Apartment dwellers, rejoice!  Those who don’t fancy the idea of ripping up their backyard or gardening in containers, take heart!

Four years ago I found myself in such a situation. I was living in a ground level condo and desperately wanted to learn to garden. I had a large deck but container gardening just didn’t appeal. Neither did I think the grounds caretakers would appreciate discovering a zucchini bush in amongst the rhododendrons.

Instead, I found myself the newest member of my local community garden. Forty dollars later, I had myself a 16×16 foot plot. I bought a bike trailer for my then 18 month old daughter, some gardening gloves and seeds, a copy of Square Foot Gardening and thus began my first attempt at growing my own food.

What is a Community Garden?

This is a somewhat broad question because there are many different models of community gardening, but simply defined it is:

A piece of land gardened by a group of people.

Community gardens are usually public land, owned by the government or non-profit associations. They are occasionally privately owned and function as businesses.

You will find them in all locations- urban, suburban and rural. Sometimes they are collectively gardened with a shared harvest. Most of the time individuals tend to their own plots. They are used to grow vegetables and fruit, flowers, herbs… anything the community or its individual members wish to grow.

Photo by ItzaFineDay

What are the Benefits of Community Gardens?

  • They provide a place to garden for those who can’t where they live
  • They establish a greater sense of community and offer a place to develop relationships
  • They teach skills in self-reliance
  • They promote more local/seasonal eating and increase awareness of where food comes from
  • They encourage better nutrition through fresh produce
  • They help people to save money by growing their own groceries
  • They provide opportunities for recreation, outdoor activity and exercise
  • They help to reduce crime and vandalism
  • They beautify neighborhoods and increase attitudes of pride and ownership
  • They provide inter-generational and inter-cultural interactions

When I first became a member of the garden, my thoughts were on getting myself some space to grow my own food. A place of my own to learn and explore and cut down on our grocery bill.

What I didn’t count on was the sense of community that I felt and the things that I would learn.

Photo by ItzaFineDay

The garden was a place where young and old came together naturally and beautifully, in this way that I wasn’t accustomed to. I began to make friends with many of the retired men and women who gardened there. They offered me gardening tips, brought me extra strawberry plants, and made sure that I scored a good load of organic topsoil when it was dropped off. I brightened their day by asking them questions, listening to their stories with interest and letting them play with my spunky toddler.

I learned more about other cultures. I was intrigued by the quantity of cabbage grown by the Korean families (kimchi anyone?). When the dandelions in a vacant plot burst onto the scene mid-spring, a Chinese family spent hours picking fresh leaves, an activity that left me wondering at the time but that makes total sense to me now. For that matter, it impressed me to see them gardening as a family unit at all, including kids, parents and grandparents.

It was a beautiful place. I loved to bring a picnic lunch so that after I did the gardening chores, we could sit at one of the picnic benches and eat while we enjoyed the peacefulness of the garden, nestled in a city park. The garden was in a less-than-ideal part of town, but once we were enveloped by its lovely surroundings, we forgot where we were. It was a haven to all who entered.

The Nitty-Gritty Details

How much does it cost?

There are usually nominal fees to be paid. In my case, there was a one-time membership fee, and then a yearly plot rental. My first year was $40 and then it was $30 thereafter. Some are as cheap as $5 or $10 each year. Privately owned gardens may have a higher price tag. These fees are used to help maintain the garden grounds, to purchase tools and other equipment, to buy fertilizer or new topsoil, etc.

Photo by Vicki Moore

What about tools?

I was delighted to learn that most gardens have a shed on the premises, full of all the various tools that gardeners need to perform their tasks. I brought along a few small hand tools, but didn’t need to supply my own shovel, hoe, rake, pitchfork, watering hose, etc.

How big are the plots?

This varies entirely for each garden. They could be anywhere from 4×4 ft, 10×10 ft or even up to 20×20 feet. Mine was 16×16. There are also often opportunities for those in wheelchairs or with other disabilities to use smaller raised beds.

Is the soil organic?

That depends. My particular garden was actually an “organic” garden. We were not allowed to use chemicals of any kind and had to make sure our fertilizers were in accord with garden standards. We made compost together and purchased truckloads of organic topsoil yearly.

Of course, not all gardens function like mine did. You will want to ask questions about the standards that gardeners are expected to follow, in order to determine whether you are comfortable with how the soil has previously been cared for.

How do I find a community garden near me?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that by googling the words “community garden” I found sites for gardens in all of the major Canadians cities (thanks for the geo-targeting, Google!). A quick search of the same term, but with the name of my town added in, resulted in several great leads on names of local gardens. They are out there in abundance!

There is also a community garden directory (hosted by Local Harvest) found on the CommunityGarden.org website. This covers all of the USA as well as major urban centers in Canada.

For those in the UK, check out the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens. Aussies, you haven’t been forgotten. Try Australian Community Foods.

Photo by Joe Marinaro

Interested in Starting a Community Garden?

As gardening interest experiences quite a revival, community gardens are also coming back into vogue, particularly for urbanites. If you can’t find one near you, why not consider joining together with others and starting one yourself?

Resources for Starting a Community Garden:

Starting a Community Garden (a very thorough resource from CommunityGarden.org)

10 Tips for Starting a Community Garden (click on link for PDF file)

Let’s Start a Community Garden (helpful links from You Grow Girl)

Starting a Community Garden (from the American Community Gardening Association)

Have you ever been a part of a community garden? Would you ever consider it?