You might think a community garden is a free-for-all — a bunch of hippies growing what they want, however they want, encouraging innovation and creativity. Oh, you’re so wrong.
I’ve been gardening in a 20 x 20 foot garden plot at in a community garden for the last 5 years. It’s not an ideal space. My plot’s got about 90% shade in the summer and a healthy population of furry beasts (ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and a gopher for the triple threat). Gardening is not easy in this space, but I’m succeeding anyway. The trouble is, it doesn’t look like I’m succeeding. I’ve been threatened 3 times in the last 2 years that if I don’t make my garden look like a garden, it’s going to be taken away. That’s sad because I think I’m getting more food from my mess of a plot than many of the ones that look nice.
Here are some of my gardening policies that lead to conflict with the community garden’s established rules and desired aesthetic:
- If a plant comes up in a spot, it’s a good spot. Leave it. Yes, it might be in the middle of what I thought was the path, but clearly, the plant likes it there or it wouldn’t have germinated. Work around it. It won’t be there forever.
- Cover, even if it’s grass or dead plants, is a good thing if you have squirrels. Squirrels don’t eat grass, so if your food plants are hiding in the grass, they are more likely to be overlooked than if they’re out in the open. Just pull the grass before it goes to seed. Cover can also take the form of dead plants. I leave my arugula stems in place once they’ve died. It keeps the critters out.
- If one kind of plant gives you trouble, forget it. Pumpkins and squash won’t grow in my plot. I’ve tried time and time again. After a few years of trying, it’s time to move on.
- Find the plants that do work and focus on those. I’ve found that I am completely successful with mint, oregano, rosemary, arugula, broccoli raab, green onions, and artichokes in my plot. And as long as the gopher is busy somewhere else, I can get big onions and garlic. That’s not really that bad of a spread. You can always trade for the things you want (like pumpkins). One year I had so many artichokes, I had to give them away. And that was from just two plants. It’s not hard to find homes for artichokes though.
- If something works, save some seeds. Yes, it looks ugly to have a bed of bolted leggy arugula for a few months, but these are the plants that did well, so why not re-plant them?
- Don’t rake and don’t till if you’ve got bad soil. No amount of compost is going to fix the solid clay I’m working in. Leave the organic matter on the top. For example, leaves are excellent for soil improvement. The trouble with mixing things in is that the good stuff gets diluted. Start improving the top and eventually, you’ll get a thick layer of good soil. I’m not there yet, but I’ve seen improvement already that’s pretty encouraging.
- Plant weeds. You can eat all kinds of stuff that’s considered a weed — arugula, dandelions, and mustard are just a few of the foods considered a weed in my community garden. Every time I get one of those emails telling me to clean up my plot, I remind the coordinator that I plant weedy-looking plants on purpose.
So if you happen to coordinate or oversee a community garden and you happen to have a misfit plot, perhaps talk to the owner of that plot and see why they do what they do. Maybe what looks like a mess is actually a decent strategy for dealing with difficult conditions. Maybe you can get some tips.
What kinds of unconventional methods have you tried in your garden?