Even though I have a garden in my backyard, I joined a community garden this year. I do not really need the gardening space, but I do need the connection to other gardeners, and to people who share my focus on community food-security (and food-insecurity!).
Joining the nearest community garden is a good way to meet those needs. At the very least, it is a start.
The garden that I joined, the 34th Street Wholistic Garden, is more than six miles away, so it is not super-convenient. However, it is just a couple of miles further than our church, which makes it slightly more convenient. At least one day a week, most weeks, we will be nearer!
I worked with several community gardens in Georgia, helping identify and resolve pest problems and plant diseases, giving classes on various aspects of gardening, doing “walk-throughs” with garden members to help them plan their garden beds, and more.
I didn’t join a community garden then, partly because I loved them all. It would have been too hard to choose one! I had friends at every garden I visited.
Here, I have found only the one community garden, which removes that dilemma. Good thing I already love it, too!
Why join a community garden?
Besides my own reasons for joining a community garden, plenty of other reasons for joining one exist:
- The gardener has no yard at home to make a garden in (apartment living or other renting), or the yard is not suitable (full of tall trees, for example, or it floods).
- A gardener who lives alone might join one to be part of the community, to work alongside others. It can be much more fun to garden as part of a group!
- New gardeners can learn faster as they chat with more experienced gardeners and observe other garden beds.
- Community gardens can improve the food situation for the larger community, when gardeners grow enough good food to share. The garden that I joined does not have any donation plots, and it does not “give away” food, but I expect to be able to share some food out of my own garden bed.
- Community gardens can be a less expensive option than starting a garden at home. The garden I joined provides a 4×12 foot bed, edged with sturdy boards, filled (more or less) with planting mix, plus compost, seeds, and water, for the entire year, for $25 and a few hours of volunteer-time. Anyone who has built a raised bed ($!), filled it with planting mix ($!), and bought their own seeds ($!) and compost ($!) will see that joining this particular garden is a bargain.
The 34th Street Garden mostly follows the Square Foot method
The 34th Street Wholistic Community Garden’s coordinator, Mr. James Franklin, educates the gardeners on the intensive planting method that is described in Mel Bartholomew’s book Square Foot Gardening.
Not every gardener takes to the method, which can be seen by looking at the garden beds, but Mr. Franklin is persistent. He wants the gardeners to all be successful in growing plenty of good food!
He has planted some garden beds as examples, which may help. He planted the example bed in the picture below in the intensive spacing recommended in the Square Foot Gardening book. The bed is marked off with string into square foot sections:
It contains mostly plants that can grow successfully when each plant is in a one-foot square, which makes the “square foot” planting arrangement easy for new gardeners to see.
I have a copy of the Square Foot Gardening book (an older edition), but it is not the only book on my shelf that explains how to plant a garden using an intensive spacing method. If you want to increase the productivity of your garden, or find ways to lower costs, look for these next two books at your local library:
Two more good books that explain intensive planting for productive gardens
How to Grow More Vegetables
The first book that I read on intensive gardening that seemed most valuable to me was How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons (my copy is an old edition). I especially appreciate its information on planning to grow all the food crops, including protein and calorie crops, not just salad-type vegetables, and also crops that produce plenty of stem-and-leaf residue to feed the compost pile.
This book presents a lot of information in tables, and there may be more detail than some gardeners want. Also, I have found that adjusting the spacing and planting dates has improved productivity of some of my crops.
However, this book taught me the value of actually writing out my planting plan, by weeks, and of starting little plants in flats, to save growing time during the garden season.
There is no waiting for seeds to come up in the garden if they are all up and waiting in a flat, ready to transplant into a space newly made available after an earlier crop has been removed!
The Joy of Gardening
Another book that contains an unexpectedly large amount of helpful information is The Joy of Gardening, by Dick Raymond. His garden plan does not use raised beds; instead, he uses wide-rows.
In reality, the wide rows are like slightly raised beds that do not have hard sides (no boards or bricks) to hold the dirt. The result is more of an in-the-ground garden, and I have used Raymond-style wide-row beds successfully.
The book has a whole section explaining Raymond’s experiment on growing enough legumes (beans and peas) that he did not need to add nitrogen fertilizers to the garden — for years!
In this time of high fertilizer prices, some gardeners may find that reading this section is a good use of time.
