Having run out of space to expand my vegetable garden in my back (and front!) yards, I was thrilled at the chance to help start a community garden at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady last year. The endeavor was a great success. We were looking for a project that would be environmentally-friendly, strengthen community and provide healthy nutritious food. A community garden seemed like just the ticket.
We looked to the American Community Gardening Association for advice. Their website at www.communitygarden.org is packed with useful tips for starting a community garden, including everything from soil testing to model gardener contracts.
The best feature of community gardens is that they provide an opportunity to garden when you don’t have suitable space of your own, whether it’s due to big shade trees, a lack of space or a landlord who is less than enthusiastic about digging up the lawn.
Community gardens are also a good way for beginners to learn how to garden since there are lots of experienced gardeners eager to share advice (and garden surpluses). Members typically share costs for seeds, tools and other inputs and work together to prepare the soil in the spring and clean up the garden in the fall.
I used my community garden plot to grow certain kinds of veggies that like more sun than the 6-8 hours I get in my yard. The peppers and tomatoes gave a better yield in the community garden plot than at home.
Crops that don’t require frequent harvesting, such as potatoes, dry beans and Brussels sprouts would work better in a community garden plot, whereas I like to grow herbs close to home so I can run out and snip a few sprigs for dinner.
This year, I’m going to plant sugar snap peas in the Gates of Heaven plot since they’re an early season crop and I’m never in the mood to till a big garden bed in March. Besides, the bed would be full of weeds by the time I was ready to plant warm season vegetables like beans and tomatoes at the end of May. The Gates of Heaven plot is only 4 ft X 8 ft- just the right size to till up and plant with peas. The peas should be finished yielding in early June and then I can plant another short season crop such as beets.
The sophisticated term for 2-3 crops in one season is succession planting and is a good strategy for community garden plots since they tend to be small. Another useful strategy is vertical gardening whenever possible- growing cucumbers on trellises, etc. The book “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew is the authority on gardening in small spaces. I also read John Jeavons’ book, “How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine”, cover to cover, when I started gardening.
There are a few disadvantages in community gardening, noticeably a loss of control. I would have preferred to water my tomato plants at the base of the plants to reduce the problem of fungal diseases, but the group decided to set up a tall sprinkler with a timer in order to benefit the group as a whole. On the other hand, I didn’t have to worry about watering my plot every few days.
The community garden may impose other restrictions such as using only organic gardening methods, certain dates when things have to be planted or cleaned up or limits on what can be planted. So, no hay bales or marijuana plants! There may also be communal work days required to prepare the soil or clean up the beds in the fall.
The rugged individualist should probably avoid community gardening, but for the rest of us, it’s a pleasant way to gain access to land and chat with our fellow gardening enthusiasts.