My piece about allotment gardening in the United Kingdom has just been published in the Washington Post food section. If you're not familiar with allotments, they're the English version of America's community gardens, only the plots are much, much bigger (averaging 2,700 square feet), and they have long enjoyed government support thanks to the complicated history of landownership in Great Britain. Just like here, demand for plots has skyrocketed, and waiting lists are years long. But in the U.K., numerous public and private entities are engaged in a massive nationwide push to expand the acreage of available land.
The Post had asked me to make sure I included a D.C. as well as a U.S. angle, and I had submitted a short sidebar on the state of community gardening on this side of the Atlantic. They ended up not having space for it, so I'm publishing it here.
America’s community gardens are overgrown, too
First Lady Michelle Obama had no choice but to dig up the South Lawn for her vegetable garden. The waiting lists for the District of Columbia’s 43 community gardens are just too darn long.
“I don’t know of any public community gardens in the area that have openings,” says Nancy Oswald, manager of the Rock Creek Garden, which has 120 plots measuring 10x20 feet each. The Rock Creek wait list has jumped in the past six months to more than 50 names. And as turnover is very low, that could mean a wait of up to five years. The 220-plot Newark Street Community Garden Association, meanwhile, doesn’t even keep a list beyond what it can fill in two seasons, says NSCGA Vice President Linda Blount Berry, because too often people are no longer interested or can’t be tracked down. (Washington Gardener has a downloadable Excel list of all D.C.'s community gardens.)
The situation is the same in other major cities. In Portland, Oregon, “we can’t make space available fast enough,” says Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, director of Portland Parks and Recreation. Portland just opened its 32nd community garden; about 1,000 people are waiting to join the 3,000 who have plots.
Even in arid El Paso, Texas, the Welden Yerby Senior Citizens Garden has been so successful that residents under 65 are clamoring for ones they can join. “We would love to see it spread more,” says Keith Hall, recreation coordinator at the El Paso city parks department, which maintains the garden. “It’s such a beautiful thing for seniors, but we’d love to get young people involved. Everybody’s got to get their hands in the dirt, and get to know how collard greens and Brussel sprouts grow.”
The biggest perk of a community garden, besides the fresh food, is the community, say longtime gardeners. Blount Berry has been a member of the one on Newark Street since the mid-80s. “I’ve attended weddings, funerals, and graduations of children who gardened along their parents and suddenly grew up,” she recalls. “Being a community garden member is the best way to meet your neighbors. In DC where almost everyone wants to be a power broker, Mother Nature is a great equalizer.”