Shared plots feed the neighborhood and bring people together. Here’s your guide to community gardens.
What used to be an overgrown, unused baseball field is now a valuable source of healthy food, a safe place for kids to play, and a catalyst for change. Pittsburgh’s Martin Luther King Community Garden, established in 2015, has 40 plots where local residents can raise fruits and vegetables for themselves — and for a nearby food pantry. The garden opens a no-charge farmers market every other Tuesday during the growing season, and hosts special events that offer free hot meals, and health and wellness education to adults and children.
In cities and towns across Pennsylvania, community gardens like MLK are revitalizing neighborhoods, producing fresh food for the hungry, and building connections. Studies conducted in Philadelphia and around the country show that property values increase, crime rates decrease, and social cohesion is improved in neighborhoods around community gardens. People who work in or even live near a community garden are more likely to regularly eat fresh vegetables and fruit.
What is a community garden?
Organized community gardens in the U.S. first emerged in the late 19th century and new community gardens are established every year. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy supports 130 gardens in 20 counties. Philadelphia has an estimated 400 community gardens, some decades old, while others are planned to launch this year.
Community gardens come in many shapes and forms, but they are generally public spaces where individuals and groups grow their own vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. The gardens tend to attract people who don’t have access to land, but many join simply for the camaraderie or the opportunity to learn from more experienced gardeners.
Vacant lots in cities are common locations for setting up community gardens, but many are in parks, or at schools, hospitals, or churches. They can vary greatly in size. Philadelphia’s Glenwood Green Acres, for example, covers 3.67 acres of urban neighborhood and has more than 100 growing beds. The Oakbrook Community Garden in Reading, in contrast, has just a couple dozen plots in a few thousand square feet of space in a lot next to the Berks Community Health Center.
In the most common model, the space is divided up into individual plots that are maintained by one person or family. Lancaster County Central Park has 300 plots that can be rented individually. In some cases, however, the whole space, or a designated portion of it, is tended by a group of people who share in the work and the harvest. That’s the set up in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville Organic Community Garden, which is in a historic cemetery. The members work the whole garden together rather than maintaining individual plots. They gather on regularly scheduled workdays and those who show up and contribute are invited to harvest fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs to take home. Both types of gardens tend to have areas set aside to provide food to the community at large. Sharing produce with neighbors or food banks is a standard part of the mission of community gardens.
How are they organized?
The benefits of community gardens are clear but getting one off the ground requires significant planning and support. Typically, neighbors identify an available space and join forces to attract gardeners and set up the growing beds. Local government agencies and nonprofits also initiate gardens. Here are a few examples:
- The Dauphin County Department of Parks and Recreation offers residents 30-by-30-foot plots in a city park for a $15 fee.
- With funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Wilkes-Barre City Health Department has partnered with local gardeners to establish six community gardens. A group of volunteers, including staff from the health department, helps with planting and maintenance and offers nutritional programming at the Wilkes-Barre Farmers’ Market, where the excess produce is sold.
- A nonprofit organization called York Fresh Food Farms, with support from the city of York, provides a variety of resources to community gardeners, including maintaining a “tool library” from which the growers can borrow essential equipment.
- The Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Horticultural Society offers training to the public in setting up and managing community gardens, distributes seedlings to growers who commit to sharing their harvest with local food banks, provides supplies such as mulch and compost free of charge to those growers, and has set up a tool library for them. In 2021, 6,280 gardeners participated in the organization’s Harvest program, donating nearly 20,000 pounds of fresh produce.
What is the impact of community gardens?
Each community garden has its own origin story and sense of purpose. The Namaste Garden in Erie is in a neighborhood long-known as “Little Italy,” which is now home to immigrants from many countries. That includes 2,000 refugees from Bhutan. Two local nonprofits, the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network and the Bhutanese Community Association of Erie, joined forces to help set up a community garden. The refugees work together and grow a wide variety of crops, including foods from their native country that are not readily available in grocery stores, such as bitter melons and a mustard green called rayo saag. Any extra produce is sold at the weekly Little Italy Farmers’ Market.
Among the wide variety of gardeners who rent plots in Lancaster County Park is an organization dedicated to food justice, Discerning Eye Community Agriculture City Farms. The food grown in its beds is distributed in Lancaster’s underserved urban neighborhoods, where green space and fresh produce are scarce.
Norris Square was one of Philadelphia’s most challenged neighborhoods, struggling with poverty and divestment. A group of local activists formed the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and began looking for ways to engage other people in the effort to restore vitality to the area, including establishing several community gardens. Las Parcelas, the hub of the Norris Square gardens, covers over 30 city lots. It includes “La Casita de Abuela” (the grandmother’s small house), a replica of a home that might be found in rural Puerto Rico, where many local residents come from. In addition to La Casita, the garden features an outdoor kitchen for cooking demonstrations and a prominent mural showing the women who founded it and other noteworthy community members.
If you want to make a difference in your community or just grow food for yourself and your family while working alongside like-minded people, joining a garden can be very rewarding. For information on gardens in your area or resources for getting started, check out the American Community Gardening Association.