You've seen community gardens before, though they're increasingly rare: parcels of land, some no bigger than a narrow house, abloom as a greenspace should, providing a shot of nature to an otherwise usual city block. But how did they get there, how do you join, and is it too late to start one in your neighborhood?
In the midst of New York City’s 1970s era financial crisis, a good deal of neglected public and private land—much if it concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, like Harlem and the East Village—was abandoned by their owners. To improve their surroundings and dissuade drug dealers, residents of those communities worked to take back the land, renovating it into community gardens. Today there are over 500 such gardens and over 300 school gardens throughout the five boroughs, many of which welcome your involvement.
“Visiting and/or working a garden is a great way to get involved in your community, socialize with neighbors, teach children about growing plants and food and just enjoy a bit of nature in the city," says Judy Janda, a Brooklyn resident and avid community gardener. Here, what to know and how to get involved in your own community garden.
Find a garden
Each community garden has a different flavor and focus. Some are simple green spaces, others showcase art installations or promote ecological practices like composting and some even operate like urban farms with crops that support their own farm stands and animals (chickens, bees, turtles and fish). You can locate a garden by neighborhood at GardenMaps, GreenThumbNYC or OasisNYC, or by simply strolling around an area. Since community gardens are run by volunteers, hours of opening may vary from garden to garden.
Join a garden
Once you’ve zeroed in on a garden you might want to join, visit it during open hours or when they’re hosting an event (events are generally posted on signs at the garden gate or on the garden’s website, if they have one) to meet the gardeners and learn about their membership process. Some require attendance at an orientation and general meetings, joining a garden committee, contributing dues and more, before a new member can request a plot of land.
FYI, some gardens have long waitlists (five years or more!) for an actual plot for you to till—not all offer your own—but may still welcome volunteers for general gardening duties. If you’re ambivalent about location or joining a garden in your immediate community, you can search for gardens in need of volunteers at NYCservice.org (enter terms such as "community garden" into the keyword field).
Start a garden
If you can’t find a garden to join in your community, you can start one. Step-by-step directions, plus important contact info and resource, can be found at GreenThumbNYC and 596 Acres, a citywide, Brooklyn-based advocacy group for community land access. GreenGuerrilas, a nonprofit that offers plant giveaways, community organizing, fundraising and youth programming to community gardens is another good resource.
Beware, the process—which involves identifying available land and finding out who owns it, creating a vision for the space, garnering community support and establishing core group of volunteers, lobbying the community board and local politicians and more—is long and arduous.
Visit a garden
Looking for some garden inspiration, or maybe just a quiet place to sit and think? Here are a few neighborhood gardens to discover:
• Home to a large weeping willow and multiple fruit trees, Clifton Place Memorial Park and Garden (1031 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn) is relaxing and fun for kids, especially during the fruit picking seasons.
• Featuring an established apiary and strong garden stewardship, St. John's Cantius Parish Community Garden (476-484 New Jersey Avenue, Brooklyn) has also hosted numerous educational trainings on beekeeping and rainwater harvesting.
• With access to community composting systems, vegetable growing beds and native perennial plants that attract a slew of native insects such as preying mantises and monarch butterflies, the wide-open and fence-less Smiling Hogshead Ranch (30 Skillman Avenue, Long Island City) is an attraction for neighborhood residents and visitors alike.
• The oldest community garden on Staten Island, the Joe Holzka Community Garden (1170 Castleton Avenue) features a cozy gazebo and garden beds filled with vegetables, herbs and flowers throughout the garden season.