Enriching communities through gardening
Community members can buy cheap, locally grown plants at Sunshine Community Gardens' annual plant sale.
Photo courtesy of Sunshine Community Gardens.

Enriching communities through gardening

In sprawling urban areas, community gardening programs offer green salvation to the public.

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Gardening is an activity that anyone can enjoy. Whether you’re old, young or somewhere in between, this low-impact activity provides a productive and therapeutic outlet for people of all ages. As experts on the topic, getting involved in a community garden is a great way for your IGC’s staff to give back while promoting the benefits and reaching new gardeners. Here’s how they work:

“We are living in a society prevalent with chronic disease, obesity, diabetes...all these things are in your face every day,” says Steven Uecker, president of Sunshine Community Gardens in Austin, Texas. “And gardening is a way to be healthy and it's easy.”

Community garden initiatives help foster a sense of local camaraderie and provide a green space for people who may not have access to yards. Getting involved is simple and all it takes is a Google search and a quick phone call to your local community garden plot coordinator.

Vendors and gardeners connect and sell items during the annual plant sale at Sunshine Community Gardens. Photo courtesy of Sunshine Community Gardens.

“We keep waitlists for each of our gardens and people can sign up online just by filling out a form, or they can call our office and do it over the phone, or we do take sign ups at outreach events,” says Laura Niemi, program coordinator for the Community Garden Program at Portland Parks & Recreation. Generally, people request plots closest to their homes and plots are assigned based on seniority. When a plot becomes available, Niemi reaches out to the person who has been waiting the longest and offers them the plot.

At the Portland Parks and Recreation department, there are 57 community gardens. The gardens are managed by a central office, but at each site, there's a volunteer leadership team that assists in day-to-day activities, Niemi says.

A Portland Community Garden plot is adorned with flags. Photo courtesy of Laura Niemi.

Uecker reports a similar process at Sunshine Community Gardens, which contains more than 200 plots on more than 3 acres of land. After they reach out to the plot coordinator, applicants can choose a 20x20, 10x20 or a 10x10-foot plot. “One of my initiatives is to try and get more small plots and to bring in people so that you're not failing on a grand scale,” he says.

Getting involved

To successfully manage a plot, gardeners must pay their dues. At Sunshine Community Gardens, it’s $90 a year for a 20x20-foot plot. At Portland Community Gardens, there are various fees, as different plots have different prices.

“We give everybody in good standing and who have been following the policies the opportunity to renew that same plot and pay the fee again,” Niemi says. “And at that point it kicks into a 12-month cycle. We renew people every year in November and people do have the opportunity to stay in the same plot uninterrupted as long as they pay and follow the garden rules.”

Gardeners participating in the Portland Community Garden program pose in front of their plots. Photo courtesy of Laura Niemi.

Each program has a similar set of policies the gardeners must follow. At Sunshine Community Gardens, the only rules are that members must actively garden and they must not grow anything illegal. Uecker says their active gardening policy is very forgiving, but it can be somewhat of a challenge.

“It's very frustrating because you want to give people every chance, but at the same time we have this limited resource and we want people who want to garden,” he says.

Sunshine Community Gardens operates as 501(c)(3) and is entirely self-funded, but it resides on state land, which means the Texas land commissioner has the ultimate control over state lands and properties. If the land is not being used, the state can sell it, lease it or develop it for retail, which is why part of the reason active involvement is a must.

Two gardeners, Jim and Jimmie, stand in front of the water station after a day of gardening. Photo by Carol Limaye | Sunshine Community Gardens.

“I mean there's just so much land pressure here, so we want to be as valuable as we can be to the community so that the powers that be do not take away our land,” Uecker says.

The Sunshine Community Garden is in partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), which further solidifies its community-driven ties. “It's very sensory-driven, so you have high contrast gravel and then lots of tactical herbs like rosemary,” Uecker says.

Members from the TSBVI maintain this special garden, which is part of the school’s curriculum now. Uecker said the partnership has been extremely beneficial to both parties. “It used to be we're just kind of on this unused chunk of land. Nobody cared,” he says. “We are so lucky. We have a great relationship with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.”

Fall color in the TSBVI plot. Photo by Berkley Bettis | Sunshine Community Gardens. 

The policies at Portland Community Gardens mirror that of Sunshine Community Garden’s. Members must actively garden, which Portland requires between April and October. The program’s second policy is that if members are not actively gardening, especially during the winter months, they still need to keep the plot free of weeds and dead plants. “We don't haul away any of that stuff. They have to prevent rodents and stinging insects,” Niemi says.

Paying it forward

According to Niemi, the most important rule is that each gardener is required to complete and log six service hours per year. They must maintain the shared spaces and help other gardeners in their community. Like Uecker, Niemi reports that land, or lack thereof, is a challenge for Portland Community Gardens.

“We have a ton of people on the waiting list, but we don't have enough garden plots and garden locations to meet the demand,” Niemi says. “And being able to find land to do that is especially challenging in Portland because we've experienced a lot of growth here, so we're competing with for-profit housing and other uses for open space.”

A Portland Community Garden plot filled with corn, beans, squash, chili peppers and cilantro. Photo courtesy of Laura Niemi.

However, high demand indicates that community gardening programs are flourishing. “Well, there's so many benefits that come from community gardening, not the least of which is being connected to your food,” Niemi says. “Learning how food is grown — and eating food that you've grown that is specific to your culture — is really, really important to people's physical health and mental health.”

Above all, a good community fosters togetherness and communal well-being, either through special events or day-to-day activities.

Drawing in the crowds

Uecker wants the community to think of Sunshine Community Gardens as a destination. The program even has an annual plant sale the first weekend in March where they work with local artists, vendors and local farms who help supply produce.

“We have over 120 varieties of tomatoes and like 60 varieties of pepper and tons of different varieties of tomatillos and other things. And then herbs that we grow,” he says. “We get a circus tent basically, and we'll have tens of thousands of plants that we sell for $2 a pop, which is super cheap if you're trying to find five varieties of Russian tomatoes.”

At Sunshine Community Gardens, members of the public are invited to partake in a tomato tasting contest. Photo by Steven Uecker | Sunshine Community Gardens. 

Niemi believes that community gardening offers a good way for people to become more involved and connected within their societies.

“It's a great thing for families and passing down knowledge through generations, but also it's really important for the community,” she says. “People come together through their shared love of gardening, but they may have different political beliefs, they may have different income levels, they may have different races or ethnicities, but they all come together in this space and they learn from each other and build relationships. I think that's really important to the community and to the city.”