Encinitas nonprofit’s tool library removes cost barriers as it lends vital help

It was in August when brand-new, first-time homeowner Zack Stevens found himself with a backyard in need of an overhaul.

“I’m really interested in laying some vegetable garden beds and some fruit trees and putting in some drip irrigation,” he explained. “I needed a lot of tools to do that. I specifically needed a gas-powered tiller because the soil where I live is really, really heavy and it’s got a lot of rocks in it. It needs some work, and if I’m going to get it where I want it to be, I absolutely needed a tiller.”

Stevens, who, like any new homeowner, had just sunk a lot of money into buying his La Mesa house, wasn’t interested in sinking hundreds of dollars more into a tiller that he would use only for this one project, so he did some research.

He’d heard about tool libraries in other places in the country and was hoping San Diego would have one nearby. Sure enough, he found the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation’s Tool Lending Library, in Encinitas. And for a small deposit of $5, he was able to borrow not only the tiller, but also a pickax, a wheelbarrow and a big scooping shovel.

The home project is going well for Stevens, who, in his work life, builds exhibits at The New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego. Friends came over to help clear out his yard, and now he’s attacking the ground with the tiller.

Nam-Huy Leduc demonstrates how to use a pole picker to gather fruit from high branches.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

That’s just the kind of news that delights Jessica Toth, executive director of the Solana Center. The non-profit organization was founded by a group of local residents in 1983 as Solana Recyclers. When their successful household recycling program was acquired by a local waste hauler in 1991, the group shifted to direct community education, focusing on soil, water and waste diversion. Its name changed to Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in 2003 to reflect the change in focus to education and action with public and private partnerships.

Today, the center offers science-based school programs, numerous workshops on topics such as food waste prevention and composting, as well as gardening events, electronic waste disposal, business consultation on low-waste processes, and a Food Cycle Community Compost program. About 10 years ago, not long before Toth joined the organization, the team launched the tool library.

With original funding from San Diego County’s Healthy Works program, the Solana Center was able to buy tools, and a Boy Scout troop built the shed that houses the tools. The project’s outreach has continued, buoyed by $2,000 in funding in recent years from the city of Encinitas and the Mizel Family Foundation Community Grant Program.

Executive Director Jessica Toth at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in Encinitas.

What began as a household recycling program in 1983 has evolved into a community education program overseen by Jessica Toth, the nonprofit’s executive director.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The central idea behind the lending library is to support county residents who have home, school and community garden projects, but it doesn’t end there. The Solana Center also uses the tools for hands-on workshops on-site and at sites they visit so participants can take part in activities.

The tool library has an impressive inventory of garden implements. There are hand tools, like cultivators, mattocks and trowels. There are a variety of shovels and brooms. Borrowers can take home a hand-held hula hoe or a large hoe, a lopper, pitchfork, rakes, stools, pruning saws, and even a pole picker for when those out-of-reach oranges or pomegranates are ready to be harvested. There’s even a wood chipper — but not for home use. It stays on the premises.

The website, solanacenter.org, has an inventory list, and users can arrange to borrow tools online in advance by making a reservation, paying a refundable $5 deposit fee in advance, picking up the rented items, and then returning them seven days later. Items can be approved for a renewal of an additional week if there are no pending requests and the staff does not need them for a workshop.

Environment Education Associate Manager Kelsea Jacobsen uses a hand hoe cultivator to weed a garden box.

Kelsea Jacobsen, environmental education associate manager, weeds a garden box using a hand hoe cultivator. People coming to the center can get advice from staff on the best tool to use for a given project and instructions on using it.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

According to the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, which brings together sustainability advocates in local governments, tool lending libraries are springing up throughout North America and have been a “thing” since at least the late 1970s. Online network resources show that between 2013 and 2015, the number of tool lending libraries in the US grew from about 40 to more than 60.

The libraries often offer classes and workshops, and what they carry can vary. Some not only offer garden tools, but also home construction tools, kitchen tools, sewing equipment and camping tents. Washington, DC’s DPR Garden Tool Share site has garden tools, but also solar ovens, a shop vac, camping stove and an on-site cider press. In Los Angeles County, county library cardholders over age 18 are eligible to borrow tools from tool lending libraries at five library locations. The options include garden implements, as well as power tools, bike repair kits, sewing machines and garment steamers, cake pans and hand mixers.

A woman selects a tool in the tool lending library shed.

Executive Director Jessica Toth selects a tool in the tool lending library shed. People can reserve tools to borrow online, with a $5 refundable deposit for seven days of use.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What they all have in common — including the Solana Center’s Tool Lending Library — is that they are keen to help each person, business or city reach their environmental goals.

As Toth explained, “It’s along the lines of this whole sharing community concept that has really evolved. We don’t want to have everyone buy tools that sit in their garage. From that perspective, the library is sustainable. And it encourages projects to happen, like a group gardening project that otherwise wouldn’t be financially sustainable.”

