Confessions of a Community Garden Tenant

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I love to fiddle. I love to take things apart to see how they work, try new things, and mix and match to see what happens. If you think I drove my mother nuts as a child, you’re right! But I’ve learned wonderful things by doing this. Yes, I’ve also had things blow up in my face, but that too is a valuable lesson. Before Edison brought the incandescent bulb to market, he learned 10k ways that it didn’t work, and this too had value. So when a plot opened up in the community garden close to my house, I just had to give it a try.

My urban lot is pretty small and can’t possibly support my nutritional needs by itself, my CSA went up 20% along with the rest of my groceries, and it’s not like we’re still having supply chain issues, right? I had done a recon run over there the previous fall, liked what I saw, and put myself on the waiting list. Now I haul myself out of bed at 6 am most mornings to run over there before work. In this article, I’ll discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly lessons I’ve learned from my community garden plot.

What is a community garden plot?

community garden

For those unfamiliar, community garden plots are low-cost rental spaces through the county community gardens program. Plots come in different sizes. Mine is 10’x20’ and cost me $15 for the season. Generally, this is a good option for anyone who doesn’t have enough space at home, such as apartment/condo dwellers or homeowners with small lots, such as myself. (Looking for urban gardening solutions? Check out this course created just for those who don’t have a lot of land!)

The land is often donated to the program, and there’s a rule book to follow. In my case, I may not put any permanent structures on my plot or plant perennials. I may not use certain pesticides such as glyphosate, dicamba, or neonicotinoids. I will keep my plot weeded and orderly, and if my plot is adjacent to the walking path, I get to help weed that too. I’m allowed to put up rabbit fencing, but it has to come down in fall, and my plot must be cleaned out by October 15.

There are more, but you get the idea. Their land, their rules, right? And I wouldn’t use those nasty pesticides anyway. Oh, another point: there’s no water hookup; therefore, hoses are not an option. I get to haul buckets. This is my biggest reason for going over early. I’d rather haul buckets when it’s 65 vs. 95. Besides, I find that it puts a more positive spin on my day. Make sense?

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So I needed seedlings for my plot.

With this addition, I have a total of 300 ft2 to plant, and I want to use every inch to my best advantage. I’ve been starting seedlings for ten years, so naturally, I went through my seed stash, picked what I wanted, and mapped out my plan.

Then Murphy’s Law hit.

I had found a seed starting mix that I thought would be better than what I’ve always used. It was an organic mixture and contained mycorrhiza. I snapped it up with high hopes, only to have those hopes dashed on the cruel rocks of reality.

It seems that this mixture likely wasn’t sterilized as my usual stuff is, probably because sterilization would kill the fungi. Six weeks post-germination, my seedlings were runted, and many had leaf spots. I’m growing lots of squash this year, and cucurbits are a bit prone to those, but these seedlings hadn’t even seen the light of day! The seed came from Baker Creek, so it was unlikely as a culprit. Outside couldn’t have done it because the seedlings hadn’t been there. I bleach all of my trays and pots before use, so sanitation wasn’t the issue. The only thing left to explain my problem was the media.

My gardener friends agreed with this assessment. I cleaned the worst affected out, hoping I could save some of my seedlings. Runts will often come back, but I saw no point in planting diseased runts. I also bought some new stock from a high school greenhouse. Even that got diseased!

I’d never seen yellow leaf spot on tomatillo before. So I tossed all of it and ran to the garden center. I purchased commercial mycorrhiza nodules along with 23 squashes, ten bell peppers, three tomatoes, two tomatillos, and various herbs. The latter are in my home bed, where I can keep a better eye on them.

Part of the rationale for growing squash at the garden plot is because it’s a low theft item. There’s no security there. No fence, no cameras, nothing. I was told that watermelon and pumpkins were invitations to vandalism, so I nixed those. Besides, squash is very nutritious, and happy squash vines produce quite a lot. Lesson: media matters. Buy the sterilized stuff and add the mycorrhiza later at planting.

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One thing I did right was garden set-up.

Since I’m required to keep it neat & weeded and didn’t want to spend a lot of time at that, I laid down weed barrier cloth. I had that from a few years back but had never used it at home for various reasons. I also repurposed some food containers as water collars, which function to localize the water around the roots of the plant.

This increases water usage efficiency noticeably, which is good because I don’t want to haul more buckets than I have to. My plot is fairly close to the water tote, but still. However, as the plants have grown and the vines have run, it’s difficult to find the collar for watering. I’ve staked most of my squashes, so that helps. I can find the collar by its location relative to the stake.

Where no stake exists, I’m a bit more challenged. Watering the barrier cloth isn’t efficient. I’ve learned to locate the weeds that grow through the hole in the cloth next to the main stem. Next year I may invest in a can of brightly colored spray paint. Lesson: squash vines run big time and hide everything beneath them. Mark the collars for easier finding.

This is how my community garden plot is going…

It’s halfway through the season in my zone, and so far, I’ve harvested enough squash for several meals, 11 pints of zucchini pickles, and have given 50 lbs to the local food bank so far. My winter vines are full as well, so I’m looking forward to that harvest. My freezers will be full, the exercise and self-discipline are both good for me, and helping my community gives me a good feeling in my heart. The garden also helps to manage my anxiety through uncertain times. I feel that my efforts have paid off handsomely.

