(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2009. Your questions and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
First, you'll want to see if a community garden already exists in your area. A great place for locating your nearest garden is the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) website at communitygarden.org. (And although it has "American" in the name, the ACGA actually covers Canada as well.)
The homepage of the site provides a map and database where you can type in your city and state or zip code and a listing will pop up with results which provide contact names for and location of each garden, along with other details such as history and host organization information.
Keep in mind that not all community gardens are members of the ACGA, so the listing returned upon your query may not be complete, although they do list non-members.
In most large cities, there are a variety of gardens to choose from, with varying affiliations. Many are sponsored by civic organizations or churches. Schools, universities and youth centers are also frequent community garden hosts.
Sometimes, folks in a neighborhood will simply take matters into their own hands and create an urban garden after being granted unused land by their city. In suburban Chicago, for example, the East Garfield Block Club Garden was formed in September 2005 on a parkway in front of 3 vacant, city-owned lots.
Requirements for membership in community gardens are usually pretty loose. In other words, even though a garden is sponsored by a church, you don't have to be a member of the congregation. City-run gardens do sometimes require that you're a resident of that city, however.
Annual dues are generally required, but are usually quite affordable. Most gardens that do have dues will charge per plot, per year. For example, my two plots at the Plano Community Garden in North Dallas cost me $10 each per year. Dues generally go toward buying tools and other supplies not covered by donations.
All good community gardens have rules and bylaws. You'll probably be required to sign a disclaimer disavowing the land owners from any injuries incurred on the site. You'll also be expected to conform to the garden's rules regarding everything from safety issues to crop growing guidelines to harvesting schedules.
Here are some other points to ponder before jumping into a community garden commitment:
- The Big "O"
If you're the type of gardener who unloads synthetic pesticides with both barrels at the first sign of a cucumber beetle, you probably won't be welcome, as most community gardens practice organic methods. However, if you've wanted to "go green", you'll most likely meet a wealth of well-informed folks who would like nothing better than to guide a new convert in the wonderful ways of organics.
- Keep It Real
The aforementioned Plano Community Garden was constructed on the site of the former city dump. When we first started, the place was riddled with broken glass, trash and litter. The soil was horrible and compacted. We've come a long way in three years. Likewise, in New Orleans, the First Grace Community Garden was formed in an old junk yard/parking lot in the fall of 2006, after Hurricane Katrina. Remember, one of the great things about a community garden is that you have the opportunity to help make something wonderful out of what used to be awful.
- Your Harvest May Not Be All for You
Many community gardens grow crops for the sole purpose of donating them to local food banks or for selling at a nearby Farmer's Market. However, most gardens will let you snag a small amount for yourself. Just don't get too greedy.
- You're Part of a Group
Even if, like me, you're an individual plot owner, your involvement with the community garden should go beyond just tending to your own crops. You will be asked to give additional time for meetings and fund-raising events, and to do your part in maintaining common parts of the garden.
- Community Gardening is Wild
Be prepared for problems because, unlike your backyard veggie garden, your community crops aren't constantly under your watchful eye. In many cases, the surrounding land is unkempt. Trouble often appears in the form of a hungry rabbit, deer or squirrel...or sometimes as a less-cute creature like a rat or snake. As I mentioned, my local community garden was formerly the city dump. We are still dealing with rats three years later.
- Watch Your Back
Security can be a problem. Many community gardens aren't situated in the best part of town. Such is the nature of the beast. It's always a good idea to have someone with you when you visit your plot at any time of day. If you must go to the garden alone, make sure someone knows where you are, and have a working cell phone within reach at all times.
- Sometimes, Your Garden Isn't Yours
Realize that in many cases, the land for community gardens is being leased. That means the owner can kick you out if he or she wishes. Remember the sad situation at the South Central Farm in Los Angeles a few years ago, when a private developer obtained an eviction order for the 14-acre community garden? The site had been transformed from a junk heap to a working farm that fed 350 families and hosted 150 different species of plants. Various celebrities staged protests, people were arrested, etc...it got real messy. Tragically, the site was bulldozed.
If you can't find information about community gardens in your area on the ACGA website mentioned above, try contacting your local County Extension Service for information. And if there isn't a community garden currently operating in your area, maybe it's time to start one. The ACGA website also offers great tips for doing just that.
Community gardening isn't for the squeamish or for divas. However, it is one of the most rewarding activities you'll ever participate in.
Note: There is a small but growing list of Community Gardens in the Go Gardening area - please feel free to add more information to this listing!