Thursday, June 13, 2024



[Commentary] Making Community Gardening Work in the City

May 27, 2015 Category: Method

It’s August in a community garden. The stems of the tomato plants are almost weighed down to the parched, hot soil by the over-ripe fruit just waiting to be picked. The morning glories have managed to wrap their vines around the stems of those tomato plants. And the harlequin beetles have turned the kale, which should have been removed weeks ago in preparation for the fall crop, into something resembling Swiss cheese rather than a leafy green.

And where is the gardener who is supposed to be harvesting, weeding, and crop planning during this period of bumper crops and vigorous weeds?

They are most likely down at the shore, or up in the mountains, or partaking in any other strange colloquialisms that don’t make much navigational sense, but relate to the travel habits of those living in the Delaware Valley.

I don’t mean to disparage or judge anyone who chooses to take these vacations. I grew up going to the Jersey shore, and if we really want to talk about sustainability, why travel thousands of miles for palm trees and coconuts when you can travel 60 minutes by car or train (or 6 hours by bike) to Ocean City for amusement piers and funnel cake?

This is not a critique on values, but more so a statement on the inherent problems of the community garden structure.

Of course, community gardens are great when growing tips are exchanged and excess food is shared. But when people are given the duty of maintaining their own personal plot, gardening can quickly become overwhelming, making it feel more like a burdensome job than a fun part of your lifestyle.

I imagine that when most people get a plot in the city, they don’t do so with the intention of becoming full time farmers. Yet at some point they begin to feel like one. So how do you get the results of full time farming without the burdens of the time?

The answer that we have found at Emerald Street Community Farm (ESCF) is to focus on the communal. During the last growing season at ESCF, our 7th season, we didn’t want to continue our community garden for many of the reasons listed above.

However, because of how we are structured, we were primed to find an alternative solution.

Since ESCF’s founding in 2008, we have always toed the line between the communal and the proprietary. Our main growing area has been an exercise in human cooperation. Every Monday, we open the farm to anyone and everyone in our community to come to our growing space, learn different growing techniques, and help us tend the rows of vegetables and beds of herbs. In exchange, they are implored to take as much of the harvest home with them as they can handle for the week, with the excess going to the local soup kitchen.

From our Partners

This growing season, we decided to completely convert the individual plots of the community garden to a children’s garden to serve the many neighborhood kids who come to our garden for cooking lessons, garden education, and “craftivity hour.”

In the beginning, we worried that we’d lose those gardeners who craved the solitude of their own plot. But many of those community gardeners continue to come out every week, and actually admit that they prefer this set up much more. Although some admitted that they were relieved to alleviate the self-consciousness of returning to a neglected plot, most just thought this was a more enjoyable way to garden.

In a city where we use parks as our communal backyards, or where you can pick up an Indego bike in North Philly and then drop it in Center City, I guess this makes sense.

I’m going to be taking a little break from the Everyday Sustainability column for a while to bunker down and finish my next novel The Pemberton’s.  But I wanted to tell this story of Emerald Street to make the larger point about what this column was intended to inspire. Don’t look at sustainability as an all or nothing proposition. Find the ways you can incorporate the methods and ideas into your life. Find ways to share the burden with other people. Because it is hard, and in the end, if you’re not having fun with it, then what’s the point? So go have fun, grow some vegetables, live as sustainably as you can—hopefully with some of the tips you learned from this column—and I hope you get a good harvest at the end of the summer.


Emerald Street Community Farm

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