Get involved and grow along with your community garden.
I have been to no fewer than three dinners this summer at which a friend of mine will point out one of the delicious dishes and say, “That squash is from our garden,” or “I made this spaghetti sauce from the new tomatoes, plus a bunch of the herbs I’ve been growing.”
Immediately, I think: “I could do that. That could be me.”
It’s just not that easy. Available fallow ground for gardening – especially vegetables – is hard to come by where I live.
But there’s plenty of open space for greens at my local community garden, only a couple miles from home. I can plot out enough vegetables for an entire cornucopia of bragging rights about using local food. It’s no time at all before I start researching how to get involved with a community garden, which is where I meet Dyanne Norris, administrative manager for New York City’s GreenThumb program.
Dyanne says that enthusiasm I’m feeling is natural for beginners.
“Without a doubt, new gardeners are just enthralled, enraptured with the idea of jumping into a garden,” she says, “but they might not have a clue beyond that. So it is really important they have some sort of framework that helps them stay grounded.”
Getting things into the ground isn’t difficult, but community gardens are all about just that: community. If Robert Frost tells us that good fences make good neighbors, how easy would it be for a fenceless garden to crop up with conflicts?
Here are a couple tips Dyanne has for me before I start planning for next year’s garden.
Start small. Before even getting an application for a plot, take some time to really understand the work that goes into caring for a garden.
“Commitment to gardening is a proven understanding,” Dyanne says. “It’s evolutionary, as opposed to the revolutionary feeling we get from time to time. I ask individuals who are new to the concept to be willing to hold onto their big dreams, but start small.”
Maybe begin at home with a small planter of herbs in the kitchen window – at least for right now, this step is more my speed. After that, find a way to volunteer or work alongside someone in the community garden where you’d like to put down roots. Take the time to decide whether you have the availability and energy to take on the project before over-committing and leaving plants untended and a problem for other gardeners.
The GreenThumb program provides checklists and calendars for plots within their Gardener’s Handbook, a great way to make certain there aren’t any responsibilities being overlooked.
Get to know the garden. When checking out a potential community garden, know what you’re looking for: some gardens are only for vegetables or only for ornamentals. What are the garden’s rules on soil care and fertilizers? Are pets allowed? Check your plans against the rules of the garden.
Understand the boundaries and care of the plants you’d like to use. Most vegetables aren’t all that intrusive, but some viny crops might interfere with others’ efforts. Similarly, ornamentals like English ivy can quickly scale and conquer neighboring plots.
Talk to the garden’s organizers, and find a place where you fit. Each community garden has its own needs. The goal is to see what I’m able to offer – whether that’s helping with planning or actually taking care of plants – and get involved. No one should feel left out of a community garden. As Dyanne says, “A garden is something that can bring back a pride in involvement as well as sustain families. There’s a greater depth to community gardening than, ‘Gee, nice green space.’”
Be a good neighbor. Especially among people who are enthusiastic about a project, it’s not uncommon to run into conflicts. “We have situations, of course, where there are dominant personalities, and they may be considered intrusive when really all they’re trying to do is help,” Dyanne says. “We would hope individuals would learn about each other and each other’s proclivities so adjustments can be made.”
When a vine curls its way into your plot, before reaching for the shears, it’s worth taking the time to talk to the adjacent gardener to politely ask that they cut it back or trellis it. That gardener likely feels just as strongly about the health of her plant as you cherish your own plot, so be open to communication. Try to find a solution that lets the whole garden – and the others growing with you – continue to flourish.