Economics

  • Plot rental: $15
  • Seedlings: $85
  • Barrier cloth: free
  • Plastic collars: free
  • Exercise/self-discipline: priceless!

Produce value: $0.99/lb x 90 lbs = $90 for zucchini alone, and there’s still more on the vine.

Golden squash: $1.19/lb @ 10 lbs = $12.

I also have spaghetti squash with several set fruit @ $1.79/lb, some Burgess buttercup that’s set a few @ $1.79/lb, five butternut plants, the fruits being $1.79/lb, and a bunch of pattypan squash I can’t find a price for. Every single bell pepper is loaded. You figure it out.

There’s even a bonus lesson here.

My peppers are growing here much better than they ever did when I grew them with my tomatoes. I don’t care what the companion planting charts say, I won’t be growing them with tomatoes any longer. My plants used to be very spindly and set only a few fruits. Now they’re very bushy and have set many. I think I’ll do more of that! I want to get the most value out of my community garden as possible.

Obviously, this isn’t an answer if all heck has broken loose and it’s a free-for-all search for food. But right now, while we’re all just trying to produce as much as we can and get ahead of the shortages, you might be able to greatly increase your gardening capability. And bonus – you just might make some like-minded friends!

Have you used a community garden plot? Was it productive? Is there such an amenity near you? Would you consider giving it a thought? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!

About Amy Allen

Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010. For access to exclusive content, please follow her Patreon page, The Accidental Mycologist.

Confessions of a Community Garden Tenant
Amy Allen

Amy Allen

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  • My dad and step-mom live in a far exurb of NYC, and their town has plots of land for rent ($10 from April to October). I’m pretty sure it is 10′ x 15′. She raises squash and green beans, while he raises tomatoes and peppers. On our trip last summer they sent us home with a gallon bag of green beans and several yellow squash.

    Since they’re out there almost every day, they manage it pretty well. If they plant in early April they can get two crops in before the first frost in mid-to-late October.

    They can the leftovers and give away a lot, because they’re two people in their eighties. My step-mom is British, so she calls it either her “allotment” or her “pension.”

  • I have a couple of friends who got into a community garden in Tacoma and it was a nightmare. A karen got into power and was out measuring soil moisture content, etc to the point of going full nazi and yelling at the gardeners because they were slow to clean up the used condoms and drug paraphenalia each day. Their final “see-ya” was when they had to start removing human feces from the “individuals experiencing homelessness” while the karen stood over them to make sure they “got it all”. No thanks. We moved to the country for a reason. I guess it matters which “community” the community garden is located in.

    • What a bummer! Thankfully my coordinator is much more hands-off. Of course, Tacoma is an entirely different story. The entire Left Coast has become a Third World country.

  • You might try taking a gardening class (or the “Boot Camp”) on Mittleider Gardening methods. There you’ll learn how to grow 100% of your annual food needs in 90 sq ft per person. You’ll also learn how to grow year around (4 growing seasons) in your garden, and can grow down to 27 degrees F without any power or external heat. Things like that, where you learn to “Grow Food as If Your Life Depends On It.”

    To get things started or even growing at home, you should try Hydrostackers, which gives you 20 vegetable producing plants in a 1 sq ft grow space. You can purchase a turnkey system from the outfit in Bradenton, Florida.

    I went several years ago to the one week Mittleider gardening school, and now easily grow about 15x my annual food consumption in the following: a small greenhouse (24′ x 36′), a Mittleider Garden, and a “Hydrostacker Farm” of 50 units, which is 1,000 vegetable plants.

    That took a couple of years to get it all going, but now I can share with my neighbors and food bank, and of course discovered how to freeze dry food. That one took a bit of a learning curve, but it was worth the effort.

    Just looking out the window and staying abreast of what is going on in our world, it might be wise to ramp up your game and get food independent as soon as you can. War is apparently on the horizon as part of the WEF sponsored Great Reset. My retired military friends and other industry experts think we’ll be in a war before the elections, and nuclear war in about 6 months.

    To my way of thinking, this is just another reason to put preparations (and food independence) at the top of my priority list. I for one don’t want my food to glow in the dark!

    • I agree with you that war is on the horizon, but the WEF sponsored Great Reset is nothing but code for “Let’s pretend that we can eat money because we didn’t notice that you need a lot of energy to run industry, and we’ve spent decades lying to people and telling them there are enough energy sources to keep going forever.”

    • I’m not big on the continuing need for the proprietary mix, thanks. Few things beat good, old-fashioned dirt!

  • That’s awesome, how much you’ve been able to produce so far. And I’m so happy you were still able to get plants in, after your batch of seedlings didn’t work out. I hate when that kind of thing happens. . . I had never heard of community gardens till I was in college and had a friend who rented a basement but kept talking about her “garden.” She had homemade tomatillo salsa, homemade herbal tea blends, and I couldn’t figure out where she was growing all this until she explained community gardens to me. It’s an awesome idea. I really wish you the best of luck the rest of this growing season!!

    • Not as of yet, but it’s far from unheard of. That’s why I picked squash. It’s a very underappreciated vegetable.

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