Inspiration may strike anywhere, but gardens seem to host a disproportionate number of epiphanies, don’t you think? Put Newton under an apple tree and bam, gravity. George de Mestral dreamed up Velcro after coming home from a nature stroll covered in burrs. And then there’s me in my backyard, picking through a patch of lemon verbena.

“Whatcha looking for?” my neighbor Adrian, who happened to be in the backyard at the time, asked.

“Dill,” I said. We needed the stuff for a new salad recipe, and I’d come out to check our yard’s communal herb patch. (Nobody knows who planted them, so they’re considered up for grabs.) Unfortunately, I was coming up empty.

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“Oh, we’ve got some dill. Lemme see if it’s still good,” he said, disappearing into his kitchen and reemerging with one of those flat plastic herb cases.

“You sure?” I asked. “You don’t need it?”

“Nah, we used it for a recipe a few days ago. It’s kind of old, but” — he gave the fronds an investigative sniff — “I think they’re OK.” About half of the dill sprigs looked a little lackluster, true, a little yellow, but some seemed perfectly fine. I accepted the dill gratefully and turned back to my door. It was then that my inspiration struck.

“You know,” I said, turning back to Adrian. “There really should be some sort of system where people can give away herbs they don’t need. Recipes will call for, like, a teaspoon of chopped dill, and then the rest of the bunch goes to waste.”

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Adrian agreed that would indeed be cool. Then I went back inside, made that salad, and promptly forgot about organizing my herb share. Until this week, that is, when I found myself yet again guiltily tossing a half-bunch of slimy cilantro. (Into the compost, of course. What kind of monster do you take me for?) This madness had to stop. Who knew — in my neighborhood alone — how many tacos went ungarnished while I let the sprightly herb wilt and molder in my fridge door?

I don’t take food waste of any kind lightly. I try to exhaust every culinary possibility with my produce (and everything else besides). But sometimes traveling or just plain forgetfulness makes me fall short. And I’m certainly not alone. According to a 2012 National Resources Defense Council issue paper, Americans throw away a solid quarter of their groceries, with fresh fruits and veggies leading the pack of wasted foodstuffs.

Herbs are the real killers for me. Even though I’ve got access to a decent herb garden, sometimes I’ll still need to pick up tarragon or chives or mint at the store. The tablespoon of the herb in question goes into the recipe … and then what to do with the rest of the bunch?

You can plan your weekly menu around that herb — maybe basil in pasta Monday, a caprese salad Tuesday, etc. Or you can whip them up into all-purpose condiments like this or this. Or —  OR — you can try to organize a neighborly herb share. I decided to go for all of the above, with a special focus on the latter. Fewer wasted herbs, and besides, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to think of a single bunch of marjoram bringing zing to my neighbor’s table as well as my own.

A few simple guidelines seemed in order. I decided to keep my herb share quite exclusive: for now, just the people who live in my apartment building and immediate neighbors. That’ll make the herb handover as simple as possible, which I hope will increase buy-in. (That, and the fact that we all know each other, reducing any distaste that might come for accepting used herbs from Weird Bob down the street.) And at least to start, we’ll stick with simple herbs, thus avoiding the ick factor of leftover-sharing sites like this and this.

This being the digital age, I organized the endeavor as a Google Group. I envision this working like a hyperlocalized herbal equivalent to the stuff-sharing juggernaut Freecycle, in which members use online groups to organize all manner of giveaways. So yesterday, all my neighbors received a sunny invitation to join up in their mailboxes:

Hi neighbor!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve run into this problem: You buy fresh herbs for a recipe. That recipe calls for a small amount — a teaspoon, say — and you’re left with an almost-full bunch. Then you forget about them, and the herbs slowly go bad in the fridge.

In an effort to reduce food waste, I’m starting up an unofficial herb share for [our building]. Here’s how it works: Email me to get in on the Google Group, a private email listserv. Then, anytime I’ve got extra dill, basil, chives, etc., on hand, I’ll offer it up to the group. You can simply take advantage of the herbal bounty, or you can offer up your own extras. The list is restricted to this apartment building, so handovers will be a snap.


I’m crossing my fingers that the herb share takes off big-time. Adrian is already on board, and I’m eagerly awaiting a flood of emails from others. Who knows — maybe we can expand it to fruits and veggies next, or, hey, loaves of bread or extra chocolate-chip cookies …

Have you ever attempted anything like this is in your neighborhood? What worked and what didn’t? How did you make it a success? Spill your tips in the comments below.