In recent years as the farm-to-table philosophy has taken root in restaurants and markets across the country, it has also become more prevalent even closer to peoples’ homes, and sometimes even within their own backyards. Community gardens have been embraced by neighborhoods from urban cities to suburbia, attracting participants with their promise of locally grown produce and an enriched community experience. From a landscape maintenance and landscape enhancement perspective, community gardens offer a mix of benefits and challenges.
As a landscape maintenance provider, the most-frequent request we hear from customers is the desire for low-maintenance landscapes and outdoor spaces. Ironically, many of those same customers also want to see more spaces of open lawn, rather than less. There is nothing more high maintenance than turf. Lushly landscaped beds don’t need to be mowed once a week. Trees and shrubs don’t typically need an intense fertilization and weed control program, or lime applications in the fall, or de-thatching, aerating, over-seeding, etc. The same can be said for community garden spaces. Every square foot of turf converted into a community garden is one less square foot that needs to be mowed, fertilized, aerated—you get the idea. That’s not to say gardens aren’t without their own unique maintenance challenges, but a community garden is maintained by the community as a whole, with each resident contributing their own time, effort and materials to the general upkeep. This can reduce the cost for lawn maintenance.
However, because a community garden is dependent on the community members to maintain it and not being serviced under a contract with a landscape maintenance company, the onus is squarely on the community to keep the garden clean of weeds and pests, and providing the intended benefits in the form of produce, flowers, etc. Convincing your neighbors that they now need to not only weed their own beds in their own yard, but also pull weeds in the community garden may be easier said than done.
Close communication with your landscape maintenance provider is critical to ensuring the community garden thrives. You will want to work with your provider to ensure certain fertilizers or weed control chemicals are not applied near a community garden. Also, establish clear expectations on who is responsible for what when it comes to upkeep. Because many community gardens are fenced to protect from deer and pests, this could be as simple as a line in the landscape contract that states that areas within the fence are off-limits for the landscape company. Or, a community may negotiate a small fee for the landscape company to assist in upkeep such as weeding and removal of dead plant material. It all comes down to communication and clear expectations between the community and the landscape company.
Beyond the tangible benefits a community garden can provide, such as locally-sourced produce and lower turf maintenance costs, it can also enhance a neighborhood by drawing residents out of their homes and providing them a communal effort to engage in together.
Then, there are the health benefits as well. The positive effects of community gardens can be felt as gardening is not only a venture that feeds and rejuvenates the body but also one which nurtures the mind. Gardening is a physical activity and participation gives one the prospect of improved physical health. Resident mental health could also be given a positive boost because gardening is a stress-reducing, relaxing activity. Also, there is research that suggests community gardeners are inclined to eat more fruits and veggies. Let’s face it, homegrown simply tastes better than store bought! It is fresher, so you’re apt to eat more of it.
However, not every member of a neighborhood may believe that a community garden is the best use for the often-limited open space available. Gardens can get unkempt and overgrown when not properly maintained, giving the entire neighborhood a messy, sloppy look. And, while turf is high maintenance as discussed earlier, it is also extremely versatile. In an open space of turf, kids can play soccer, neighborhoods can host picnics and events, friends can gather for celebrations, or individuals can sit in quiet solitude and enjoy the surroundings. It’s hard to play a neighborhood flag football game among tomato plants, pumpkins and string beans. Intelligent and meaningful conversations should be held within a community to decide how best to use the neighborhood common areas, and how such a preferred use can be balanced with the budgeted maintenance costs.
Versatility of common areas, maintenance costs, community engagement, pesticide/herbicide usage, and the overall “look and feel” of a community are just some of the things to consider when discussing the possibility of adding a community garden to any HOA, condo or townhome community. When having those discussions, engage with your landscape provider as well. Get their opinions, their suggestions, their options for possibly assisting in the maintenance. After all, a landscape company’s goal for a community’s common areas is the same as the community itself: ensure they look their best and provide the greatest possible benefit to the entire neighborhood. And an honest landscape provider will give you an accurate analysis of the benefits and challenges of adding a community garden to the landscape.
By Jedd C. Narsavage
Jedd studied Landscape Architecture at Cornell University and today is the Vice President of GreenSweep LLC, a full-service landscape company servicing over 600 properties across the DC-Baltimore region.