Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Are Community Gardens Obsolete?

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....

29 comments:

Susan Harris said...

Great ideas!

katmere said...

Everything works better when well managed! That is why this is a great idea. I'd love to join a gardening coop, and I think I'd prefer it over my own plot not only because of yeild but because of workshare and knowledge share.

I have never gardened in the city, but growing up we gardened extensively. I was used to one large garden that my mother ran and instructed family members about what to do. So this seems similar.

I think the concerns stem from the fact that there is fair amount of investment and a lot of opposing options for how a garden would run. I think some of those oppositions might run into seed selection, fertilizers and pesticides (or properly no pesticides), etc.

I am, however, also probably buying into a CSA this year, so maybe I was already sold on the idea. :)

I think the other thing that this idea runs up against is that plots are already such a scarce resource, few people are comfortable with the experiment.

So THIS is the step that probably will never happen, but I think would dovetail beautifully.

DC should provide tax credits to building owners who provide green roofs for this sort of coop. Because I think one coop doesn't work as well as a network of coops. Building owners will feel a lot more comfortable having a managed garden, however, than having individual plots.

Rebbie Higgins said...

Ed, I think you're right: cities have got to make more of their own food. You've probably already read about the Hampshire Village project in England? On a small scale, community farming supports the food needs of the population AND there's extra for sale at a farmers' market. Riverdale Park Farmers' Market just over our NE border, has a stand for the local Master Peace Youth and Community Garden.

Here's encouragement: the Mount Pleasant Farmers' Market promises to waive application fees for local community gardens wanting to set up a Saturday vending stand.

Jenny said...

Our community garden is being destroyed this year to make way for the relocation of a softball field. It's sad. The community garden, small though it was, provided such an enormous asset to the community.

School teachers used it to teach their students. Even condo-dwellers like me could dig in the dirt and excess food was provided to low-income residents.

Fortunately, due to pressure, the town will relocate the gardens but haven't selected a site. I think with a little effort, we can make the gardens better in their more permanent location and are looking to start community composting as well.

You have some excellent ideas that maybe we can use when our community gardens get going again.

Joanna said...

As ever, lots of food for thought. This sounds like a great idea - in England, organic allotment holders often find themselves gardening next to a plot-holder who is keen on chemicals. If your ideas don't get acceptance, then maybe you should push for the individual plots all to be organic. And to give lectures to help those individual learning curves.

Good luck

Joanna

maamaakrystal said...

My community is starting a Community Garden this year. It looks like it is morphing into something in between the more tradition Community Garden approach and a co-op. All the gardeners worked in the fall to prepare the area and we will finish in the spring. We made raised beds but don't have them all claimed (it is only open to our townhouse community). Whatever beds are unclaimed, we will do community crops that we will share among participants and/or donate to a local food bank. We may also use one side of the fence for community crops. It is all a learning process for us. We will see how it goes.

Ecolocity said...

Ed, your ideas are exactly what we are trying to promote at EcolocityDC. We are particularly interested in building a network of producers - home gardens, community plots, greenhouses - to scale up production to supply restaurants and farmers markets. Our meeting next Tuesday, Feb 3, 7 pm at ECAC, 733 Euclid St NW will be devoted to these ideas. It'd be great if you could come, and anyone else interested. We invite also representatives of that proposed garden which may be able to get the 501(c)3 support they need through ECAC's financial sponsorship. At ECAC we're setting up the Emergence Garden & Sustainability Center to demonstrate and teach sustainable practices.

Larry
http://ecolocity.ning.com

Debbie said...

Great idea. I can see that this idea has merrit. Except there would be too many egos to make it work in real life with real people. Good luck though. Let us know what happens.

ppolischuk said...

I think organizing a community garden along the lines Ed described would go a long way toward bringing attention to urban green space and food production. The recent increase in how our food is produced could easily motivate enough people to make something like this function, but winning over those who would rather have their own garden space would be difficult given the scarcity of land.

There's no doubt more food could be produced if community gardens were operated more like urban farms than gardens. There's also no doubt I'd love to be a part of something like this. I'm excited to see how the 7th Street Garden does at their new, larger site.

Owlfarmer said...

It may well be that the downturn in the economy and--I hope--the re-thinking of our country's radical individualism actually bodes well for the future of community gardens. We're certainly hearing more about them in North Texas (although the best-known one at a Dallas elementary school has been sacrificed on the altar of the district's bad fiscal management), and in the popular press.

