Using a vacant space in the backyard as a garden plot is by no means a new idea; in fact, it’s steeped in history. What if that space was to become a neighborhood pick-what-you-need garden?
Last spring, my son-in-law (Guy) had just that idea. He enjoyed having a small garden and the fresh vegetables that came from it. But as we know, sometimes even a small garden can produce more than a family can consume fresh. Instead of simply sharing or tossing the excess, he reached out to his backyard cul-de-sac neighbors to see if they would like to participate in a neighborhood garden. He volunteered to oversee the garden building and tending since none of his neighbors were familiar with gardening. However, if everyone participated in the planting and care, anything that grew would be available to all for the picking. The neighborhood enthusiastically accepted his idea and so the process began.
One neighbor with an oversized lot volunteered space where there was good drainage and plenty of sunshine. Since this was a recently developed area with a lot of soil compaction, Guy brought in new soil and compost. He designed the garden to have raised beds on three sides with a walk path in the middle for easy access to the raised beds. The raised beds were covered with a weed barrier and a fence and gate were added for deer and rabbit protection. Everyone pitched in with the preparations as they were able.
Tomato, cucumber, pepper, and bean plants were decided upon and acquired. On planting day, Guy invited all the neighborhood kids and showed them how to plant the various seedlings. As spring became summer, the kids and their families watched the baby plants turn into maturing plants setting blossoms and fruit. With the first sight of baby fruit, everyone waited impatiently for ripening and the first picking.
No one could have predicted the amazing effects of this garden. The first of the fruits to be harvested was a cucumber picked by an adult who had never picked anything in his life; he was ecstatic and wanted to know if it could be made into dill pickles! The children went into the garden for right-off-the-vine snacks; in fact, one little girl loved the garden so much that when she couldn’t be found any other place, she was in the garden. The children also enjoyed searching for tomato worms and watching the moths and butterflies that visited the garden. Sometimes there was a bit of friendly competition of who was going to get the next ripe and ready tomato, pepper, cucumber or bean. For others, it was the first time they had ever tasted a freshly picked vegetable. In the end, even this small garden produced more than the neighborhood could use. Everyone was grateful for the experience and is looking forward to another garden this year.
The comradery of this neighborhood is unique and special. The same ‘loose’ organization might not work in another neighborhood; other neighborhoods may need or want a well-organized plan and established ground rules before they begin. When that becomes the case, neighborhoods or community groups should develop a garden plan, like a business develops a business plan, to address such issues as
- How to pay for supplies? Should there be a membership fee? Who will handle finances?
- Who will oversee or supervise?
- Who are the workers and what are their tasks?
- What will be planted?
- How will distribution of produce be handed?
- Will fertilizers, chemicals, and pesticides be used? Will the garden be organic?
Other considerations and tips on starting a neighborhood or community garden can be found using these resources:
Start It Up – Eat Greater Des Moines
Starting a Community Garden – American Community Gardening Association
How to Organize a Community Garden – North Carolina State Extension
Regardless of how big or small, the benefits from a shared garden are numerous. In addition to providing fresh vegetables, a garden can also be a tool for promoting physical and emotional health, connecting with nature, teaching life skills, teamwork, neighborliness, and security. Spring will be here soon. If a neighborhood garden is a consideration, it is time to start planning now.