For the past two years, I have been a part of a local community garden. I’ve documented many of my community garden endeavors here, and inevitably, whenever I post about the community garden, I get a lot of questions about community gardening. There seems to be a lot of interest in how it works, how much time it takes, and would I recommend it. Since I’m currently in the process of trying to decide what my future will be with the community garden for the 2014 season, I thought this would be a good time to address some of those questions.
Community gardens are an appealing option for a number of reasons: They are a great alternative for those with limited or no garden space. They tend to be generally affordable, offer the opportunity to get to know and learn from other local gardeners, and are becoming more and more accessible in local communities. Most community gardens also have some component of giving back to the community in a meaningful way. What’s not to love, right?
But there are also some important things to consider before you sign on. In this first post (watch for part two later this week), I’m going to outline some of those considerations. My intention is not to tell you that you should or shouldn’t participate in a community garden, but rather to provide you with a helpful framework to decide if it is right for you.
What kind of time commitment can you make?
As with any gardening endeavor, a community garden requires an ongoing time commitment. You need to find time to prepare and plant the garden, water and weed, tend and harvest, and clean it all up at the end of the season. With a community garden, you also need to factor in the time it will take to get there, the time it might take to haul supplies and harvests back and forth, and the extra time it might take to water if you can’t reach your garden with a hose (or you have to wait your turn to use the hose, or when you can’t use one at all). In addition to the time commitment to your own garden plot, many community gardens also require a certain number of volunteer hours towards the general upkeep of the garden as a whole.
It is important to be realistic about how much time you can afford to spend in the garden. You certainly do not need to dedicate several hours a day, every day to your garden to be successful, but you probably should visit at least a few times a week. The exact amount of time your garden will require is a moving target; it will depend on the weather, what you have planted, the time of the growing season, and any number of other factors. A fair estimate of the average time I spend at the community garden is about an hour a day from late May through early October, but for every trip I make, the loading , unloading, and drive time (4 minutes round trip) added (again, on average) an additional 10 minutes.
Is it convenient to get there?
Signing up for a community garden is kind of like signing up for a gym. The more convenient it is to stop by the garden, the more likely you are to do it. If the location requires you to go entirely out of your way, chances are you’ll be more inclined to just skip it and stay home at the end of a long, busy day. Think about your schedule and travels on a typical day, and where the garden is located in relation. How far away from home is it? Is it convenient for you stop by on your way to or from work? Can you pop in over you lunch hour? It’s also important to think about when you will have time for the community garden. Popping over to the community garden at 8 p.m. is great in June, but by September, you’ll find yourself running out of daylight pretty quickly.
What kind of investment will your plot require?
When thinking about the cost of the community garden plot, think beyond the actual fee. What kind of effort will it take to prepare the plot? Will you need to work up the ground in the spring? Can you do it yourself, or will you need to rent a tiller or pay someone to do it? Will the soil need amending? Will you be able to keep the same plot next year, so you can continue to benefit from your efforts to improve the soil? Will you need to purchase additional plant supports or an extra hose? Consider the course of the entire year, and what resources (monetary and time) you will need to put in. Garden expenses can sometimes be hidden upfront, or come up as the season goes on, but giving some thought to the big picture can help take the sting out of that second, third, or fourth run to the garden center in early summer. Keep in mind that all gardens require an investment, and ask yourself if you are okay making that kind of investment in a garden you are renting.
Is the plot size reasonable for your needs?
This one is a tough one, especially if you are new to gardening–which a lot of community gardeners are! What might be the perfect size for one gardener, might be overwhelming for another. When the plot is too big for your needs, weeds can take over, you feel compelled to fill up the extra space and things go to waste, and eventually, you feel like you can’t keep up. That frustration is really tough, and can be so disheartening! The same thing can happen if you’re still figuring out just how much time and effort a garden needs. So what is the right size? Only you will be able to figure that out based on how many are in your family, what you want to grow, what you will eat, and so forth.
Can you live with the rules?
More than likely, your community garden has an entire document dedicated to rules. Most of them will be common sense things relating to being a good garden plot neighbor, like keep up with the weeds in your garden so they don’t go to seed, and the fact that constructing a 10-foot cucumber trellis that shades out the tomatoes in the neighboring plot is frowned upon. But there will also be other things that might be a deal breaker for you. Most community gardens will specify what kinds methods can be used for pest and disease control, soil amendments, and fertilizers. Some may allow certain chemicals and not others, others will be one hundred percent organic. There may also be specific dates by which you need to have your garden plot planted in the spring and cleaned up in the fall.
I find that the rules are a good way to determine if the garden will be a good fit, especially if you want to garden organically. If the rules are not provided for you up front, ask for them so you can be confident about what you are agreeing to. Even though most community garden rules are enforced by way of an honor system, you should consider them to be firm and find a different community garden if you can’t get on board with the rules. No one wants to be “that gardener” that everyone is upset with because you let your dog run free and trample and pee all over other gardeners’ seedlings (true story).
Are you okay with sharing your garden space?
It should be obvious, but community gardening does mean gardening with other people. I think it’s really important to be honest with yourself about how you will feel when your personal space is (because yes, it will be) encroached upon. It might be that your garden is easily accessible by the public, and curious persons might take a closer look at your garden. It might be a chatty garden plot neighbor that wants to lean on his or her hoe and talk for half an hour when you want to zip in and out in 15 minutes. Or what if you end up next to the one gardener that throws their weeds into the walkway instead of walking it over to the compost pile?
Of course there are ways of managing all of these scenarios, but if what you are really, truly wanting is an hour of peace and quiet, all alone with your thoughts and your tomatoes at the end of the day, be sure you’re okay with the fact that you might not always get that.
There are also risks of community gardening, like theft or destruction. Gardening with others is the biggest risk you’ll take as a gardener, but it can also be the biggest reward, too. There are friendships to be formed, and tricks to learn from more experienced gardeners, and you need to take some time to think about how you feel about that, too!
Are there things you can do to address your concerns?
If, in reading through this list, you found yourself face to face with deal breaker, try to determine if the answer to that concern is within your control. Smart garden planning, time management, and a little strategy can go a long way to address many concerns about community garden gardening. I’ll elaborate much more on this in part two, but for now the most important thing to do is to figure out what is within your control and what is not. You’re not going to find a solution to wanting to douse your garden in miracle grow and sevin in a strictly organic community garden, but you might find a way to work around a plot that is too big for your needs.
If you’re a community garden gardener, are there other questions you’d add to this list? If you’re interested in community gardening, are there other questions you’d like to see addressed? Either way, stay tuned for part two later this week, where I’ll go into more detail on some smart strategies for community garden success!
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