Community Garden Tips for Suburban Gardening

Important tips for community gardening and an introduction to yard sharing.
By Chris McLaughlin
October 2013
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"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Small-Space Gardening" by Chris McLaughlin gives practical advice for any aspiring suburban gardener.
Cover Courtesy Alpha Books
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Master Gardener Chris McLaughln lends her expertise to beginners and experts alike in (Alpha Books, 2013). This invaluable tome shows readers that nearly any space in their home — no matter how small or out of the way — can be turned into a green oasis. In this selection from the first chapter, suburban gardeners are introduced to community gardens and yard sharing.

You can purchase this book from the GRITstore: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Small-Space Gardening

More from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Small-Scene Gardening:

• How to Make A Raised Bed Garden

The goal of this book is to allow anyone who wants to get their hands dirty to garden in their own space. But if you’ve done everything you can possibly do in your own small space, you can always borrow some. More and more cities offer community gardens for their residents. There’s also a relatively new, creative gardening strategy called “yard sharing” — and, for the adventurous suburban gardener, there’s always “guerrilla gardening,” which we’ll get to in a bit. Trust me: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Gardening with your community offers you more than just more garden space, it also brings your neighbors and community together. Just as gardening by its very nature is a lesson on sustainability, gardening as a unit reinforces the community bonds among you and our neighbors. Gardening can also turn eyesore spaces into places of beauty, provide food for all who tend the grounds, and offer extra bounty for those in need.

Community Gardens

Becoming involved with a local community garden is one of the first ideas to consider if you’d like to get into a larger gardening situation. The land for a community gardens is often provided by the city, local business, or donated by a private party. Very often the people who “run” the gardens are an organized group.

Each garden plot will have a personality that reflects the gardener who’s tending it. Some garden plots will be fenced, some won’t. You may see whirligigs, small benches, painted signs, and original garden designs within the plots. It may look like the gardens are there only for growing vegetables, but, although veggies may dominate the scene, if you rent a garden plot you can plant and grow nearly anything you’d like such as flowers or herbs. In fact, the vegetable gardeners will welcome more flowers as they invite desirable pollinating insects to their vegetable plants.

The general concept is basically the same for most community gardens, but they’ll all have some differences in what they have to offer as well as how they function. Our community gardens have measured-out garden plots that are roughly 12' × 20'. They each have a marker at one corner labeled with a number. The garden’s office has a list of which plots are available to rent, and keeps a log of which gardener is renting which space for the year. Those gardeners get first dibs on that same space the following year. Rental fees fluctuate across the country; ours is on the high side, at $100 a year.

One of the best things about the gardens is that they have nearly everything you need to garden successfully. Ours has a large compost pile as well as mulch for spreading in the pathways. They have wheelbarrows, rakes, shovels, and water hoses. Our garden even has beehives on the property to help ensure vegetable production. A few ladies leave a box out every other week for excess produce from the gardeners, which they take to the local food bank. Classes offered by the city are held at our community gardens, too, on topics ranging from gardening practices such as composting to learning basic watercolor painting of the flowers and environment.

Another reason people enjoy community gardens is to hang around like-minded people. Gardeners throughout the city garden on common ground sharing tips, successes, and failures — thus, everyone benefits. The gardens are also a great way to share your bounty and try new things that are offered to you.

The Benefits of Community Gardens

There’s much more to community gardening than meets the eye. According to the ACGA, the advantages of community gardens to the city surrounding it are remarkable. Community gardening …

• Improves the gardeners’ quality of life.

• Encourages social interaction between neighbors.

• Provides a catalyst for neighborhood and community development.

• Makes your neighborhoods beautiful.

• Reduces crime in the community.

• Conserves natural (and all) resources.

• Creates opportunities for income and economic development.

• Encourages self-reliance and community reliance.

• Preserves the green spaces in the community.

• Produces nutritious food for gardeners and their families.

• Saves money for families.

• Reduces city heat from the streets and parking lots.

• Can become a food source for local food banks.

• Offers opportunity for exercise, recreation, education and therapy for residents.

• Encourages intergenerational and cross-cultural connections.

Community Garden Rules

Usually there will be a place at the gardens to post rules, classes, and other information for gardeners. Community-garden policies vary widely, of course, but they usually include similar rules along these lines:

• Only organic gardening practices are permitted. No pesticides or herbicides can be used to help your gardening endeavor.

• Plot renters may be required to volunteer for general garden maintenance, including assigning each gardener an adjacent path to maintain.

• Specific areas will be designated for weed disposal.

• Consideration of neighbors is usually spelled out. Placement of tall crops, for instance, is sometimes limited.

• Planting timelines are sometimes established to ensure that the plots are being used.

• Child supervision requests may be posted to ensure that others’ plots are undisturbed.

• There will most certainly be some type of plot fencing restrictions — usually it refers to height.

• There may be a time frame on watering plots.

• Usually there will be guidelines on community hose and tool care.

• Community gardens encourage their members to attend community meetings to keep abreast of current garden news.

Finding a Community Garden

To find a community garden in your area, check out the website for the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) at www.communitygarden.org. If you can’t locate one at their site, call your city offices; the gardens in your area may just not be on the ACGA list yet.

If you still come up empty, consider starting up a community garden in your area yourself. Chances are you’ll find many like-minded gardeners who would jump at the chance to have one nearby. Find those gardeners at your local garden shops or garden clubs, and find master gardeners through the Cooperative Extension Office in your county.

According to the American Community Gardening Association, some of the beginning considerations include the following:

• Forming a planning committee
• Choosing a site
• Insurance
• Zoning laws
• Preparing the site
• Organizing the garden
• Budgeting
• Possible fundraising

There’s much more that goes into planning a garden from start to finish. But that shouldn’t stop you and your gardening cohorts. People put gardens together all the time, and when you have an entire group working on the details, it can come together surprisingly fast.

Reprinted with permission from by Chris McClaughlin and published by Alpha Books, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Small-Space Gardening

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