Each week-day I walk slowly past my local community garden. Through the fence I can see on what’s going on, and if I’ve time, I take a slight detour and go on in. I do this for a few reasons. 1) It’s a one stop shop – a place to see many gardeners’ work crammed together. 2) It’s a relaxed, anything-goes place with hardly any rules, which makes for interesting results and inspiration, and 3) gardening in a community creates a friendly, willing-to-share-what-you-know vibe.
I use my community garden purely as a voyeuristic moment. And that’s because I already have a garden. At one time I looked enviously at its beds in full sun and dreamed of summer tomato harvests, but it didn’t feel right to grab a plot ahead of someone who doesn’t have a garden. If you’re one of these people – a frustrated gardener living where there’s not even a balcony – you might want to look around for your nearest share garden. What follows are some (hopefully) helpful pointers. And my first tip is… maybe put your name down now on the inevitable waiting list, while you work out whether it’s for you.
Gates and fences. Every garden is different. Some don’t have fences and are open to anyone at any time. Then there are others like the one here that have gates, fences and a friendly sign out the front explaining when the gates will be locked and unlocked. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Open all hours means you can pick salad greens to go with a midnight omelet on your way home from the opera (joke). With set opening hours you have to be more organized, but there tends to be less pilfering and vandalism.
The rules. Community gardens are civilisations in miniature and so there need to be rules – moral and practical – to help them function. If you’re a maverick gardener, a rebel who uses as much water as you want and harvests happily from other’s plots, then maybe you’ll find gardening in a community setting too restrictive. It’s probably best to make sure the rules of the garden you’re considering joining feel about right. They should specify how much a plot will cost per year, how active your plot needs to be year round to maintain the agreement, and what community working-bee support is expected. You’ll probably also be told what you’re entitled to as part of your annual membership – water, compost, manure and mulch.
And as you can see below, one of the advantages of gardening in a group is that you can create a serious compost heap. There’s always someone who not only knows what to do, but enjoys doing it. If you’re organized, you can bring your scraps to add from home, but community gardens are also very good at recycling donations from nearby – in this case, restaurant kitchen scraps are balanced with shredded office paper. The lucky gardeners enjoy the benefits.
How involved do you get? Joining a community garden is a bit like moving into an apartment block. Everyone else knows each other and you’re the new face. You might be looking forward to jumping into the social network, volunteering to help out at the harvest festival. Or you might be looking for a quiet break each time you visit your own little patch. I’ve done some covert people-watching when I visit my local garden and it’s easy to spot those who want the whole package – plants and connections – and others who cultivate some personal respite. Maybe work out what you’re looking for when you join, and gently but firmly stick with it.
What should I plant? That’s easy. Wander around a take a look at what other gardeners are growing. It’ll give you some ideas, not only about what to grow but how to organise your space to the max. The existing gardeners will have worked out the quirky microclimates and so a bit of imitation, at least in the early days, should lead to greater success. The next thing to think about is what you’d like to cut and take home. Flowers, herbs, leafy vegetables, fruiting or root crops. It’s all possible – but in a small space you probably want to plant your top five. If you’re really lucky, the community may have planted a section of productive trees, or even have a chicken run (the source of your manure entitlement any eggs). As for your plot, here’s some inspiration…
The fun add-ons. Community gardens tend to have an all-over-the-shop look about them, which is freeing. It means anything goes, and in the garden near me, that’s certainly the case…
And strangely, this is my favourite piece of sculpture – a reminder that a break from the weeding to have a cuppa would be nice.