Community gardens today are far too often the rattiest and most unkempt places in a neighborhood; anything worse would get cited by the city as a public nuisance. The garden above is at Habersham, where everything else is just gorgeous. Part of the problem is the fact that vegetable gardens have long been considered utilitarian, something worthy of similar aesthetic attention as a laundry room or broom closet.
I don’t have images to show of what this post is promoting, because lovable community gardens have never been proposed before in the US that I’m aware of. But there’s no reason a community garden can’t be as beautiful as an ornamental garden; it’s just different plant materials. But in any case, this post looks at both garden design and garden culture to find ways that community gardens will be more broadly welcomed into the neighborhood, and treasured there. One more thing… if you’re on Twitter and like the thought in italics, click on the bird to tweet it… thanks, and enjoy!
Why This Now?
It’s not yet clear how many Americans will migrate from larger places to smaller ones in the wake of the pandemic, but steep declines in Manhattan rental rates indicate it’s likely to be a substantial number. And those who are either moving from larger to smaller places, or who are staying where they are and making their bedroom community their day-and-night community by working from home longterm are likely to discover that their opportunities for social interaction are more limited there. And with traditional hangouts like bars being really risky now to the point that many places have shut them down, smaller communities hoping to attract and retain people need to find social interaction alternatives which are much safer. Community gardens may be one of the best alternatives, and for several reasons:
Gardeners love to talk about their gardens. Few things other than puppies are more reliable conversation-starters than gardens, especially when you’re in the garden.
Gardening happens outdoors, where you’re close to 20 times less likely to get infected with the coronavirus than indoors. And because most people don’t garden in the rain, sunshine on the biggest gardening days is a virus-killing bonus.
Raising food yourself means you need that much less food from the grocery store. And while groceries tend to be doing a mostly good job with shopper safety, it’s safer yet to raise your own produce.
The biggest community garden challenge is coordinating all of the gardeners. But if you help them understand that they’re on a mission to do something never done before, but which could spread broadly and for which they may be remembered someday as pioneers, that may help.
The first thing to remember in creating a community garden is the community. The ultimate goal is for the garden to pull the community together. At every step along the way, consider how the garden can bring the gardeners together, and also how it can help bring the neighbors who don’t plant and harvest there together as well.
Design the garden as if it were an ornamental garden, then assign the allotments, which must not be all rectangular. It doesn’t have to look like a Renaissance garden; it might be inspired by an Art Nouveau pattern, for example. Just not a rectangular grid. No ornamental garden I’ve ever seen was laid out in a rectangular grid. That’s just boring. The very fact that most allotments aren’t rectangular helps the gardeners understand from the beginning that they’re embarking on something special and it calls for them to take more care with what they’re doing. With that foundation, follow these steps:
Lay out the primary network of places and paths. Some of these will be gathering places; others will be places flanked by utility structures like tool sheds, well houses, etc. The primary paths and places should be paved in brick or concrete pavers, set in sand.
Lay out the secondary network of paths, which are earthen foot paths between raised beds. Lay out paths and beds so that there are three sizes of beds: small, medium, and large.
Calibrate these sizes to what you think neighbors will be willing to tackle. The worst thing would be to make the beds too large, where they don’t properly maintain them. Have a common bed edge material.
It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s best if each bed in the community garden has one vegetable. This will make the appearance of the garden visually striking. Combine this with the fact that many if not most bed shapes may be unique means the combination of shape & species will definitely be unique. And just because someone has a green thumb with okra doesn’t mean they know how to grow great jalapeños.
The fact that every bed will have one vegetable means that your gardeners will need (with your help) to revive that age-old gardeners’ tradition of swapping. “Wanna swap some green beans for some of my kale?” An early step toward creating community.
Many outdoor elements can serve as garden edges, including fences, hedges, walls, arbors, porches, and building walls. And you can use different edges on different sides of the garden according to what is beyond the garden on that side. The more urban the garden is, the more likely it is that most of the borders will be building walls, and the more rural, the more likely it is that most borders will be lighter things like fences and hedges.
