Join a Community Garden!

Q. Mike: I grew up on a farm in central Pennsylvania. I moved to a studio apartment in Philadelphia, and suffer from an acute lack of outdoor space. I've seen community gardens scattered around the city, but I can't figure out how you get a plot in one. Are you aware of a listing of community garden locations and their contacts?
‘Dieing’ For Dirt, 
----Kristi; Center City

A. Great idea, Kris! Community Gardens—vacant lots or other open areas that have been turned into mini-farmettes so that otherwise concrete-bound residents can have a plot of their own to dig in—are a great way to keep your hands dirty (and to meet like-minded neighbors). And there are over a thousand of them in Philadelphia proper! But it’ll take a little digging (get it? “Digging?” Oh c’mon—humor me at least!) to find one with a plot you can pea in.

No list you’ll find will include every garden (for Philly or anywhere else). And unfortunately, many local resources, like the dearly departed “Penn State Cooperative Extension Urban Gardening program”, which listed 450 Philadelphia community gardens and their contact info, have suffered the sad fate of the budget cut.

However, that basic resource—your local Extension Office—still exists; every gardener out there has a local office. And the agents what staff those offices often have lists of community gardens and people to contact about joining them. (And if you’re feeling ambitious towards that vacant lot tantalizing you from across the street, most extension agents will also help you start a new garden—with lots of advice, and sometimes more, like soil and even seeds!) To find your local Extension agent, just type the word “Extension” and the name of your state into an Internet search engine; that should lead you to your state’s web page, which will list all the local offices.

Now, be aware that the ‘best’ areas to find lots of community gardens are often in distressed neighborhoods--places where the gardens have replaced abandoned houses that were torn down. Now, you didn’t say exactly WHERE in Center City you live, but as you can imagine, any ‘downtown’ (or uptown, or…) area is going to be tough, because available land is scarce (and valuable!). But they DO exist—especially at the ‘corners’ of big cities. 

Many urban community garden programs are the remnants of a USDA program that began in the 70s and grew to include 23 large cities (each in a different state). Those USDA gardens were strictly limited to low-income families, but that program ended and the gardens either disappeared, were taken over by community residents, or fell under the guidance of that state’s Extension offices. So there are no centralized lists any more, but  you also don’t have to be poor to get a spot in one of those gardens now either. Anyway….

Once again, no matter where you live, at least half of the gardens in your area won’t be on anyone’s list. So, sure, search out such lists, but also:

•    Drive, walk or bike around your neighborhood, and note the locations of what appear to be community gardens. Then simply stop back on the first warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, and ask the people in the garden who you should talk to about getting in. This is often the fastest path to dirty-hand success.

•    Ask gardening neighbors, your local County Extension agent, the people in charge of your local Parks and Recreation offices, and/or workers at local garden centers and nurseries (real ones, not the big chain stores) for tips on nearby garden locations.

The best national resource is the American Community Gardening Association, a thousand-member organization that moved its headquarters from Philly to Blacksburg, VA last year, and to New York City this year.

Their website,  www.communitygarden.org can help you two ways.
    One, go to the site, and click on “links”. The first thing that comes up will be a state by state list of gardens.  Now, this list hasn’t been updated in a while and it was never all that complete, but it’s a start. (By the way, the list seems to be especially strong in Alabama, Nashville, and several other areas our fine shows reaches.) You might hit the target and find a garden near you right then and there. If not, try contacting someone on that list fairly near your area who has a garden up and running; they might know what’s available near you as well.
    Two, go to the site and sign up for their email ListServe. You don’t have to be a member to do this, and it will allow you to correspond with their thousand members and all the other people like you who are on the list. Now, if you do this, be specific in your subject lines when you send your plaintive pleas out into the Internet ether. Don’t use phrases like “Need Help!” (We all do in some way, honey…some of us more than others!) and don’t leave the subject line blank. Be real specific, like: “Looking for a community garden in Nashville” Or Waco, or Cherry Hill or wherever you happen to be. 
I’m told that almost all emails get a response, and that the people who respond can generally at least put you in touch with people in your area who are tuned into the local community gardening scene. Once again, that’s the ACGA ListServe; go to www.communitygarden.org, and click on “email list.”

And finally, don’t neglect your workplace! Many companies have, or can be convinced to create, ‘employee gardens’ for their workers to use in summer. “Hey boss—you know that big lawn going to waste out in back of the building…?”


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