I spent two years dreaming of sun-warmed tomatoes, towering sunflowers and home-grown salad greens before a spot opened in my community garden in Washington, D.C.
When I first met plot 56 in September of 2015, it was a mound of grasses, vines, and cilantro gone to seed.
I had no experience with a vegetable garden of my own, but I knew I was just the person to tame this 4-by-8 foot raised bed. I grew up watching my dad grow veggies. I worked on a flower farm in high school. And I trained as a plant biologist. So I know something about encouraging a seed to grow.
Here I am in 2015 confidently posed by the weeds I was ready to conquer.
And here’s a photograph of the same plot, one year later — sent to me by the president of our community garden, along with a friendly reminder that if I didn’t tend to my plot ASAP, it would go to someone else.
Yeah, my first year was a miserable failure, and not just because I let the weeds win.
Community gardens are rapidly gaining popularity. In my city alone, the Department of Parks and Recreation oversees more than 30 community gardens made up of about 1,200 individual plots. But coaxing tiny boxes of land to produce quality vegetables in urban settings requires real skill.
This summer, I righted many of my wrongs from last year and also made some fresh mistakes. In the hopes of improving next year’s yield, I reached out to community garden experts for help. Here is their (and my) best advice for getting the most veggie for your effort in a community garden.
- Start easy. Some crops are more foolproof than others, says Stacey Marien, a librarian with 16 years of experience planting in D.C.’s Friendship Garden. She recommends that newcomers try herbs like parsley and leafy greens like kale, chard and mustard. And I recommend cherry tomatoes. Last year, even as the rest of my garden succumbed to neglect, the cherry tomato plants kept pumping out jolly little fruits. This summer, with proper watering, they’re prolific.
- Aim high. Community garden plots can be as small as 4 by 4 feet. Faced with tight quarters, resourceful gardeners train plants upward. “Go as vertical as possible,” says Josh Singer, the community garden specialist for D.C.’s DPR. His group offers carpentry courses where gardeners learn to build trellises stable enough to hold just about any plant, even watermelon. To keep the heavy fruits from plummeting to the ground, gardeners support them with “hammocks” fashioned from one of the most stretchy, breathable fabrics out there — pantyhose.
- Avoid space hogs. “Watch out for plants that use a lot of water and are invasive and can take over,” says Bill Maynard, a board member and past president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), who also runs the community gardens program for Sacramento, Calif.’s DPR. “Mint spreads like wildfire. Some gardens don’t allow mint.” If you happen to be someone who, like me, did not hear this good advice until it was too late, I recommend mint pesto. I make it regularly. The mountain of mint I’m yielding is too formidable to mojito my way out of it.
- Mulch for moisture. “People who don’t mulch have to water every day,” says Singer. He places a 2-inch layer of straw over his plot to seal in the moisture. He waters only about twice per week. The mulch also keeps down weeds and, according to Marien, can prevent a fungus from moving from soil to tomato plants. “I make sure that I mulch a lot,” she says. The day after Halloween, she collects hay bales that people are ready to toss and leaves them in her garden so she’s set for spring.
- Be less tempting. Theft is an unfortunate reality for many community gardens. My general philosophy is that if someone really needs my head of broccoli, I don’t mind it walking off. But I also understand the heartbreak of eagerly watching a tomato ripen only for it to end up sliced on someone else’s sandwich. “Small, fast growing things are less likely to be stolen,” says Singer. He recommends cherry tomatoes and okra, which are less eye-catching than a big tomato, pepper or eggplant. His favorite theft-proof veggie is the green zebra tomato. It ripens while still green so a gardener can harvest it long before it tempts others.
- Don’t forget flowers. Flowers can seem like a decadent waste of space in a tiny veggie garden. But Maynard says they increase yield by attracting pollinators. “Tiny little blossoms like on a cucumber or a melon can’t be seen by a bee from far away, so you need those colorful flowers to draw them in,” he says.” He suggests marigolds and zinnias, which flower all summer long.
- Embrace unexpected harvests. I see no signs of life from the beet seeds I sowed last May, but I do have a bumper crop of amaranth that showed up on its own. Bonus! I knew about amaranth from a porridge I once made from its seeds, but I didn’t know what the actual plant looked like until I met it in my garden. I was about to chuck the amaranth when a fellow gardener told me what I had. Turns out, you can also eat amaranth greens. The leaves are nutty, chewy and a little bit earthy. I’ve been sautéing mine in butter for a quick summer side.
- Get help. “People are getting excited about urban agriculture. But for a lot of people, this is the first time they’ve grown anything,” says Singer. Luckily, there are experts who can help. Some communities provide instruction. Each year, Washington, D.C.’s DPR offers more than 100 free urban gardening classes. The American Community Gardening Association is a great online resource and Maynard says gardeners can also call the main office to get connected to experts. And, as I’ve learned, the most helpful advice often comes from the gardener tending the plot next to yours.
- Be a good neighbor. I spent so little time in my plot last year that I never met the couple gardening one plot over. When I introduced myself this year, the man remarked how glad he was that I had taken over the plot since whoever had it last year let it get totally out of control. Um, yeah, that was me. “A lot of gardeners sort of forget the community aspect of the garden,” says Marien. “If you don’t pull your weeds, those weeds flower and get into my plot.” It’s also important to understand how a community garden fits into the greater community, says Singer. “If you’re not intentional, you can start to be seen as divisive.” There are currently about 45 people on the wait list for a spot in my community garden. People can feel excluded. Singer’s suggestions: Make some plots public or host a festival. Find ways to make the garden a part of the entire community.
- Commit. Life can get in the way of good produce. Last summer I was working, I had a toddler to chase around, friends I wanted to see and books I wanted to read. I could always come up with some reason not to walk the 1.5 blocks to my plot. “We often have gardeners who have young children, or travel a lot, or for whatever reason don’t understand the time commitment,” says Marien. I now schedule at least a couple of garden visits into my weekly to-do lists. And this year, most weeks, I check them off.
Carolyn Beans is a freelance science journalist living in Washington, D.C. She specializes in ecology, evolution, and health.