If you’re going to start gardening, get ready soon! Planting day is April 15, and you’ll want to be prepared with all your seeds, sprouts, materials and tools. But what if you don’t have a yard, or even a patio or balcony?
Community gardens have existed in the United States for decades, but in the past, they were more commonly thought of as a purely bonding experience amongst neighbors. Lately, they have become part of the phenomenon described by MoneyCrashers.com as The Sharing Economy. In today’s economic and cultural climate, however, they take on even more significance as bulwarks against urban blight and food deserts.
These situations can be especially hard for the underprivileged because many large grocery chains simply refuse to operate locations in areas where they perceive an inability to maximize profits. There are exceptions with the grocers, but the general rule is that the poor are starved for more than money. It is a demonstrable fact that poverty is a cycle that eats its own: Children born into poverty have a difficult time escaping. Poor access to education is one issue, but even where there are schools, hungry brains simply cannot concentrate or learn.
Beyond the access to fresh produce, community gardens’ other advantages include more active, healthy lifestyles; cleaner environments; stronger relationships; and educational opportunities. Although they require significant investment in terms of time and physical work, community gardens encourage exposure to fresh air, exercise and nutritious food.
Before you undertake a large project like this (and it is a large project), there are certain logistics you must first address. There will almost invariably be city zoning permits required. Gardens are also expensive to start, so finding a grant of some kind is probably going to be essential. If you prefer to join a garden that already exists, you can search for one nearby at The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA).
But what if there aren’t any near you, or the waiting list is several years long? ACGA also has a resource page with a great deal of information for creating your own. Community gardens come in many sizes, but one of the most famous and most ambitious is the Clinton Community Garden in Manhattan (clintongarden.org). It was founded 40 years ago and is so successful that it has become a 501(c)(3) with a board of directors and codified bylaws. It is the first community garden in the country to receive permanent greenway park status. If you are curious how something like that might eventually look for your own project, you can see their bylaws on their site.
That might look like an overwhelming undertaking when just starting out, but the point is that community gardening has the potential to radically improve otherwise unused property within a neighborhood. Prior to getting zoning or permitting information, you should first speak with your neighbors. See how many people might be interested in sharing in the duties, chores, upkeep, research, management and costs. If this is to be a collaboration, include others in the start-up to make sure they are invested in it with you.
A very informative podcast for gardening that is updated nearly daily is called Epic Gardening. It has dozens of short, topical episodes that provide wisdom and advice from a master gardener. There is a companion book for the podcast called “Field Guide to Urban Gardening: How to Grow Plants, No Matter Where You Live: Raised Beds – Vertical Gardening – Indoor Edibles – Balconies and Rooftops – Hydroponics.” It can be purchased in electronic or physical format on amazon.com.
The podcast episode dedicated to community gardening offers some considerations so that you go into your ambitious new plan with open eyes. This won’t be all roses, so it’s best to be prepared. The host mentioned the possibility of waitlists 3-5 years long. It is common that people almost never give up their plot until they literally pass away. Also, if you choose to join a pre-existing garden, there will likely be lots of rules and regulations that are managed by a board. There may also be internal politics, and invariably there will be a wide variety of personalities. You will be expected to attend monthly meetings, and you will have to help with chores like composting, cleaning and weeding. Your plot is part of a larger whole, and part of being in a community atmosphere is participating in it.
There are advantages and compromises regardless of whether you join a garden or create one. Do you want to do the leg work of managing it in order to have greater control over it? Or do you prefer to join an established organization with the understanding that you will have to follow rules created by someone else?
Ultimately, community gardens tend to be valuable assets, despite the work and responsibilities involved. They foster something even more valuable than the resources they require. Farm-to-table fruits and vegetables, closer relationships with your neighbors, a sense of pride in your neighborhood, as well as learning and teaching, all combine to generate an amenity that nourishes not just bodies, but beings.
• Don’t steal vegetables.
• Do stick with low maintenance plants.
• Don’t throw shade — growing tall plants steals sunlight from others’ plots.
• Do make sure you can commit to it.
• Don’t use unapproved pesticides or fertilizers.
• Do keep your walkway around your plot tidy.
• Don’t let kids and pets run wild.
• Do offer to water others’ plots while they’re away.
• Don’t let weeds grow.