Why I would be kicked out of a community garden

Community garden image courtesy of Shutterstock
Community garden image courtesy of Shutterstock

As a fellow online writer—who happens to be called Elizabeth Licata—says, “There’s no drama like community garden drama.”

We’ve written a lot about community gardens here, including stories on gardens under threat by utility companies, gardens embroiled in internal politics (fueled by alcohol), and community gardens that have been shut down or abandoned.

And now here’s a garden that has arrived at a place where its former manager has threatened to set himself on fire unless he regains control of the space. This happened in Queens, NY., and I first heard of it through a story in the Daily Meal (it was originally in the Wall Street Journal). In brief, officials in Queens suspect the Evergreen Community Garden, run largely by Korean immigrants, of selling its produce illegally, and of shutting out other community members; the city has taken the garden (which is on city property), and turned it over to an official community garden network.

Stories like this make me happy that I have never entered the community gardening realm. I considered it at one time, but I could see the pitfalls. In fact, I can envision the short list of reasons I would never make it in any kind of communal gardening operation:

  1. Weeds. I have a very lackadaisical attitude toward weeding. I like to wait until they’re big enough to pull easily, and so I can be sure they are a weed, and not the thing I planted there on purpose. I actually like some weeds, like phytolacca (pokeweed). This causes problems with neighboring gardeners, who (rightly) point out that this increases the likelihood of the weeds spreading.
  2. Incompetence. This enterprise would probably require being able to plant successfully from seed.
  3. Aesthetics. I have never seen a community garden I felt was nearly as attractive as a private ornamental garden. This would bother me.
  4. Attitude. I’m a friendly person, but I have noticed that ornamental and food growers often have much less in common than you might think.
  5. Everything else mentioned in this post. The threats from higher authorities! The fights between gardeners! The drama!

I try not to do drama.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. 1 – Don’t know what community gardens you visit, but those I’ve gone to (as I am not a CG member) are generally weedy, particularly this time of year. Sure, attempts are made tamp down the most obnoxious weeds, but in the heat of August things like crabgrass & spotted spurge get overlooked in favor of wagons full of tomatoes & beans & squash & corn.

    2 – I’m with you on the seed requirement. However, I am excellent at letting produce go a tad too long and finding it half-rotten by the time I get to it, thus resulting in an excellent set of volunteers the next season – does that count as starting from seed? Didn’t think so.

    3 – Well, you usually have multiple plots, all of which have tenders with a different idea of “perfect” than everyone around them. Private gardens generally have one guiding vision. Or at least, just the one opinion about what should happen where.

    4 – SO totally agree!

    5 – I go to my garden to avoid drama. Well, to avoid people, really, but no people = no drama so it’s all the same. Don’t know what I’d do if I had to deal with mealybugs, spotted-wing drosophilia, hungry raccoons, AND garden politics.

    Doubt I’d get kicked out of a community garden, but only because much as I want more garden space than my backyard offers, I’m highly unlikely to join one.

  2. Funny to read this…. I just received notice, while on vacation, that my CG plot is now considered abandoned and available to new members.

    I have a degree in horticulture and owned a garden design business for several years.

    My immediate reaction was, “it’s August, it’s the south, and we have had an extra 15 inches of rain this year – hasn’t everyone abandoned their plot?” Apparently not.

    It’s ok. I’ll go back to my hydrangeas. What evs… I was getting a little tired of the snide comments about ants on my artichokes. As if.

  3. Though I’m primarily a flower gardener at heart, I’ve been edible gardening at a community garden plot for the last 2+ years and have to say that the “community” in the name is very often overlooked. When you sign up for a CG, you are basically agreeing to garden within very tight quarters and what you do has an exponential impact on your garden plot neighbors.

    If one person decides to grow giant sunflowers and shade you out, as my plot neighbor did, you have a garden leader to appeal to. Same with non-weeders who let their crabgrass go to seed and doom the rest of the surrounding garden to their annual plague. It has actually made me much more disciplined and productive than if I were to do a veggie plot at my home garden. I’d be mortified to get a “rules infraction note” from our garden leader.

    Several gardeners in our CG have never shown up for the communal tasks (weeding, cistern filling, etc.) and meetings. I always wonder about their mindset and why they would join a CG in the first place and then not hold up their share of the work and input. I think, EL, that you have giving me a glimpse of it.

    • Based on what I hear from my friends who do the CG thing, it seems to be more about the Garden than the Community for them. They only deal with the community as is necessary to keep the ability to garden.

  4. I like the community garden I’m in a lot. It’s in its third year. It’s not perfect. We all have weeds. We do what we can but we don’t get crazy about it or too judgmental of others. Many don’t participate in the decision-making (which is a problem, but not a big one). Everyone is easy-going and does their own thing, and most are willing/able to help out when needed.

    I think part of the reason we get along is because we all have such busy lives and work so hard outside the garden we don’t have time or the energy to cause drama! There are no politics, which keeps me a member. My credo is the fewer “rules” the better! I grow some flowers with my vegetables and herbs, for pleasure and pollination (and butterfly forage).

    I left another garden in town, after gardening for one day, because they frowned upon flowers–and many (many) other things. When I asked about flowers, the “president” of the club told me personally, “This is a vegetable garden.” (Emphasis on “vegetable.”) This other garden also had dozens of rules and members with their egos virtually inseparable from the “club.” THAT was the deal-breaker. I quit the first day I worked in that garden, after I was told all the dead lilac branches I gleaned from my own garden and set up as bean tepees (and future “sunflower houses” for my girls, then very young) had to go. I think I was quoted Rule #6: “No structures can be higher than the 6′ chain link fence surrounding the property.” (Some branches may have been as much as a foot taller.) “Also,” I was told “you are supposed to use lumber for structures, not branches.” I have to say I kind of freaked out on all of that. “I’m supposed to BUY LUMBER?”

    Gardens are supposed to be for JOY and sustenance – I get what everyone’s saying, and I’m sure a few are awful, like the one I briefly joined, but I think it can be a pleasure to work communally with others – if you get the right group.

    Some amazingly liked the other garden. These folks, I imagine, want rules and structure, to have their weeds “tsk-tsk’d.” You just have to find out where you fit in.

  5. A Community Garden can actually be a very lonely place– some years ago, I was a member in a beautiful site, and while being there often filled me with wonder and pleasure from the growing plants, fresh air, and birdsong, I was usually the only person there. When others did come, they very rarely acknowledged my presence with even a look, so saying “Hello” was not something that would naturally occur. What I would recommend is that Community Gardens have a large table, with chairs, where people could trim their harvest, maybe take a break from gardening to drink some water and perhaps eat a snack. This would also give people an opportunity to share gardening tips and extra seedlings or the harvest. And, maybe the magic of “Community” would grow and flower along with the plants!

  6. Interesting post. I’ve never been part of a community garden, but have often thought that when/if I live in a place that I can’t have my own garden, I would seek one out. These comments make me think community gardens are the Home Owners Associations or book groups of the gardening world–some careful investigation of the gardens (and self-reflection about what I want out of it) would clearly help before commiting.

  7. I’ve been a member of community gardens for a decade, and this summer I’m trying to keep plants alive at 3 different ones (all organic gardens). None of them have HOA-type rules!

    Weeds: Lots. Not in my plots (unless I planted them), though. Most people don’t care, don’t have the time to deal with them, or are clueless. One of my neighbors looked at her plot, then looked at my plot, and asked, “why don’t you have weeds?” I live in a year-round gardening climate and can pick something from my garden every day of the year, but I’ve had neighbors who abandoned their plots in Sept. and didn’t come back until May — leaving the squash, tomatoes, raspberries, etc. to rot or get eaten by rats, and allowing pests to overwinter. At another garden, my neighbor is a really nice guy who always has time to say hello and does lots of fence maintenance, but his plots are way overgrown and never weeded (so that I have to push his plants/weeds back onto his plot to access mine).

    Incompetence: Lots. Some people buy transplants, some people plant from seed, and no one pays attention to who’s doing what, except to ask for tips. At one garden, where the plots are 1.5 ft. apart, half my garlic crop was ruined by an incompetent neighbor who repeatedly drenched my plot (and has sprinkled me, when I’ve been working on the opposite side of the plot). Insect populations are not controllable, because there are always a few people whose plants serve as hatcheries.

    Aesthetics: No different from any other neighborhood. Some people care, some don’t; some people have a good eye, others don’t. To me, a halfway decent plot with just vegetables is better than your basic boring suburban lawn with boxwood and sick lawn tree. And many people grow herbs and flowers among the vegs. My theory is that people who don’t have gardens at home think of their community garden as their home, in a sense, so are more likely to pretty it up. Some of the plots at the 3-acre garden look like little garden rooms, with a bench and potted flowers.

    Attitude: A few people grow only flowers at community gardens. But yeah, if you’re not interested in growing food, then a community garden probably wouldn’t appeal to you in the first place. And none of them allow shrubs over 6 ft. or trees, though brambleberries are allowed.

    Drama: Just as in the wider world, it’s all about personality clashes. One garden used to have a (volunteer) coordinator who some people thought was too bossy, so they ignored everything she said. Meanwhile, she was frustrated because she had no actual power to force gardeners to clean up their plots. She eventually moved on. Most of my fellow gardeners are friendly and have time to chat, even if briefly. Others won’t say hello ever — makes me wonder if they somehow missed the part about “community” gardening.

    Community: In my experience, the people most likely to be friendly are those with neighboring plots who spend some time at the garden, so that you can have a conversation while you’re working. If the plot is farther away, you can’t be chatting while you’re working, but you can visit. At a plot next to a pedestrian and dog-walking path, people often stop to ask gardening questions, and I’ve even given away plants. At a different garden, the gate is unlocked only when someone is working there, so passers-by often wander in.

    But some people seem to be so busy they can’t even relax when they’re at the garden. The neighbor who uses a power-washer nozzle to attack/water her soil never has time to say hello. The bossy coordinator tried to have summer potlucks at the garden, and out of 150 gardeners, 4 people came to the last one — and that was only because they were at the garden and she offered free food and they were too polite to ignore her. At other potlucks, as many as 8-10 people attended.

  8. The CG I was in is no more because the the person running the garden was a conartist that embezzeled thousands of dollars, didn’t pay the rent, and disappeared into the ether. On top of that, the property owner wanted to develop he land after the city injunction was lifted (property was originally a crackhouse which was razed and the land dedicated for community use for a period of 5 years) so he jumped on the lack of rent payments as a means to lock everyone out. Of course the land has laid fallow for a decade now with no development because the property owner’s plan was unworkable. Now that was some drama.

  9. Too bad…………………many community gardens have boards that long for the old days of a communist/commune on the farm. There is another community garden in Queens where the president of the board has been accused of gentrification, kicking out little old ladies in favor of hip fashionistas, and having an affair with another members spouse.

    Sounds more like a good reality show for The Hamptons………….

    The TROLL

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