Why you should join a community garden

I said goodbye to my community garden plot last weekend, and it was really bittersweet. With our recent move, I’ll no longer be eligible to garden there next season. (Though if even I could, it’s a little too far for me to take good care of the plot anyway.)  We spent almost 6 years in our last house, and I gardened there for 3, so community gardening is a big part of my old neighborhood memory. So today, I thought I’d share a little bit about what a community garden is, how it works, and why you should join one! 

(Why am I writing a post about gardening after we are past the growing season here in New England? Well, urban community gardens typically have pretty limited space, and the waiting list to get a plot can be quite long! So if you are entertaining the idea of joining a community garden, I highly recommend starting your search and application process early!)

First, what is a community garden, and who can join?

Community gardens, simply put, are shared growing spaces! They can be quite formal in terms of their legal structure and management, or they can be extremely informal! For example, anybody with land or a yard who is open to share their space with others can start a community garden.

On the other end of the spectrum, the community garden that I belonged to is located in a state park managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and we also have a formal committee that manages the garden operation, membership, and finances. All of this means that there are some rules that members must follow, e.g., not planting any non-native species per state environmental regulations, paying our dues on time (more on this later), and having fences and locks so nearby college students won’t destroy the garden plots during their midnight drunken shenanigans (yep, this has happened before the rules were in place!). On the flip side, this structure has benefits – for one, we get a lot of support from the city and the state, such as donations of free seeds, compost from the city’s yard waste collection program, and equipment and experts to trim and haul away overgrown trees. In addition, having an organized committee that takes charge of the operation can make sure that everyone has a smooth time gardening – having your water shut off because you owe the city past due water bills would not be fun for anybody!

Who is allowed to join a community garden very much depends on how the garden is set up and managed. There are community gardens that are free for all, with no designated plots, open to all who live in the town or the neighborhood. There are also gardens like mine, which assign members plots, keep a waitlist for new applicants when necessary, and charge a small fee to cover the costs of water and shared tools.

Why should you join a community garden?

Unless you have an outdoor space to garden – in which case you may want to leave the limited spots to folks who don’t (land in cities is so precious!) – a better question is probably: why shouldn’t you?! There are so many reasons why I loved community gardening, and I’ll list just three here. 

  • You’ll get to meet many new neighbors, and that’s not limited to neighbors who garden with you! My garden plot was next to a recreational area, so I got to meet lots of people who are out running, taking a leisurely stroll with friends, or walking their dog. It always fills me with joy when folks compliment my plot or ask questions about what I’m growing. If it seems appropriate, I often try to send people home with some flowers or produce, and seeing their smiles always makes my day! (Before this plot, I helped at a tiny campus community garden during grad school, which was next to a daycare, and I absolutely adored seeing how excited little kids were to see a freshly pulled carrot!)
  • You’ll create more connections with nature and our food system. Especially for us city people, it’s pretty easy to feel disconnected from the land that feeds and nourishes us, but the truth is, nature is all around us. Especially during this pandemic, having a garden space to take care of was often the motivation I needed to get outside even when I felt lazy – something that was so important for my mental wellbeing. (Our garden was diligent about implementing safety rules and a signup system to make sure that we could socially distance, which definitely shows another benefit of having a more organized group of members.)
  • You’ll learn what having a community is all about. What makes community gardening different from having a home garden is your fellow gardeners! You can swap seeds, learn growing tips from each other, offer to help in the event of an illness or being out of town, share the harvest with one another or the wider neighborhood…there are endless ways members help and share with each other, and it’s my absolute favorite aspect of community gardening.

How do you find a community garden?

Start by searching online for community gardens in your neighborhood or city. Not all gardens will have a website, so Facebook is another good place for your search. If you can’t easily find one, look for local gardening groups and neighborhood groups (on Facebook or elsewhere) and ask fellow community members!

You can also totally go about it the old fashion way, and just look for one when you are out and about! You don’t want to be too far from your community garden (trust me on this), so pay attention near where you live, where you work, or where you go to school. In fact, I found my community garden on a casual walk around the neighborhood! If you see a community garden but don’t know how to join, don’t be afraid to ask someone. Our garden didn’t have a website until last year (only a Facebook group before) and people didn’t always spot the signage for application instructions, so I often encountered passerbys who have questions about the garden (and I was also happy to answer them!)

