Plant a City Garden

Traveling by train through Europe has always been a pleasure for me, but I especially enjoy seeing the community gardens that are everywhere with their abundance of vegetables and flowers. This may be a tradition, but it also was a necessity to have produce close at hand during two world wars. This idea of community gardens is becoming more and more popular here in the United States. I believe the sheer enjoyment of growing your own fresh tomatoes and other vegetables (not to mention the taste) has encouraged this.

Apartment dwellers and other city and suburban residents who don’t have access to land suitable for raising fresh produce may be able to grow food if they have a plot of land in a community garden. Here the land is divided into small plots that are leased to individual gardeners. Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of suitable land in every large city in the United States – tens of thousands of acres. Much of this urban land is vacant or under- utilized, such as parks and the grounds that surround office buildings, hospitals, factories, churches and schools. This land could be converted to community gardens.

A garden 25 by 30 feet will keep a family of four in vegetables all summer long and into the fall. If properly tended, the growing season could be extended well into the winter. More than 50,000 community garden sites are now in operation in the US, and more are being organized each day. Community gardens provide the customary advantages of cooperative action: reduced costs of shared tools and exchange of tips and techniques. There is a further benefit. If you are away from the site for any period of time or it becomes necessary to protect the garden, other gardeners are there who can keep an eye on your produce.

Finding Garden Sites

  • Apartment or condominium grounds can be used by residents as gardens. Several tenants might be able to persuade the landlord to allow them to have gardens, since it would add a special appeal to living there. These gardens can be made very attractive with flowers (even edible ones) and fruits as well as vegetables. In Birmingham, Alabama, this has become popular. Numerous community gardens around apartment buildings also have sprung up in New York City and Chicago.
  • Vacant lots can be identified from public records or by just being alert to spotting a potential garden of Eden under piles of rubbish. In some cities and towns inventories of open space within the city limits are available for the asking.

The local Planning Commission, Housing Authority, City Clerk’s Office or Community Development agency will generally know which vacant lots are available. In addition to public officials, check with real estate firms and land developers.

  • Church grounds can be put to use. In Appleton, Wisconsin, the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church started with 259 individual gardens around the church and now has more than 2,000 community garden plots throughout the area.
  • School grounds can be turned into gardens for school children. In Cleveland, Ohio, school children grew an estimated 800,000 pounds of vegetables in one year. Head Start gardens can be a learning place for the preschooler.
  • Factory or shop backlots have been converted to gardens for the use of employees. At the RCA Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, employees can be found tending their gardens during the lunch hour.
  • Public parks, or sections of them, can be turned into productive community gardens. Many local, state and federal government agencies are making land available for permanent garden sites. In the Washington, D.C. area alone, the National Park Service has four different community garden sites.

Through the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, Federal lands and funds can be used for community gardens. Check with the regional office of the US Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.

  • Other possibilities include unused farmland (often found surprisingly close to downtown) and land being held by developers.
  •  Developers of a retirement community in Bradenton, Florida, along with housing, provide “green space” for community gardens for the elderly.

Reston, Virginia, a planned community, has put land aside for community gardens.

Space does not permit a complete description of the process of establishing a community garden. If you are interested in participating in one, contact your local government, county extension agents, nurseries, garden clubs or churches for leads to existing gardens. Often there are waiting lists. Also, contact national gardening organizations for they may know of gardens in your area. Here are two national organizations.

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) has a regional network, with offices all around the United States, that conducts regional workshops, publishes newsletters and can help in getting you started. For further information contact Project

Grow, PO Box 8645, Ann Arbor, MI 48107; 313-966-3169.

The National Association For Gardening, 180 Flynn Ave., Burlington, VT 05401, 802-863-1308, was started in 1972 as a community garden for 40 families and became a city-wide project in Burlington. Now this nonprofit organization is a leader in the national movement to encourage community gardens. They have available a Community Gardens Information Kit, which includes a “Guide to Community Gardens” booklet that profiles successful community gardens, press information and a list of community gardens in your part of the world.

Their slogan is very appropriate: “Gardening is a heritage that must be preserved as one of mankind’s most enjoyable pursuits in good times – and most important skills in troubled times.”

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