I am with the tape measure looking like I know what I’m doing. Ha! This was pretty much my first construction project since seventh grade woodshop class (which I did poorly in), so I was rather overwhelmed. Luckily Chris was patient and gave lots of guidance.

Chris suggested we use scrap wood that we had lying around after all the demolition work on our house. So we sifted through our wood pile and pulled out pieces that we needed.

Most of the frame was built out of old Douglas fir 2x4s that were salvaged when we vaulted the ceiling in our living room. For the sides and roof we used leftover plywood.

By using scrap wood we were able to 1) reuse perfectly good wood that was just sitting around, and 2) save money on materials. Since the salvaged wood came in different shades and textures, the shed ended up looking a little cobbled together, which I rather liked. Homemade and with character!

Chris was definitely the main builder for this project, taking my simple drawings and figuring out how to translate them into a real-life, functional structure that won’t fall down.

It was a neat experience to watch the shed slowly take shape, one piece at a time. It’s like putting together a 3-D puzzle, but you have to cut all the pieces yourself. Who says geometry isn’t fun?

The most complicated part of the build turned out to be the roof. In my sketches, the roof was magically plopped on top, which didn’t explain at all how it would actually be attached to the frame (details, details). Chris had to get creative and cut a pentagon-shaped ridge beam. Nice one, Chris!

Once the base was complete, Chris could start working on the roof. That was one of the more challenging parts of the job.

After the frame was done, Chris attached two sheets of plywood. Ta da! We had a roof. A little lopsided perhaps, but perfectly sturdy. At this point our shed looked kind of like a well. Or a giant mailbox.

Let’s add color and a friendly sign

Next, we wanted to decorate the Share Shed and make it look friendly and fun.

Instead of buying new paint, I asked around the street to see if any neighbors had extra paint we could use. They did! To my pleasant surprise, neighbors were very generous and excited to donate paint for the project. Even better, all the random colors ended up looking great together.

It’s our street’s very own color palette.

Neighbors and friends offered to help paint the Share Shed. I was very touched! Priscilla from next door was an especially huge help — she came over two days in a row, not only to paint the sides of the shed but also lend her artistic skills for the Share Shed sign.

My friend Jessica (who grew up nearby and I have known since 7th grade) also came over to help with painting. Look how beautiful the sign turned out! The lettering is Jessica’s, while Priscilla painted the camellia (our city’s symbol) and adorable vegetables.

Jessica (left) and Priscilla helped create the sign.

There was a long discussion about whether or not the veggies should be smiling, but in the end Priscilla thought it would be best to leave them expressionless.

Our street has quite a few Chinese neighbors who are not fully fluent in English, and I didn’t want them to be left out. So I asked my family for some translation help.

We came up with 鄰 居 分 享 站 = “Neighbor Sharing Station.”

Another neighbor, Jenny, generously offered to paint the Chinese characters on the sign. This was very helpful because my penmanship in English is bad enough, but my Chinese is downright terrible (I write like a 5-year-old). Jenny’s calligraphy looks awesome.

I’m extremely grateful to Jessica, Priscilla, and Jenny for volunteering their time and skills to create the Share Shed sign. Also to my cousin Janet for all her translation help.

Priscilla had the honor of hanging the Share Shed sign up for the first time. As a final touch, Chris thought it would be neat to add shingles on the Share Shed roof. Because we had leftover shingles in the garage and, heck, why not?

We went all out, including lining the roof with underlayment first and topping it off with ridge shingles. Chris even applied roof sealant on the exposed nails — 100% unnecessary, but the Share Shed roof is so waterproof now it can handle anything.

Neighbors helping neighbors

It ended up taking about three weekends to finish, but it was totally worth it. Even better, we spent exactly zero dollars building it! All the materials were reused, left over, or donated.

I love that many neighbors were involved in its creation, by donating paint or helping with decoration. It felt like a true community project.

We placed the Share Shed in the front corner of our yard, next to the sidewalk so people can easily see it when walking or driving by.