Do you need to be “good” at growing things to join a community garden?

Frank and Susan – long time members of my garden, “very good at growing things!”

Having some experience – even if it means growing herbs on your window sill – definitely helps, but it’s not a prerequisite and I certainly would not let lack of experience stop you from trying to join a garden. Growing food is a skill that takes time to build, and how beautiful or productive your garden is depends on a lot of factors, including factors that are totally out of your hands (weather! pests! drunken college students!). A community garden should be a space that welcomes anyone regardless of their skill level, and in my experiences, your fellow gardeners care much more about you showing up than what you are actually able to produce anyway. Plus, I strongly believe that the success of a garden has a lot less to do with experience than many people might expect. My friends Sun and Luke who joined the garden 2 years ago won second place in the city’s community garden contest this year (in the vegetable category, if you must know), and they are a shining example of “you get what you give” when it comes to gardening.

Either way, if you are still nervous about your lack of experience (which I can totally sympathize – having seen some pretty incredible garden plots over the years), start with something easy! Buy seedlings instead of trying to start from seeds, plant a smaller variety of edible or non-edible plants that are beginner friendly, and ask your plot neighbor lots of questions (any proud gardener would be more than happy to share their tips)! Whatever you do, just make sure you follow the rules the community has agreed upon (e.g., whether to only use organic practices, never plant invasive species), even when you disagree with them.

Other common Qs

I received a few other questions on Instagram about community gardening, so I’ll attempt to answer them here:

  • “Is it free?”
    • This will depend on your garden and how much you are able to or want to “invest”. I paid $67 this past season based on the square footage of my plot, which goes towards things like equipment repairs, shared tools, and storage, and water. (Boston water is very expensive.) You should know that even aside from the land itself, there may be other expenses, say…if you need to buy seeds, compost, tools, or raised beds. However, in general, community gardening can be very affordable. As you can see from the header image of this blog post, which shows a community garden I spotted while trail walking last summer, a garden can be pretty bare-bone and still extremely productive!
  • “How often do you need to go?”
    • It really depends on your local climate and what you are growing. The kale I grew this year was very resilient and low-maintenance, but the tomatoes required frequent watering and trellising. I probably went 2 to 3 times per week on average, although some weeks I went more often just because I wanted to! Some gardens will have minimal expectations of how frequently you should visit, in order to make sure that your garden is presentable (≠ productive) and not overtaken by weeds. But again, “you get what you give!” If you are worried about not being able to go every day or multiple times a day on extremely hot days, consider techniques like mulching, which really improves soil water retention.
  • “How to motivate fellow gardeners to care?!” 
    • I sense some frustration in that question 😛 But yes – especially with “free-for-all” gardens that don’t assign plots, this can definitely be a challenge. I’ve also experienced the phenomenon where because nobody feels that they “own” the garden, nobody feels entitled to the harvest. (Picture me walking all around my entire grad school building trying to give away a 5 gallon bucket of mint, yep – real life.) I think even if the garden is supposed to be open to all, having a core group of people who take charge and regularly strategize really helps, so does setting up a watering schedule or some other accountability measures. Lastly, share the bounty! I believe when members get to enjoy the fruit of their or someone else’s labor (pun intended), they’ll more likely want to get involved!
  • “How do I start a community garden?”
    • This is not something I’ve had personal experience with, but I would focus on finding land first. Depending on what kind of garden you want to start, this process might be as simple as finding a neighbor who is willing to share their land (check out the website Shared Earth), and as complicated as engaging the city or state through a lengthy process. Many urban areas are not zoned for gardening, so finding a space with the appropriate zoning can be a big hurdle.

No doubt – being a part of a community garden has been one of the most fulfilling and delightful things I’ve ever done as a neighbor, community member, and urban dweller, so I 1000% encourage you to give it a try! Do you have other questions about community gardening? Drop them in the comments!