If you’re looking for a spot of tranquility in the city this summer, there are more than 500 of them dotted across all five boroughs, growing everything from roses to rutabagas.
For decades, community gardens have served as gathering and educational spaces in small but mighty plots of land that provide a temporary oasis from the commotion of the concrete jungle.
But how do you join? And what’s expected of members? Experts THE CITY spoke with said not all gardens are created equal. Most are publicly owned by the city, but a number of them are run by private entities with sometimes tenuous land agreements.
Even those under the city’s jurisdiction have different processes for becoming a member, said Domica Roberts of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, an organization that owns 35 community gardens in New York.
“There are different steps to becoming a member in each individual garden, tailored to the community that encompasses the garden,” Roberts said. “More often than not our job is kind of to become a liaison between the gardens and the community that are interested in becoming members.”
If you’re curious about the green space in your neighborhood, here are the basics about them and how to be a part of one:
Why should I join a community garden? What are the benefits?
Gardeners THE CITY spoke with say the benefits of joining a garden are endless — from acquiring individual plots, to growing your own food, or even settling in for a movie night.
The latter is something John McGrath plans to have for the Stockholm Community Garden, a green space he co-founded with his husband and a few neighbors in Bushwick starting about four years ago.
“I think it really reflects the values of the neighborhood that people are interested in doing something more than just sitting in their apartments at night, and looking to improve the area they live in,” McGrath said.
Annual membership is not required to be involved and enjoy what gardens offer. Many people just participate as volunteers helping out with tasks.
For Gina Briggs, the biggest payoff of joining the Warren St. Marks Community Garden in Park Slope is the sense of togetherness — a sense that was nonexistent when she lived in Greenwich Village.
“There are people I know when I lived in Manhattan who didn’t even know the name of their immediate neighbor in the hall next to them,” said Briggs, who joined the garden almost 10 years ago and is now its administrator. “That’s not the case here. When you join, people know who you are, you see people and you see their kids grow up.”
Where did community gardens come from?
Community gardens in New York first became a fixture in the 1970s, when several of them were vacant, unmaintained lots, according to the Parks Department. That’s when an environmentalist group known as the Green Guerillas “seed bombed” these empty lots — i.e. lobbed seeds, fertilizer and water over fences — with the intention of creating something out of nothing for long-neglected neighborhoods. After thorough maintenance of a lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston Street, the city issued a dollar-per-month lease to the group in 1974, making it the first community garden in the city.
The efforts of those early gardeners spurred the city to establish NYC Parks GreenThumb in 1978, which oversees city community gardens to this day by assisting with everything from event programming to small grants for their operation.
How can I get involved?
It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation with community gardens: there are varying expectations and requirements for members depending on where you go. Despite that, gardening experts say, the initial steps for joining a local garden are broadly the same — walk in when it’s open!
The Parks Department website has an interactive map showing the location of each community garden and its hours of operation. Drop by, and you can find volunteer members or a leader to help you get started.
At Warren St. Marks, there are two “garden days” each month where new members can come in for an orientation, said Briggs.
At the orientation, new members are made aware of the garden’s rules, history and benefits, and are given a tour of the space. New members are then welcome to sign up and join a garden team, each of which has particular tasks such as watering, weeding — and even taking care of chickens.
“People like coming and doing things. We’ve had people join who are like, ‘Well, I’ve never grown anything.’ But you’re going to learn; this is the place to come,” Briggs told THE CITY.
Additionally, each garden has a GreenThumb Community Engagement Coordinator, which the Parks Department recommends reaching out to as you search for the right garden. You can find this coordinator and their contact information on the community garden locator page. A parks agency spokesperson told THE CITY that these coordinators are appointed to specific geographic locations and aid gardens with community organizing and connect them to the resources needed to have a fruitful green space.
What are the requirements of a garden member?
Hours and required work differ from garden to garden.
Briggs says the most important part about being a member is just showing up and being consistent. In her garden, members must show up for a minimum of four gardening days per season to complete maintenance tasks such as cleanup, weeding and watering. There’s also an “open hours” slot for new members to partake in, which takes place over four two-hour shifts on the weekends, answering questions for any garden visitors.
Of course, frequent participation has its perks outside of being an asset to the community. At Warren St. Marks, it can come with the privilege of having your own plot in the garden.
“People who have been a member for at least a year, can ask to be put on a waitlist for individual plots,” said Briggs, who emphasizes one must be in good standing to be considered, with the process taking up to two years. “Obviously people who are more active and do things float to the top of the list.”
The East Village has a density of community gardens. “Some gardens have so many members they have a waiting list. Some other gardens desperately need members,” said Charles Krezell, president of Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens, or LUNGS. “Each one is unique in its own governing philosophy, rules and membership.”
Again, although rules vary within each greenspace, some general guidelines for the gardens include but are not limited to:
- Paying a membership fee to cover maintenance costs. For example, at Warren St. Marks, there is a suggested $25 annual fee; at the Maple Street Garden in Flatbush it is $20 per year. (Some gardens, however, waive those fees if a would-be member is financially burdened.)
- Engaging with the public about the garden and maintaining order while it is open.
- Bringing skill sets beyond gardening to the space, such as carpentry, community outreach, money management, grant writing, volunteer management and event planning.
An inclusive atmosphere for all is a key expectation at Hart to Hart Community Garden in Bedford-Stuyvesant. As gentrification persists in historically Black neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Hart to Hart tries to mitigate in the garden some of the tension that change brings to the broader community.
Megan Martin, Hart to Hart’s membership lead, says the group strives to have a “diverse garden where people respect what the older people have and what they built,” without “trying to take over” or make exclusionary rules.
“We try to be very aware of who’s speaking. Is it the people who have been there forever, and do they get a say? We try to be very conscious of not contributing to a gentrification problem,” Martin said.
Can I visit a garden without being a member?
Yes, anyone is welcome. But check to be sure of the hours before you go — and remember that most are not typically open during the winter.
Community gardens are only open a select number of hours throughout the week from April 1 to Oct. 31. Hours should be posted on the gate of the garden and can also be found on the NYC Parks How to Join page.
Can community gardens grow cannabis?
Nope, sorry! Only cannabis grown in a home for personal use has been legalized in New York state, and technically that’s not allowed — because the Office of Cannabis Management has not yet approved regulations for “home cultivation.” For now, stick to vegetables and flowers.