Incidentally, because some of these edges (like hedges) are more easily adaptable for width, it’s simpler to make each of your garden rooms well-proportioned than it is indoors because standard building materials tend to have a narrow choice of widths.
Plantings Near the Edge
If the garden’s edge is something solid (hedge or wall) put the shorter vegetable beds toward the center and the taller ones next to the edge. If the garden’s edge is open, (picket or wrought iron fence) do the opposite so the small material is at the edge.
This helps with both light and view. Taller plants near a hedge or wall can more easily reach up for sunlight, while shorter plants near a mostly-open fence get more light there than they would deeper into the garden. And a garden with a mostly-open fence can be easily viewed from outside the fence, whereas a garden with a solid edge is best viewed from within. From the best points of view, the nearer plants are shorter and the further plants are taller so you can see more of what is planted.
And no, there’s nothing edible in this image, but the main point of this post is to make community gardens that are lovable, so feel free to employ any principle of ornamental gardens to edible gardens.
Be sure to include at least some second-level (arbor) gardens, if not even some third-level (fruit trees). Intensive gardening practices take into account the fact that not all light gets absorbed by the top plants, so more produce can be grown below. And in the case of an intensive arbor like this one, the complete shade makes a great place to sit and rest from your labors in the garden.
Plants can easily be trained up the posts of a freestanding arbor. If an arbor is used as an edge structure for part of the garden, however, the entire outer face of the arbor can be sheathed with a trellis or lattice of strings, wood, or metal so that the arbor plants can vine up all along the edge.
If you do build a garden wall, be sure that you train a wall garden upon it. If it faces the sun through enough of the day, why should it not be fruitful?
Garden walls may be walls of adjacent buildings, or they may stand free in the landscape. Masonry walls make for the best wall gardens because they do not rot. If you’re installing a wall garden over a wood wall, it is best to build a freestanding structure standing a few inches outside the wall so that leaves of the plants are not holding moisture against the wood.
Wall gardens aren’t just for vines; the orange tree in this image would normally grow in the form of a tree, but because this is a wall garden, it is trained to grow flat against the wall. “Espalier” is a term you may encounter for the art of training trees to grow on wall gardens.
A Shady Place to Sit
Be sure to have a place somewhere in the garden where you can sit in the shade. Because most gardening is done in warmer seasons of the year, it is refreshing to have a place to rest and cool off. Having a shady place to rest means you’re likely to get more gardening done.
The shade can come from trees, arbors, or garden structures, but be sure that it’s a place with a breeze, which is better than a closed garden structure where the air is still. Sitting in a gentle breeze makes you feel ten degrees cooler than sitting in still air. Furnish arbors with seats so you can sit and enjoy the garden (more on this later).
A Sunny Place to Sit
Depending on the time of year, you might prefer to sit in the sun instead of the shade. Both the planting season and the harvest season tend to be cooler than the heat of summer, so a warm place to sit when there’s chill in the air is welcome.
Because the first word in “community garden” is “community,” it’s important to design the garden in such a way that they gardeners can get acquainted if they want to. And gardeners often want to. In this era of the pandemic, social interaction can be risky in many settings, but look how easy it is to maintain social distance between family groupings in a garden.
The next step is to place your outbuildings, both utilitarian ones like tool sheds, potting sheds, and well houses plus sitting structures like the arbors just mentioned plus roofed sitting pavilions such as gazebos.
Utilitarian garden structures need to be near the activity they support, but all types of outbuildings can serve another import purpose as well: the creation of space. Always ask “how might this shed, pavilion, arbor, or whatever help frame a garden room?” Great garden designers of previous ages were usually masterful at the creation of outdoor rooms; it is a skill that should be relearned today.
A Place for Solitude
Be sure to include a number of arbors, sitting pavilions, and alcoves, where people can sit and contemplate, looking out over this beautiful garden. Some such places should be quiet as well, such as a meditation place. Some places of solitude may be garden structures, whereas others may be created entirely of plant material.