I'm also seeing an increase in home food gardens, with people looking further afield for crops other than the usual suspects. I'm planting amaranth this year, and studying up on how to use it, and neighbors are currently drooling over seed catalogues for stuff that will grow in our climate but provide some culinary variety. Every bit of news like this gives me hope.

Leslie said...

I think your idea is an excellent one but I'm not surprised by the arguments against it. I've considered trying to organize a community garden in my small town but have already heard some responses bordering on ugly that make me question whether I'm up to it. My issue is different: In my small town in rural Delaware, without question the folks who would likely be interested in a community garden would be the local immigrants who make up the overwhelming majority of our town's lower-income population, who come from primarily agrarian cultures, and who are pretty much the only people in this town who would not have space in their own yards to plant a garden. And yet while I anticipate anti-immigrant sentiment to rear its ugly head if I tried to help organize a community garden, I have at the same time been accused of racism, laziness and share cropping when I asked recently in an online gardening community about a fair way to allow a family who needs garden space to plant one in my yard in exchange for a share of their yield.

If you can recommend resources that might be useful for someone who is interested in trying to organize a community garden in an area where such things are not well understood, I'd appreciate the recommendations.

Jenny said...

It really is too bad that your community garden didn't go for that idea. It makes complete sense.

"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." This thought hits home. We are too busy working against each other.

Rdr Joseph said...

Everything you wrote and spoke about makes eminent sense. But cooperation and working together definitely goes against the individualism in our American ethos.

Enjoy your blog tremendously! Thanks for writing!

WashingtonGardener said...

I can see why your idea ran into resistance - people want a garden plot for many reasons - from burning off work stress to growing prize-winning zinnias - having a plot for food production may not even be among their top 10 reasons.
What you are talking about is more like an urban farm collective. Definitely the idea has merit and has done well in other places (i.e. Cuba). Setting aside some additional land and/or rooftops for this in every city should be a no-brainer.
But I think it should not replace or usurp the rights of those who want just a few square feet to indulge their own individual gardening whims and needs.

eatclosetohome said...

What about making it voluntary cooperation? Folks who want to work together can be group their plots at one end of the garden, and folks who want their own crop can have individual plots at the other end.

I confess part of the joy of my garden is that it's MINE. It's one of the few realms I get to be totally free and totally creative. One year, I may go for yield, and one year, I may go for weird or pretty or new or old favorites. Or some of each. My garden is my escape from the constant compromise necessary at work and at home.

I'm not trying to "work against" anyone, and I'm all for cooperation...but oh! The joy of my own little plot of land!

Rox Sen said...

Ed--
You are not alone in the aim to integrate food gardening back into civic and family life. A SPIN-Gardening workshop at this year's Rooting DC at the Carnegie Library on Feb. 22 will show how to turn home gardens into food factories by adapting the professional sub-acre farming techniques of SPIN-Farming. Details are here http://www.rootingdc.org All aspiring self-farmers are welcome!

belmontmedina said...

I would love to have a community garden nearby, and would love to have some advice on how to maximize production. My friend lives near a vacant lot on W between 14th and 15th, and every time I pass it, I think GARDEN!!!!

Anonymous said...

I understand your arguments intellectually, but my community gardener gut loves my own little plot. My plot, where I can plant what I want (would there be pressure to grow higher-yield tomatoes, rather than my heirlooms? Would I have to give up fennel and embrace kale?) and go when i want, and mostly be alone. I love the idea that I can haul as much mulch as I want, and plant comparison rows next to each other, to experiment with whatever technique I'm trying. I can leave in the radishes to see what butterflies come, and rip out the lovage because it turns out that I hate it.
As a new gardener, would I have that freedom on the mini-farm? Would I be able to come and sit amongst my peas and beans, and chew straw? It would be nice to have both; I would be sorry to lose my own 180 sq ft, where I can do what I wish (as long as I don't plant mint or use pesticides).

Luke said...

I Like it! I really want to get into the Kaloroma Garden, but it is by lottery. I am really just as interested in gardening as I am in getting food out of it. Playing around in the dirt is fun and this seems like a great way for more people to play! At the very least, each community garden should setup a compost heap that WHOLE community can donate to, rather than just the people using the garden.

Ed Bruske said...

Leslie, look further down on the right hand side of this page for links under food gardening resources. You should find help there.

Rox Sen, I think the SPIN workshop you are referring to on Feb. 22 is being held at the Turkey Thicket Rec center, no?

Belmont, find the owner and ask if you can garden there.

Luke, I agree--we need community composting.

Anonymous said...

Another great option is people sharing their yards, no matter how small. Amongst them they could landscape with veggies, fruits, herbs, plants to attract pollinators, etc. Great way to learn together and eat better. Prettier, too!
Judy Tiger

Anonymous said...

"Rise or fall on your own" may be an American idea, but efficiency/no motion wasted is a very Western/Calvinist idea as well. There is value in puttering, learning on your own, maybe even growing some flowers in your plot instead of food. Reference the poem my Mom used to quote to me when I was growing up about "If you have 2 loaves, sell one and buy hyacinths for the soul."

Ed Bruske said...

Judy, you're right. We should be using front and back yards to grow local food. That should definitely be one of many aspects of a comprehensive local food growing strategy for the city.

Anon, I agree, puttering and flowers are great. But as I mention elsewhere, there are plenty of opportunities to do that besides in a community garden.

Nat West said...

Ed - after waiting for more than a year for a plot in Portland, Oregon, I took matters into my own hands. I found an empty city lot, tracked down the owner via county records, and asked them if I could make it a community garden. Half of it is "mine" and half is a CSA style setup.

So not only is the traditional model of community plots outdated, so is the traditional model of using public land. In exchange for use of the lot, I provide one CSA share to the landowner, sharecropper-style.

Ed Bruske said...

Nat, thanks for sharing your ingenious solution for urban food gardening. It's just that kind of creative accomodation between land owners and gardeners that will be so important as our traditional food system comes under increasing stress. My point is that government agencies involved in creating community gardens should be giving more thought to collective farm arrangements that can provide more food for the community, rather than just turning the land over to the whims of individuals.

Bill Goedecke said...

Sorry - post is a little late. Thanks for this article - ran across it on a google search for community gardens and acreage. I have been a coordinator for a community garden in SF, plus I built a website for the CGs in SF (www.sfgro.org). I visited most of the gardens and I noticed a wide variety of use - some were not used at all and some were tightly managed (tightly managed in the minority). The tightly managed ones had long waiting lists. The gardens had to get to a certain size before they became more efficient. The smaller ones tended to be haphazard. If you are going to have individual plots and have the garden be productive, you need a lot of well-understood and agreed upon rules and a relatively decentralized management. One garden did start out as your suggested, but it worked out that some people did all the work, and some did little - so you would have that kind of problem. For the four and one half acre Alemany Farm in SF, there is recognized management and funding. So it is not so clear, from my experience, how to do this best.

Ed Bruske said...

Bill, thanks for that information and for the valuable link. San Francisco always seems to be a couple steps ahead. I do believe that as energy costs increase and food miles become more critical urban land will become more precious and people will want to garden more intensively. Community gardens will be seen less as a recreational opportunity and more as an essential good growing strategy. Under that scenario, inefficiencies would be eliminated in the interest of producing more food for the community.

Sylvie said...

Hi Ed, I am late commenting - catching up on my reading list. It's interesting that this post has attracted the highest number of comments, at least among your recent posts. It must touch a nerve...

Doing something different can be so difficult!

Ideas that may help might be: setting this up as a CSA - and not a community garden. Although I do like the idea of both if the plot is large enough: one side a CSA-like co-op and one side individual assigned beds. The organization that set that up (volunteer anybody?) would need to have a vision and express it clearly: for example: organic (spell out), every member must work at least xxx h a week or a month, task list to be developed by the Task Committee, tracking of time by somebody else. The planting committee decides what to buy (in bulk); then there must be a committee to divide the harvest weekly etc... so it can be a bit of administrative stuff. Even if some is done on the honor system. But in the latter case, I think you will find that as in many organizations, the bulk of the work is done by a small core group - and they can burn out!

But then the rules can be set forward very clearly and people have to agree with them to join. If they don't do it they get kicked out: penalties are also clearly stated upfront. If they don't like it they can go start their own garden. so, yes indeed it would be a bit of admin.

But from a yield prospective, it would be a lot more efficient... and so would the sharing of knowledge - which can be formalized through workshops or mentoring.

I hope to read more about this.
When I was working in DC (in commercial real estate), one of our client had vacant land next to apartment buildings. I suggested that they'd turned them into "victory" gardens for the aapartment dwellers. I did not quite get chewed up for it, but... unbeknownst to me they were in negotiations with developers and the land has "grown" more shopping malls...

sigh...
let's go plant more seeds...

Ed Bruske said...

You're right, Sylvie, there would be an administrative burden. On the other hand, the city could provide professionals to manage gardens and handle many of those tasks. As it is, the properties are overseen by the recreation department, which hardly does anything more than pass the properties off with very little monitoring. As you say, so much land continues to be gobbled up by development we should be taking what happens to the land that is left much more seriously.