By Jiff Martin – Extension Educator Sustainable Food Systems
All this talk about checking out the latest seed catalogues, de-wintering the garden and predicting the date of the last frost can be frustrating for the land-poor gardener wanna-be. If you are an apartment dweller, a condo resident or simply garden-plot deprived, you may not be satisfied with a few pots in the windowsill or on the deck. You may think you are limited to mooning over beautiful pictures in gardening magazines, but, there is an alternative. Seek out your nearest community garden!
Community Gardens Thrive In Connecticut!
It may seem that the popularity of community gardens has waxed and waned over the years, but, in fact, they have been thriving in some cities and towns for 30 or 40 years.
- Some long term members of the Capitol Region Community Gardens in Albany New York, have worked the same plots for 30 years
- The New Haven Land Trust community gardening program is celebrating 10 years of gardens this year
- In Seattle, Washington, over 1900 plots serve more than 4,600 urban gardeners on 12 acres of land
- The Knox Parks Foundation in Hartford maintains 15 community garden sites throughout the city
- The Middlesex County Extension center has a model community garden for public education.
Long before many of these programs got started, the seeds of community food security were planted in local plots in cities like Detroit. During an economic downturn in 1890, the mayor of Detroit asked local landowners with vacant lots to make these lots available for jobless city residents to plant what were called, “potato patches”. Though potatoes were the primary crop, these plots produced 14,000 bushels of vegetables their first year.
Of course, our parents and grandparents were most familiar with “Victory Gardens” promoted by the US government as a way to increase food security during wartime. By 1944, these gardens produced 44% of the fresh vegetables in the United States. Then along came the 1970’s when many of the current programs were started, lead by urban and environmental activists as a movement to revitalize communities and to help build skills that could potentially move people out of poverty. It was soon discovered that the side effects of gardening programs are many. They helped individuals to feel a part of a community; provided recreational opportunities as well as exercise that is free and does not involve expensive equipment; encouraged beautification of public spaces; provided a place for educational opportunities related to food and the environment; provided cooling shade—an oasis on a hot summer day; and, of course, they cultivated friendships, flowers, and healthy food.
OK, so the benefits of community gardening are many—what else do you need to know before signing up? Well, first of all, you need to know that each community garden is likely to have its own personality. Some are large, some are small. The land may belong to the city (particularly park or school based projects), or sometimes a church or private landowner will donate the space. Some community gardens sprouted directly from a need perceived by a land trust or other community organization. Most successful programs have non-profit organizations as partners. They can provide ongoing organizational support and help with seeking funding for tools, fencing, and other needs.
Some gardens are youth oriented and some may have a cultural flavor-providing fruits and vegetables that recent immigrants can’t find in the local supermarket. Some gardens are planted knowing that at least of portion of the harvest will go to support the needs of local food pantries or soup kitchens-you may be asked to “Plant a Row for the Hungry.” Or, your garden may be prolific enough to regularly bring the extras to a local farmer’s market.
So, visit your local community garden. Check out the space and resources. See what a commitment to this will “cost” you. How much time will you need to devote to the project? Do you need to provide your own tools? How do you sign up? How big is your plot? Is the garden managed organically? Is the soil tested for lead or other contaminants? What is the future of the site—is it subject to the whims of the landowner or city politicians—or will you still be gardening there in five years or so?
If you find that there are no gardening sites available to you, think about organizing one. Chances are there are others in your town or neighborhood who would be interested. There are two organizations that have information and resources to guide you through the process. The American Community Gardening Association at www.communitygarden.org is one gateway to more information about community gardening. Their annual conference will be held this year in Boston, providing the Northeast region easy access to lots of information about starting, growing and promoting gardens in their communities.
In Connecticut, we have a long tradition of successful community gardening. Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Milford, New London, Norwich, the list goes on. There is likely to be a community garden program near you. In the last few years, community gardeners in Connecticut have come together to form the Connecticut Community Gardening Association. The group has defined its mission as, “To support community gardening in Connecticut by disseminating information, building communities and claiming land for environmentally friendly use.” In support of this mission, the CCGA holds an annual community gardening conference, fosters the development of land trusts, community gardens and similar organizations, and seeks out resources for education and research in areas of interest to community gardeners. If you are interested in joining or forming a garden or if you just want to connect with a community of like-minded souls, check out the web site for membership and contact information at: www.ctcommunitygardening.org.