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From the Family Scale to the Community Scale: An Environmental Scientist Shares Her Approach to Sustainability

Sabrina Joplin is an Environmental Scientist in Freese and Nichols' Austin office.

Striving to live sustainably is a daily challenge in this age of convenience. Luckily there are many small changes you can adopt in your daily life that make a huge dent in your individual carbon footprint. Changes on the individual or family scale do make a difference and add up, but as we all know, our actions can get us only so far, and there is a continual need to amplify our efforts by encouraging greater participation within our community.

Individual/Family Scale

In my family, we make a push to focus on reducing what we throw away and finding any way to reuse, recycle or compost the rest. I’ll admit we are a little bit on the obsessive side, but it’s really important to us to make sure we are doing our part to reduce the amount of trash that makes it to the landfill; and it’s very fulfilling to see the amount of food scraps that avoid the landfill and ultimately become amazing soil supplements.

We have always been avid recyclers and started home composting about 5 years ago. Our two little ones are getting pretty well trained on what can and cannot be composted, and it’s actually been a proud mommy moment to watch my daughter get annoyed when she couldn’t find a place to compost a banana peel in public. 

I will freely admit that I think about food a lot, and not just when I'm pregnant. I love food. I know you shouldn't live to eat, but I haven't quite come to terms with that yet. I love experimenting with foods, growing new varieties of veggies, and trying to find the freshest way to make new recipes. We also like to eat out, but this is a guilty pleasure for us because we know how much waste is involved in the food industry.

Scaling from Family to Neighborhood

The love of fresh veggies brought me to gardening so that I could get a better idea of what was going into my food. I partially thank/blame [fellow Austin employee] Patrick Garnett for sharing his awesome harvests in the office a few years ago. He got me hooked. Having such limited sunny space to garden at home pushed me to shopping at farmers’ markets, and then on to find more space for gardening and other avid gardeners to learn from. 

Soon, one thing led to another, and I was somehow able to enlist all these beautifully talented people to help build our community garden Adelphi Acres, the City of Austin’s first garden on a public right of way. Fast forward a few years, and we now have a beautiful, thriving community garden in our neighborhood that has made sustainable urban agriculture much more accessible and a daily part of the lives of so many people.
One of the beautiful things about participating in a community garden is the growth of a whole community of people who deeply care about locally grown, organic, sustainable food and who are able to grow, learn and share together. When gardening becomes a social endeavor, it builds friendships, increases the safety of the neighborhood, allows us to give back to those in need in our community, increases physical activity and draws in all sorts of groups looking to volunteer their time, get their hands dirty, and find ways to make additional contributions to their community. 

Through cooperative partnerships with our non-profit sponsor, Milwood Library, numerous City of Austin departments, and other local business supporters, we've been able to teach free courses on water wise gardening in Central Texas, composting, rainwater harvesting and collection systems, beneficial insects, companion planting, children’s gardening classes, as well as hosting numerous Master Gardener Panels, plant sales, and other events.

Inviting the Greater Community 

As the community garden began an on-site composting program, we reached out to the Compost Coalition ( to become a drop spot for the collection of certain "greens and browns" that we add to our compost, helping accelerate the process of creating rich, fertile soil amendments/mulch for our growing gardens. We have numerous members and non-members who now collect compost to donate to the garden in lieu of tossing it in the garbage and sending it to the landfill.

The compost produced in the garden helps our gardens retain moisture in the summer and heat in the fall/winter to protect it from the summer and winter extremes. It also reduces the overall amount of water needed and provides amazing nutrients that feed the plants in the same process.

Building Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

We have an amazing partnership with an arborist at a local landscaping company that professionally manages our heritage Live Oaks. They also provide us with endless clean mulch that we make available to the garden and the general community to collect as they need for household landscaping. The garden provides a local drop-off spot near their main office and the location of many of their clients, reducing their trips across town to dispose of removed trees. After sharing this partnership idea with the Public Works and Parks Departments, they have established additional relationships with other community groups and have inspired other landscapers to reach out to community gardens with similar arrangements. These arrangements share resources locally, reduce costs for the business, and, most importantly, reduce emissions for our city. 

Additional local businesses have offered donations to volunteers working in the gardens to help our organization thrive. We have received donations of food and drinks, parking, restrooms, structures, development of teaching gardens, reduced pricing for bike racks, rain catchment systems and gutters, discounts, freebies, and many other services.

The number and variety of Boy Scout and Girl Scout projects in the garden continue to grow, with each new addition adding a piece of homegrown character to our garden. Our outreach team harvests produce for the local food pantry every week with donations from dedicated beds as well as donations from members' abundance.

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