Gardeners participating in the Portland Community Garden program pose in front of their plots.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA NIEMI

Gardening is an activity that anyone can enjoy. Whether old, young or somewhere in between, this low-impact activity provides a productive and therapeutic outlet for people of all ages. As experts on the topic, getting involved in a community garden is a great way for your IGC’s staff to give back while promoting the benefits and reaching new gardeners. Here’s how they work:

“We are living in a society prevalent with chronic disease, obesity, diabetes ... all these things are in your face every day,” says Steven Uecker, president of Sunshine Community Gardens in Austin, Texas. “And gardening is a way to be healthy and it’s easy.”

Community members can buy cheap, locally grown plants at Sunshine Community Gardens’ annual plant sale.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNSHINE COMMUNITY GARDENS

Community garden initiatives help foster a sense of local camaraderie and provide a green space for people who may not have access to yards. And for many city residents and apartment-dwellers looking for a space to call their own, community gardens are an easily accessible alternative to gardening at home.

“We keep waitlists for each of our gardens and people can sign up online just by filling out a form, or they can call our office and do it over the phone, or we do take sign ups at outreach events,” says Laura Niemi, program coordinator for the Community Garden Program at Portland Parks & Recreation. Generally, people request plots closest to their homes and plots are assigned based on seniority.

At the Portland Parks and Recreation department, there are 57 community gardens. The gardens are managed by a central office, but at each site, there’s a volunteer leadership team that assists in day-to-day activities, Niemi says.

Uecker reports a similar process at Sunshine Community Gardens, which contains more than 200 plots on more than 3 acres of land. After they reach out to the plot coordinator, applicants can choose a 20x20, 10x20 or a 10x10-foot plot. “One of my initiatives is to try and get more small plots and to bring in people so that you’re not failing on a grand scale,” he says.

Getting involved

A Portland Community Garden plot is adorned with flags.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA NIEMI

To successfully manage a plot, gardeners must pay their dues. At Sunshine Community Gardens, it’s $90 a year for a 20x20-foot plot. At Portland Community Gardens, there are various fees, as different plots have different prices.

“We give everybody in good standing and who have been following the policies the opportunity to renew that same plot and pay the fee again,” Niemi says. “And at that point it kicks into a 12-month cycle. We renew people every year in November and people do have the opportunity to stay in the same plot uninterrupted as long as they pay and follow the garden rules.”

Each program has a similar set of policies the gardeners must follow. At Sunshine Community Gardens, the only rules are that members must actively garden and they must not grow anything illegal. Uecker says their active gardening policy is very forgiving, but it can be somewhat of a challenge.

Sunshine Community Gardens operates as a nonprofit and is entirely self-funded, but it resides on state land, which means the Texas land commissioner has the ultimate control over state lands and properties. If the land is not being used, the state can sell it, lease it or develop it for retail, which is why part of the reason active involvement is a must.

“I mean there’s just so much land pressure here, so we want to be as valuable as we can be to the community so that the powers that be do not take away our land,” Uecker says.

The Sunshine Community Garden is in partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), which further solidifies its community-driven ties. “It’s very sensory-driven, so you have high contrast gravel and then lots of tactical herbs like rosemary,” Uecker says.

Members from the TSBVI maintain this special garden, which is part of the school’s curriculum now.

Paying it forward

At Sunshine Community Gardens, members of the public are invited to partake in a tomato- tasting contest.
PHOTO BY STEVEN UECKER, SUNSHINE COMMUNITY GARDENS

According to Niemi, the most important rule is that each gardener is required to complete and log six service hours per year. They must maintain the shared spaces and help other gardeners in their community. Like Uecker, Niemi reports that land, or lack thereof, is a challenge for Portland Community Gardens. It’s a common problem across the U.S.

“We have a ton of people on the waiting list, but we don’t have enough garden plots and garden locations to meet the demand,” Niemi says. “And being able to find land to do that is especially challenging in Portland because we’ve experienced a lot of growth here, so we’re competing with for-profit housing and other uses for open space.”

However, high demand indicates that community gardening programs are flourishing. Uecker wants the community to think of Sunshine Community Gardens as a destination. The program even has an annual plant sale the first weekend in March where they work with local artists, vendors and local farms who help supply produce.

Niemi believes that community gardening offers a good way for people to become more involved and connected within their societies.

“It’s a great thing for families and passing down knowledge through generations, but also it’s really important for the community,” she says. “People come together through their shared love of gardening, but they may have different political beliefs, they may have different income levels, they may have different races or ethnicities, but they all come together in this space and they learn from each other and build relationships. I think that’s really important to the community and to the city.”