It was big news. Really big news. Front-page-of-the-New–York–Times big news. Right next to headlines on AIG bonuses, pension fraud, and violence in Gaza, there was this: “Obamas to Eat Local Produce (Really Local).”
Yes, beets battled bailouts for public attention, as the First Lady and her First Children wielded the First Shovel and announced the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II Victory Garden. Now that’s change we can believe in.
Indeed, the Obamas have tapped into the national horticultural zeitgeist. For a number of reasons — a spate of contaminated foods, a push for healthier eating habits, and most recently, the imploding economy — home gardening is more popular than ever. But not everyone has the space, expertise, or adequate sunshine to plant a garden. For those people, there are community gardens.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, community gardens are large patches of land owned by state or local municipalities, nonprofit groups, educational facilities, and the like. These patches are divided into individual plots and rented out to anyone with a gardening jones. Mrs. Obama has sung the praises of the idea: “I’m a big believer in community gardens, both because of their beauty and for their access to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across this nation and the world,” she has said.
Her garden isn’t technically a community garden — you can’t rent a plot on the White House grounds to plant your heirloom tomatoes. But there are several community gardens in the Hudson Valley where you can.
One of the biggest and oldest is the Capital District Community Gardens. Based in Troy, the CDCG was formed in 1975 and now manages 46 gardens in Albany, Rensselaer, and Schenectady counties. Last year, those gardens were divided into about 900 individual plots. “But we needed many more this year,” says Executive Director Amy Klein, “so we divided many of the plots in half.” (Veteran gardeners get a 500- to 600-square-foot plot; because of demand, new gardeners get 250-300 square feet.) The group has been flooded with requests for space. “We keep a list of people interested in us. This year we had about 300 people on the list, when normally it’s about 75,” she said. “The phones are ringing off the hook.”
Typically, members of a community garden are allowed to grow anything they’d like — as long as it’s not an invasive plant (such as mint) which could overrun other gardeners’ plots, or a large tree that might block sunlight. The CDCG asks for a donation of $20 for each plot. “As a nonprofit, we rely on donations, along with fund-raising and grants,” Klein says. They can assist those who can’t afford the $20, and they encourage well-to-do weed-whackers to give more.
Gardeners get more than dirt and sunshine. The CDCG also provides tools, seeds and seedlings, mulch, water, fencing to keep critters away, and plenty of classes and mentors to help the new gardener succeed.
The same is true at many other community gardens. In Putnam County, for example, the county parks division runs the Tilly Foster Community Gardens. It has 123 plots that cost $40 each. Corina Hohenstein is both a park ranger and a gardener. She says that staff members “get to know most of the other gardeners. We exchange plants and advice. There’s a real community spirit.”
Of course, community spirit can be, well, spirited. “Here in the office we often do less gardening and more social work,” Klein says with a sigh. Border disputes are common. Gardeners call to complain that their neighbor’s sunflowers are shading their peppers, or that foreign cucumber vines are encroaching on their cauliflower. “People are very territorial, and they sometimes forget they are in a community garden and what that means,” Klein says. “It’s very different than gardening at home, and we try to tell people that when they sign up.”
But for every childish argument, Klein also has a story about bonding and friendship. Gardeners meet and marry. Neighbors who’d never met before form clubs and neighborhood watch groups. “The story that touches my heart the most is about a gardener we had who was very ill with COPD,” she says. “The man had to garden with an oxygen tank. He had no relatives nearby. His garden was his home, and the friends he made there were his family.
“When he passed away, we had a memorial service in the garden,” Klein continues. “Someone played guitar. Others chipped in and bought a memorial bench engraved with his name. This was in downtown Troy, and there were Russian immigrant gardeners who spoke very little English, but they tried to speak about him. It was one of the most memorable things in my life. It really hit home what these gardens mean to people. It’s so much more than just gardening. For him, it meant life.”
Most community gardens have filled up by now, but if you’re interested in more information, try one of these organizations. They might still have a plot available.
Capital District Community Gardens
Maintains 46 gardens in Albany, Cohoes, Latham, North Greenbush, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and Troy. Also operates street tree planting and urban landscaping programs.
Bard College Community Garden
Anyone is welcome to work, weed, and eat from this 8,000-square-foot communal garden. During the summer, the group holds potluck work parties every Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Chatham Community Garden at Crellin Park
Offers 15 300-square-foot plots, a food pantry garden, gardening classes, and a six-week kids program beginning in July.
Cornell Cooperative Extension, Dutchess County/Green Teen Community Gardening Program
Poughkeepsie: 845-485-2564, Beacon: 845-831-4287
A year-round community gardening program for youth ages 7-21 in Poughkeepsie and Beacon.
Gardens For Nutrition
Rents out 300- and 600-square-foot plots. Mentors are available for gardening advice.
Vassar Community Gardens
Originally a World War II victory garden, this Vassar Farm property now has 120 plots available to local residents.
Stony Kill Foundation
Wappingers Falls, 845-831-8780 ext. 310
Offers 84 400-square-foot plots for rent. “Bugs, Weeding, and Water Conservation” class will be held June 21 and July 22 at 10 a.m.