The white sign says: “Everything here is free! Take what you love; Donate what you don’t need. Sharing builds community.”

I also stuffed little fliers (in English and Chinese) in everyone’s mailbox on the street explaining the Share Shed and what it is for. That way all the neighbors know that it’s a community resource for everyone to use.

I purposefully kept the language vague, not limiting the Share Shed to just vegetables. Maybe some neighbors would contribute fruit or other foods, or even non-food items like books and toys? I wasn’t sure and wanted to leave it open.

So far, the community response has been very positive. Curious neighbors have come by to take a look and many have told us how much they like it. Whenever we put veggies on the shelf they disappear within a couple days, which feels gratifying. It’s working!

Some neighbors slow down when they drive by, while others have even pulled over to grab things off the shelf. Which is funny because we never intended this to be a drive-through!

Especially on cool summer evenings, neighbors go out on walks with their families, and we often see them pause at the Share Shed to peruse the goodies. Sometimes we’ll hear children giggling outside and Chris will call to me, “Someone’s at the Share Shed!” And I’ll peak through the window or go out and say hello.

I’ve seen people fill their arms with our extra zucchini, kids carefully pick out a tomato (we made sure the shelf was low enough for children to reach), and once I saw a little girl peer into the shed and yell in Mandarin back up the street (to her sibling?), “今 天 沒 有 東 西!” (“Nothing in here today!”) I love that the Share Shed is becoming a destination for our street.

So, has the Share Shed been a two-way exchange? Well, not too much so far. Most of the activity has been us sharing our garden vegetables. However, I think the sharing concept is a new one for our neighborhood (for most neighborhoods, actually), so it’s understandably a little slow to catch on. As far as I know, there have been two instances when other people besides us contributed to the Share Shed. The first was when some homegrown jujubes appeared in the Share Shed (woohoo!). The second was pretty surprising; I walked out one day and there was a leather backpack sitting in the shed! Very exciting.

The backpack raised some questions. It was the first non-food item in the Share Shed and Chris said to me, “Ummm, what if no one takes the backpack? Will we have to take it to Goodwill? Is this going to become a dumping ground for people’s unwanted crap?” The backpack disappeared a few hours later that day (yay!), but nevertheless these are good questions. When I told my friends about the Share Shed, they also asked me questions like, “What if people outside of the neighborhood find out about the shed and start coming to steal stuff? What if homeless people start hanging out in front of your house? Aren’t you worried?”

Here’s the thing: the whole thing is an experiment. I don’t know what will happen. But I want to try.

The Share Shed is an experiment. If it doesn’t work, it can come down. But if it brings neighbors closer together, it would have to be called a success. (Photo: Matthew Escobar / Temple City Connect)

Will neighbors use it? Will outsiders start stealing stuff? Will it just sit there empty, gathering dust? We’ll find out. If it’s a total failure or causes problems we’ll simply take it down. Easy peasy. But if it makes people smile, helps us share resources and reduce waste, and brings the neighborhood closer together — I call it a success.


Other posts by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee

One Comment

  1. wolfnowl | | #1

    What a lovely idea!! Here in Victoria, people have a tendency to leave no longer needed items at the curb, and much of it is quickly taken up by someone else. We also have an abundance of Little Libraries where people take/leave books. On Denman Island, BC they have the Free Store in an old schoolhouse and people come from far and wide to see, take and or leave. And in places from Montreal to Santa Monica there are get togethers where people upcycle clothing, repair electronics, etc. Burning Man is a short-term community of 50,000 people every September down in Arizona. It's built on 10 principles, one of which is radical sharing.

    All of this is outside the scope of your original plan for a vegetable stand but the intention is the same. Some questions to ask yourself: How can people steal something that's free? Does it matter who takes it, as long as it's appreciated? How do you define neighbourhood? Is it your block, your street or your planet?

    Marcia and I share Free Hugs with anyone who's interested down in Victoria's Inner Harbour. Our only 'rule' is that we offer but those interested come to us. In nine years we've hugged Ambassadors from 82 countries, so far. 🙂 More on that here:


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