Rain barrels at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in Encinitas.

Workshops are held at the center on topics such as harvesting rainwater in rain barrels.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Buckets that people can use to fill up with their food scraps and then return for composting.

The center has buckets that people can fill with their food scraps and return to be composted.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nam-Huy Leduc, an environmental educator at the Solana Center, added that the mission is to really utilize to the maximum the resources people already have.

“So as an individual, I may have all my tools at home, but who’s using my tools?” he said. “Are my neighbors using them? Maybe. Anyone outside of that? Probably not. So, now tools don’t really get touched. And unfortunately, in the world we live in now, it’s very easy to just buy. I think that by not purchasing and instead using and utilizing a tool lending library, the demand is less. It gives a little bit less stress on supply and production.”

Another benefit to a tool lending library is that gardeners can test out a tool to determine whether it is one that should be in their own collection, that they would use regularly. They can also get guidance from Solana Center staff on recommendations for tools they would need for a given project, and direction in how to use the tools.

Jessica Toth uses a lopper to trim branches from a fig tree as Nam-Huy Leduc assists.

Jessica Toth uses a lopper to trim branches from a fig tree as Nam-Huy Leduc assists.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“If someone comes and they say, ‘I know that this tool is something that I need for this purpose, but I’ve never used it before,’ we can always have them come to our store and show them how it can be done ,” said Leduc. “We have a lot of space in the back where we can demonstrate. I think always for me, at least, it’s really nice to be able to visually see something happening and then also interact with it myself. And then from there, I know that I’d be comfortable with using it.”

The tools, whose handles are painted a bright green to identify them as belonging to the library, are kept in good shape by staff members, including longtime employee Mike Murphy. Leduc said because Murphy lives close by, he comes by and makes the rounds to check that tools are operational and can do repairs on anything that needs it, as well as giving borrowers a walk-through on how to use them.

A man adds worm compost to a garden box.

Nam-Huy Leduc adds worm compost to a garden box in the demonstration garden at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation in Encinitas. The center also conducts workshops on composting basics, worm composting, waterwise gardening and more.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

And, as Stevens, the gas tiller borrower, pointed out, another advantage to borrowing tools is not having to store them.

“Another thing that really attracted me to a tool library in general is that once I use the tools, I don’t have to store them. Because that’s also a cost. I’m pretty lucky. I’ve got my own house, but not everyone has that kind of storage space.

“That’s another barrier that people in the community might face if they want to get involved in a garden project. Maybe they live in a really small apartment or a shared space. You’re not going to put a shovel in your coat closet.”

A shed holds items for e-waste recycling, another service provided at the center.

A shed holds items for e-waste recycling, another service provided at the center.

(Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Once Stevens completes this stage of work on his garden, he said he’d be back if he needs anything else.

“I’m a huge proponent of tool lending libraries,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people in my situation who maybe are new homeowners or just, for whatever reason, maybe don’t have the money to go out and buy tools but they want to tackle some projects, to help develop a community garden or to help develop their own personal garden.

“Having resources like this just lowers the barrier. It makes it easier for more people around the county to engage in gardening.”

Enthusiasm for a garden project could wane once you factor in the cost of tools, but the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation’s Tool Lending Library is a common-sense solution. The Encinitas nonprofit provides the service for San Diego County residents as part of its community outreach.

Where: 137 N. El Camino Real in Encinitas

Hours: Noon to 5 pm Thursday and 9 am to 1 pm Saturday

Tool lending library: $5 refundable deposit for a seven-day loan

Additional products: Rain barrels, kitchen scrap containers, compost buckets, discounts and vouchers for compost bins (with additional suppliers listed here for unincorporated San Diego County.

Services: E-waste recycling, free consultation on composting, information on food waste prevention, rainwater harvesting, water conservation, staff training and compliance inspection for businesses, school programs, volunteer opportunities

Events and workshops: A sampling of upcoming workshops, some offered in Spanish, include:

Oct. 17: “Intro to Vermicomposting Workshop — Lakeside”

Oct. 18: “Smart Ways to Fight Food Waste Webinar — City of Encinitas”

Oct. 22: “Backyard Composting Basics Workshop — City of Encinitas”

Oct. 26: “Cómo ahorrar dinero reduciendo los desechos de alimentos — seminario web gratuito — Ciudad de San Diego”

Nov. 8: “Water Wise Gardening Workshop — Valley Center”

Nov. 12: “All About Worms Workshop — 4S Ranch”

Nov. 14: “Shoo, Fly, Shoo!” Pest Control for Livestock Owners Webinar — County of San Diego”

Information: (760) 436-7986, compost@solanacenter.org, solanacenter.org/tool-lending-library

Golden is also a San Diego freelance writer and blogger.