Recently I was asked to consult on a possible new community garden in my neighborhood. The local parks and recreation department owns a 1/4-acre plot of land just up the street from my home that is being developed either one of two ways: a passive, walk-through public park with seating, or as a community garden with individual plots.
A meeting was held at the nearby recreation center and a handful of would-be plot holders came out to vote for a community garden. I proposed something a little different: Instead of assigning individual plots, why not form a co-op that could operate this parcel more like a farm? Food production would be so much greater, I argued. It could be managed for eye appeal--no messy tangles of rambling tomatoes and squashes. Shares of produce could be distributed according to the work people put in, and a portion could be assigned to the needy as well. Pest problems could be eliminated with selective planting and crop rotations. The garden could be operated year-round. It could, in short, demonstrate to all just how much food can be grown on a small urban parcel.
Well, I was nearly run out of there on a rail. "Sounds like the Soviet Union!" grumbled one attendee. "Is this how they managed those gardens in World War II?"
This may not be how gardens were run during World War II (or maybe some of them were?). But then again, a few things have certainly changed in the last 60 years. There are more mouths to feed. Precious resources are dwindling. Urban areas certainly have been more built up: There just isn't as much open space available. What's more, we are entering times when pulling together as a community will be all the more important if everyone is to have access to healthful food. It's high time we start looking at the urban spaces that are available for food gardening as a collective resource.
In the District of Columbia, there are some 30 community gardens spread across the city, most of them located in more affluent areas. Typically, these gardens are divided into individual raised beds that are assigned (usually for a modest fee) to individuals on an annual basis. Most gardens have a waiting list of people who are eager to garden and don't have a yard of their own.
The problem with these gardens, as I see it, is that there is no control over what is planted in the individual plots. The gardeners are all on their individual learning curves. They may be growing a great deal of food, or very little. They may be planting things appropriate for the site, or they may not. They may be putting in a great deal of effort, or they may not be doing much at all, in which case the garden managers at some point are forced to take back the plot and assign it to someone else. It's a very inefficient system, as far as overall production is concerned.
There are also horticultural issues. Not too long ago, I was asked to visit a community garden on Capitol Hill and give some advice on Integrated Pest Management. The plot holders had had problems in the past with nematodes. Now they were experiencing an infestation of cucumber beetles. They wanted to know how to get rid of the cucumber beetles. Well, I said, have you tried not planting cucumbers for a year? Or delaying your plantings to interrupt the beetle's life cycle? Those are two effective methods. But one of the garden leaders threw up her hands. "We can't do that?" she said. "We can't tell the other gardeners what to do!"
There is a model for a more effective use of urban space here in the District of Columbia and that is the 7th Street Garden. This garden was started on donated property by two young women who saw it as away to address food security issues in an inner-city neighborhood. Since installing raised beds and trucking in loads of compost, they've been besieged by volunteers and started programs to get local residents involved in tending the garden and sharing in the proceeds. They sell the produce at local farmers markets and give gardening and canning classes to raise funds.
The system I have in mind would work more like a Community Supported Agriculture farm. Most people think of CSA as a farmer who sells you a subscription to his produce, then delivers it weekly in a box. But there are actually many types of CSA arrangements. Some of them involve community residents actually purchasing a plot of land then hiring a farmer to manage it. The CSA members make collective decisions about how the farm should operate, and they are required to spend time working on the farm before they share in the bounty.
Why couldn't such a system work in the city? Instead of assigning individual plots, elect a steering committee that decides what will be planted and when. Great use could be made of border fencing for growing beans and cucumbers and grapes and kiwis and other climbing fruits and vegetables. Space could be set aside for perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb. There could be room for small fruit and nut trees. Instead of puttering around their plots individually, members would receive work assignments and all pull together. In that way, many more people could be involved, sharing in a greater volume of food. It would become a community garden in its truest sense.
And why do community gardeners walk away from their plots in winter? There's no need to, especially in our climate zone. The type of urban garden I envision could be growing a bumper crop of collards, kales, mustard and Chinese greens for the community straight through till spring.
Americans grow up with the idea that we make our fortunes as individuals. Perhaps it's time to let a little air into that cherished credo, especially when it comes to something as precious as urban green space. Maybe you belong to a community garden somewhere that already operates along the lines I've described? Or perhaps you disagree entirely. We'd love to hear your thoughts....