Growing a Community: Urban Agriculture and New York City [Part 1 of 5]

This series of posts is going to be a little different than the banana ones. It’s a sort of history + personal essay hybrid — and it’s somewhat long so I’m breaking it down into five parts. As a bonus, each reader who leaves a comment on these posts will be entered in a drawing to win a Kitchen Herb Value Pack of seeds (with an extra pack of seeds chosen especially by me!), courtesy of Hometown Seeds. You can leave one comment per post on each post in the series, so you have up to five entries in the drawing to win. Okay! On with the show…

As I look back on it now, I realize all my ideas about New York City’s community gardens came from an episode of the sitcom “Will & Grace.”

The eponymous Will and Grace are members of a community garden across the street from where they live. They’ve supposedly had a spot there for years, but for the sake of that week’s plot, they decide to suddenly take up gardening. Hilarity ensues, everyone learns a valuable lesson—and the community garden, having served its purpose, is never seen again.

Sitting in front of my television in the suburbs of Massachusetts, I just assumed if community gardens were ubiquitous enough to have a sitcom plot revolve around them, then surely every neighborhood must have loads of them: little patches of green in the urban landscape, just big enough for people to grow some food, toiling away shoulder-to-shoulder with friendly neighbors.

blissfully unaware the certain death it awaits by my handImagine my surprise when I moved to Washington Heights and found absolutely nothing of the sort. Many of the neighborhood public schools grew small plots of vegetables. Swindler Cove Park, formerly a dumping ground before it was purchased and revitalized by Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, has a children’s garden with herbs and vegetables as part of their environmental education program. The nearest community garden—and the only one in Washington Heights that offers space to grow food—was not only 30 blocks away from my apartment, it had a waiting list so long, I would probably get to harvest vegetables just in time to supplement my Social Security checks.

For several years after moving here, I found myself overwhelmed by a need to plunge my hands into the dirt and grow something I could eat. One spring day, I finally took matters into my own hands: I hauled 25 pounds of potting soil up to my third-floor apartment, haphazardly stuck a tomato plant in one giant pot and a green bean seedling in the other, and illegally set them out on my fire escape to grow.

As I watched my two plants struggle to survive in little sun and even less space, I found myself astonished by the emotions I attached to them—love, worry, pride, frustration. I watered them, fed them, fussed over them, even yelled at them once or twice (which made me feel better but did nothing to alleviate the blossom end rot on my tomatoes). If I could become this attached to two sad little plants, I wondered, what must it be like to tend to an entire plot?

And so many New Yorkers do. There are hundreds of community gardens across the five boroughs—part of a greater tradition of urban agriculture that stretches back for more than a century.

Coming next time is Part 2: Pingree’s “potato patches” and the birth of community gardens

Are you part of a community garden? Would you be if there was one near you? Or are you a loner, Dottie, a rebel? Leave a comment for your chance to win!

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6 thoughts on “Growing a Community: Urban Agriculture and New York City [Part 1 of 5]

  1. We’re about to start our third year gardening here in midsize-town-Wisconsin. Our only sunny enough spot is in our front yard, which you’d think would make me more zealous about weeding. :) Mostly we’re growing for the experience for our kids (3 & 6), for snacking & a little freezing/sauce, since we also are members of a CSA. And yes, I’ve yelled at my tomatoes, too. :)

  2. Hi Kristen! I never knew I was a gardener until I bought a house- I have less than ideal sun exposure for my vegetable garden plots. I do consistently well with tomatoes, but my absolute favorite thing to grow- that I always tell every beginner to start with is BASIL. I does well in the ground, in pots that I move around, and in window boxes. Anyway, I celebrate my successes and failures alike and continue to rely heavily on buying local at the farm stand up the street!

  3. I don’t have a plot in a community garden because despite living in Baltimore City, we actually have a rather large yard. We have a plum tree, 2 fig trees, 2 paw paw trees and raspberry, blueberry and blackberry bushes. This spring we are going to start an herb garden and a pepper patch. In the summer we plant tomatoes and other vegetables. I really want to become an urban beekeeper too.

  4. Calcium, calcium, calcium!!! Plan ahead for this year and get a liquid calcium spray to prevent and cure blossom end rot, just make sure not to spray it in the heat of the day. It is one of the most frustrating problems with tomato plants, but at least its an easy problem to avoid. I believe bonemeal may improve your chances of avoiding it as well…. good luck and garden on!

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