Include a “morning pavilion” to the east and an “evening pavilion” to the west, where one person can sit in the morning with the sunrise streaming over their shoulder as the mist rises off the garden, or in the evening around sunset, admiring the work of the day. Depending on the size of the community garden, you may have more than one of each.
Do you need to channel rainwater to a rain pond or a rain garden? Water channels can run wherever in the garden they need to, but can be especially interesting along your garden paths where the running water is easiest to see and hear. Water is always welcome in a garden design, and you might create a small fountain or two somewhere along the way.
The water channel shown here is a couple feet wide, which is fine for humid climates. Water channels this wide in dry climates lose too much water to evaporation, so they tend to be mostly covered, with just a narrow slot through which the water can be seen.
Consider designing your rain pond as a frog pond because frogs are excellent insect-fighters. Frog ponds have edges low enough a frog can leap out, have some plant cover, and footing like lily pads on which the frogs can sit.
A frog pond can support fish as well, but not always edible fish. A key question is the harvest method. Fish harvested by sport fishing require a pond substantially larger than the available space in a community garden. Some fish (such as tilapia) thrive in very tight quarters and are harvested by net or by hand, but a tilapia tank is not hospitable to frogs, as there are usually more tilapias than water in a tilapia tank. This means that most of the frog ponds in community gardens only have ornamental fish, if any.
The portals, both into your garden from the outside and between rooms within your garden are important. People should feel they are entering into a special place. "Kiss of the sun for pardon. Song of the birds for mirth. You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden than any place else on the earth.” ~ Dorothy Frances Gurney Not everyone feels so strongly about gardens as Ms. Gurney, but make your portals important anyway.
Portals can be as substantial as entry through a building wall and through a zaguan (passage) into the garden beyond, or they can be as simple as a wooden gate flanked by a hedge on each side, or anything in between. Whatever the design, it is essential that they make clear the fact that you’re leaving one place and entering another.
You might consider lighting your garden, or at least part of it, for small evening events. Designed properly, this will be one of the most beautiful places in the neighborhood and a wonderful place to gather.
If you light the garden, keep the lighting gentle. Consider low lighting along paths through the garden, pendant lighting under building arcades and colonnades flanking garden rooms, fixed lighting on arbor beams, and lighting on water features such as water channels and ponds. And while I’m certainly no botanist, I suspect that it’s healthy for the plants to have natural circadian rhythms, so be sure that the lights turn off after a certain time if someone forgets to turn them off manually. The plants will be happier, as will the neighbors nearby.
How about outdoor showers? And a changing pavilion? Someone could bring clean clothes with them, then shower and change before going home so they come in fresh and depart clean, not stinky and dirty.
Building showers as part of a bathroom pavilion makes double use of the water line and water heater. But showers need not be inside the bathroom pavilion because properly screened outdoor showers are a sensory delight. As with all other outbuildings, consider not only where on the site the showers should be located (maybe near the garden entry) but also how they can help frame the garden rooms.
An Agricultural Aesthetic
Consider how to use the small elements of the garden artfully to create an agricultural aesthetic. These elements may include: sticks and twine, terra cotta pots, stones, gourds, vines, and branches.
An agricultural aesthetic is a design sensibility that celebrates these everyday garden elements, lifting them from their purely utilitarian purposes to things that lift one’s spirits. This idea, to my knowledge, has not been pursued heavily in recent decades, so your community garden might be a pioneering place in moving the idea forward. You might even have design competitions.
Agrarian Community Festivals
Much like ancient cultures, organize a series of seed-time and harvest celebrations. Make these on Saturdays, timed according to planting and harvest best practices, and organize them in such a way that they become a neighborhood cultural event. At the end of the day, a community garden isn’t just a garden for members of your community with green thumbs. Instead, it’s also a setting for creating culture and community among all your neighbors, whether or not they are gardeners themselves.
Wanda and I really hope this is useful, but what have we missed? What other things should community gardens cultivate?