Community Gardening: What is the Definition of Success?

A community garden is successful when it creates an interesting center of life in a neighborhood. When the garden gives people an opportunity to play and work outside, and when the gardeners can grow enough produce for even a small harvest, the garden is working to improve the community.

If a garden can provide food to hungry people, improve the health of a community, or allow the gardeners to make some money selling their produce, that community garden is wildly successful, a garden organizer's dream. It is my opinion that community gardens could yield a lot of great benefits for a neighborhood, but only if they remain functional, inviting places.

After talking to community gardeners and visiting community gardens all summer, I noticed a few assets and conditions that proved essential to a garden, and, in some cases, spelled its success or failure for the season. Based on what I observed, and what Knoxville community gardeners told me, I have made up a list of the sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive things a community garden seems to need in order to thrive in this area. Each of these conditions, if absent for even a month during the growing season, rendered a community garden empty of people, with beds full of dead crops and tall weeds.

1. The community garden must have a water spigot and a hose. This is important for the hot summer months when not enough rain falls to adequately water the garden.

2. The garden needs at least one dedicated person to make decisions, answer questions, and manage the garden. An official garden manager is best, as decision-making by a board of individuals is unwieldy and leads to misunderstandings and inaction.

3. People who tend the community garden must live very close—within a block or two of the garden. Or,

4. The garden should be attached to a community center, clubhouse, church, or playground; any social gathering place that people visit regularly.

5. When the garden is a comfortable place to stay, with shade and seating, it thrives not only as a vegetable patch, but as a neighborhood park as well.

Community gardens do not require a lot of money, or even a lot of planning to be successful. They do not require expensive agricultural equipment or a board of directors. A resourceful group of gardeners that possesses a high degree of personal initiative can borrow or scavenge the tools and materials needed to maintain a community garden.

In order to build a model for a successful community garden, it's useful to study one that is failing. This summer, my thoughts often turned to the abandoned garden just around the corner from my house, the Parkridge Community Garden, formed in 2009, a project I have never been a part of. I have a nice garden space in my backyard, so I don't need another, more inconvenient vegetable patch, I thought.

But as I stood in the Parkridge garden one evening, thinking and looking around, I reached down and tugged on a few weeds. They pulled free easily from the thick bed of mulch. Soon I had uncovered a chard plant with bright yellow stems. In the next bed I found carrots hiding in the Johnson grass. In the next bed, I found a few late-summer strawberries ripening beneath the Bermuda grass.

It felt strange to be guerrilla gardening in my own neighborhood community garden. I was half-afraid someone would roll down a car window and tell me to quit weeding. I was taking ownership of land that wasn't mine, and like any petty thievery, it was exhilarating.

I remembered the best definition of guerrilla gardening I've read, written more than 100 years ago by a woman who once lived only a few miles from the Parkridge Garden.

"I've stolen a garden," says Mary Lennox, protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, "It isn't mine. It isn't anybody's. Nobody wants it, nobody cares for it, nobody ever goes into it. Perhaps everything is dead in it already."

The Parkridge Community Garden failed this season, but everything is not dead in it. The infrastructure remains, and the space remains, just waiting for someone to go steal it for themselves.