How to Create a Neighborhood Garden on your City Block

Here's what urban gardener Tim Rinne learned after he and his neighbors tore up their lawns for crops
Tim Rinne

For years now, Nebraskans for Peace has been counseling that we need to be re-localizing our food supply in the face of the threat climate change poses to agriculture. Having every bite of food on our plates traveling over 2,000 miles to get there as it does now (with nearly a fifth of that food imported from outside the country) is dangerously courting disaster.

The farther away we are from our food supply the more food insecure we are -- and nobody is more vulnerable than those of us who live in the urban environment where food-growing has been almost completely banished from the landscape.

But as NFP State Coordinator Tim Rinne notes in this recent post on "The Renewal Project" website, city dwellers can grow a lot more food than they imagine -- if they're willing to start gardening in their yards and neighborhoods. And urbanites are going to need to start doing just that to ensure that everybody gets to keep eating in a world wracked by hotter temperatures, extended droughts and increasingly extreme weather.

The urban landscape, with its densely built environment and pervasive paving, doesn’t offer much in the way of growing space. And what little we do have, we tend to disproportionately lavish on lawns. Anyone wanting to grow food in the city, accordingly, has to be willing to swap out some of that grass for gardens.

And that’s a good thing, actually. Lawns might look pretty and green, but we humans can’t eat grass. It’s a waste of the few natural resources we have in the urban environment to be watering and mowing when we could be growing food for our tables.

In our inner-city block in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’ve torn up enough turf to put two-thirds of an acre in vegetable and fruit production. But this didn’t just happen overnight. My wife Kay and I maintained a conventional lawn on our corner lot for 23 years with just a dinky garden spot where we annually stuck a few tomato plants. Once we made the decision to dig up the whole yard to create an edible landscape, though, the idea spread throughout the block. And for the first time since we’d lived there, we actually got to know our neighbors.

It turns out that there’s nothing like food to start building community. Even people who aren’t interested in gardening (or even cooking for that matter) find the subject of food irresistible and are ready to chat. Unlike when you’re pushing around a noisy lawnmower and are pretty much unapproachable, being down on your knees planting, watering and weeding is a magnet for conversation.

The best thing you can possibly do to promote the idea of gardening in your block is to show what can be done on your own property. Modeling edible landscaping in your yard will give your neighbors something to ponder—and an opportunity to ask questions. And, trust me, people will have them, because very few of us nowadays have any experience whatsoever at food-growing. Looking back, I’m embarrassed by that measly tomato patch that Kay and I kept for 23 years when we could have been seriously producing food. But it was more than anybody else had. Ours was the only garden on the entire block.

What really pushes the door open for neighborhood gardening though is sharing the harvest. Replacing the grass lawn in the public right-of-way of our property with a strawberry bed aroused quite a bit of interest. When we knocked on the door of neighbors we barely knew to offer them a fresh-picked quart of home-grown berries, we became local heroes. We traded on that opportunity to encourage people to take the next step and start gardening for themselves, offering to help them along. Because for a first-time gardener, this whole growing thing can be pretty intimidating.

Some of our neighbors forged right ahead and spaded up a bit of their own lawn to put in a garden. Others, who didn’t care to garden themselves but were tired of mowing, offered up part of their yards for neighbors who didn’t have any garden space of their own because they lived in an apartment or had lots that were too shady. Such “sharing arrangements” can work well though they’re more complex. In theory, people may be open to letting neighbors garden on their property, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with having non-family members in their yards at all hours of the day. Guidelines, “rules of the row,” need to be set and abided by because, after all, this isn’t our property—we’re guests, and as guests, we need to be responsible neighbors in maintaining what we’ve undertaken. Nobody wants to have to look out on a poorly tended garden that’s all grown up in weeds, nor should they have to.

Then, too, there’s the issue of water and who pays for it and how. Does money change hands or is the property owner satisfied to be paid in-kind with fresh veggies? All these matters need to be constantly monitored and negotiated because neighborhoods, like any community venture, are dynamic and always evolving; people move in and out, squabbles erupt, and personal situations regarding health, employment, and relationship invariably change.

In fact, if you want to create a neighborhood garden along the lines of what we’ve established on our block, you’re going to have to have someone (or preferably several people) not only take the lead in getting the project started but also provide ongoing management. Don’t kid yourself. Gardens are a lot of work, and without at least one volunteer willing to supply that kind of hands on, day-to-day management and trouble-shooting, it’s virtually impossible to keep a community project of this scale operating. Some gardeners will have more time than others, more interest than others and even more talent than others. It’s the job of the manager to keep all the elements of this neighborhood project working in sync and moving forward. Flexibility, resiliency and persistence are the watchwords for a community endeavor like this.

But if you persist, the rewards can be utterly uplifting—and one of the best things you’ll ever do with your life.

You’ll meet your neighbors and build bonds with the people you live among. It adds to the level of security you feel about your home and neighborhood.

You’ll develop and hone your skills as a gardener—figuring out through trial and error what grows best where (and not bothering with those crops that are unsuitable for your climate and available space).

You’ll taste the fruits of your own labors, and learn something about how all that food we consume gets to our plate. That can’t help but make you much more appreciative of the farmers, market gardeners, and laborers who grow and harvest our food for us year-round.

And you’ll be putting food back in the center of our lives where it belongs, not just in the center of our mouths. Eating is not optional. We have to eat to stay alive, but those of us who live in the urban environment need to become more than just “eaters.” Gardening in our own city blocks and growing fresh produce (the perishable, pricey items that are the hardest to keep on the grocery store shelf) give us the chance to begin pulling our weight in our food system—right at the local level where we eat.

Neighborhood gardens won’t ever be able to supply everything we need for our diets. But what we can supply, we should.

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