Raymond’s advice on weed-control is also spot-on. This is the book that convinced me to use more cover crops, and taught me how to use my hoe more effectively, and the effort has been worthwhile.
Understanding how intensive planting can help create a more productive garden is only one part of gardening that community gardeners might want to consider.
Since many community gardeners are like me, and are not visiting their garden bed every day, understanding the cycle of plant growth and harvest for different crops is also helpful.
Planning a garden bed that doesn’t need me every day
Gardeners who are able to easily visit their community garden bed nearly every day will have more options for crops than people like me, who plan to visit and tend the garden only 2-3 times each week.
Most crops can grow and produce food without daily attention, but some crops, when they start making food, need to be harvested every day.
Green beans and okra are two crops that spring to mind right away, that need frequent harvesting once they start making food. Green beans and okra pods both become less tender as they mature, and they can grow past their ideal harvest size overnight.
I have made a short list of summer crops that do not need such frequent harvesting, to plant in my community garden bed:
- Potatoes — I have already planted seed potatoes in my community garden bed (and in the garden at home). These just need “hilling up” for a few weeks as the tops grow; then, they get harvested all at once when the tops die down. This is definitely a low-maintenance crop.
- Peppers — Peppers can stay on the plant for a long time without rotting. They can be picked in the “green” stage, or left to mature to full ripeness, which can take weeks. These are a great choice for a garden bed that won’t be visited every day in summer.
- Peanuts — The care for peanuts is similar to the care for potatoes. They need some “hilling up” as they grow; then they are harvested all at once when the plants begin to die back. Peanuts are a hot-weather crop. I plan to plant these after another crop (either potatoes or zucchini) are removed from the garden.
- Sweet potatoes — The vines need to be trained up a trellis or around other crops, but these grow in the hot summer, to be harvested all at once in fall.
Other crops need harvesting at least a couple of days each week. Two that I am planting this month are zucchini and tomatoes.
Zucchini may be best when each little squash is only 6-7 inches long, but larger squashes are still good, and enormous ones can be grated to make fritters, zucchini bread, or mock-apple pie. This feature, of veggies that can be eaten at many stages of maturity, makes them a good choice for a garden that will not get daily visits.
Tomatoes have the most amazing flavor when picked fully ripe, but they can be picked before then, when just a bit blushed with their mature color; they will still be delicious when compared to grocery-store tomatoes. Some years, gardeners need to harvest tomatoes early anyway, because fully ripe tomatoes get snacked on by birds and small animals.
Some of the easiest crops are for cool season growing
- Many root/bulb crops that are not potatoes — beets, carrots, parsnips, onions, and other root crops also do not have to be harvested daily, but most of these are winter crops for me. Their best growing temperatures are almost gone. Here in the “deeper South”, March is the transition month, when we begin planting warm-season crops (like tomatoes, peppers, and squashes). I have a small area of beets and radishes in my community garden bed right now, but I will plant most of these cool-season root crops in the fall.
- Most greens — lettuces, kale, collards, escarole and other chicories, for example, are another category of plants that don’t have the need for daily harvest. However, like most of the root crops, most of our commonly planted garden greens do best when grown in cooler weather. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the time for growing these is almost past. Their next planting “window” is in the fall.
Planning my plant spacing
The picture below is of the planting “map” for the first planting of my community garden bed. Each little square represents one square foot of space in the bed.
You can see that I make all kinds of notes on the same page as the map. These notes in my Garden Planner and Journal help me plan things like how many plants I will need.
The warm-season crops, the zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes, are not yet planted, but the map reminds me where they are going to go. The potatoes, beets, radishes, lettuce, and endive are all up and growing.
A few herbs are planted at the north end — fennel, borage, and milk thistle.
If you haven’t mapped out your garden beds on paper, this is your reminder that doing so can be very helpful! Knowing that you only need four tomato plants and three pepper plants, for example, can keep you from “over-buying” at the garden center.
I start a lot of my own plants from seeds, and I grow a few more than I think I will need, in case of any post-planting disaster (a late freeze, cutworms, torrential downpour that smashes the little plants…). If all of my plants survive the first couple of weeks outside, any remaining plants will be given to other gardeners.
More to read…
If you are still trying to decide which tomato plants to buy for your garden, consider reading my article Difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes to help make good choices for your garden. The article includes short lists of recommended varieties (of each kind) for the Southeastern US.
To learn more about planting the spring garden more generally, consider reading these articles: