Making Space for Gardening: The Portland Community Garden Story

Gardeners in an Oregon community garden harvest late-season vegetables. (Image by Dawn Grunwald)

Throughout the United States, urban community gardens have become a common thread that helps bring communities together, in cities large and small. Most community gardens have similar goals. In addition to supplying families with fresh produce, they encourage physical activity, provide needed green space, and a relaxed way to meet your neighbor.

No matter where it is, there is a standard template for community garden programs. Basically, a city sets aside a certain area of land, which is sectioned into plots and then offered to the residents of the community for a small fee to use for a garden. And, cities with such programs find that they are hugely successful. It’s harder for city dwellers to grow vegetables—with more people living in apartments or condominiums, homes being on smaller lots, and shade from trees and other dwellings preventing the opportunity. A community garden can fill the gardening niche and provide residents with vegetable garden plots that are often a relatively short distance from their homes.

The Portland Community Garden Story

Each garden plot can be personalized by the gardener. (Image by Dawn Grunwald)

Portland, Oregon was an early player in the community garden movement with its program beginning in 1975. Today, Portland has 52 community gardens throughout the city, with some gardens having wait lists of three years. Through community gardening, they strive to give people across the city the opportunity to grow fresh food, regardless of race, age, or income. The cost and size of a plot can vary, but most are nominally priced. A standard Portland plot of about 200 square feet is $57.  This cost includes water. If money is an issue, the city has a scholarship assistance program.

Portland’s many diverse community gardens are well planned and maintained. There is a water faucet near enough to water every plot and free wood chips are often offered to mulch pathways (wood chips bind nitrogen, so they are not recommended for mulching vegetable plants). Most community gardens, including this one, are 100% organic, which means no chemical sprays or non-organic soil amendments or fertilizers are allowed. Garden mulch and/or compost must be brought into the plots by the individual gardener. Most gardeners begin their cool-season crop planting in mid to late March. Warm season crops, like tomatoes and squash, are planted at the end of May.

Friends of Portland Community Gardens

Volunteers help the efforts of community gardens. (Image by Dawn Grunwald)

To further support community gardening efforts in Portland, the Friends of Portland Community Gardens was formed. Founded in 1986, the volunteer organization was initially created because budget cuts threatened the City of Portland’s Community Gardens program. Not only does their presence ensure that this important resource remains available to members of the Portland community, but they strive to “Empower gardeners to make the most of their community garden plots by providing communal supplies such as compost and tools.” The nonprofit also offers programming to help new gardeners succeed.

A Model for Other Communities

Irrigation water and wood chips are provided by Portland community gardens. (Image by Dawn Grunwald)

This community garden success story can provide a model for other cities. Most community gardens are overseen by a city government department, usually the Parks and Recreation Department. As one might imagine, the prospect of overseeing this many gardens could be overwhelming, which is why a strong volunteer program is essential.

Other communities around Portland have adopted the model. Portland’s adjoining suburb, Lake Oswego (population 40,000), also has one very active community garden program with 180 plots, with an average plot size of 20 x 20 feet and a yearly cost of $85. The garden is at 100% capacity for 2018, but there are usually some dropouts. The Community Garden Coordinator, Dawn Grunwald, told me that she keeps a wait list of those wanting a plot, and she begins calling at the end of January if there are vacant plots available.

Usually, there is an individual contact at each garden to oversee the site, but it is the individual gardeners that maintain each plot. It should be of no surprise that the biggest maintenance issue is that of weeds. Unmaintained gardens are often reassigned after a considerable period of neglect to keep weed seeds out of fellow gardener’s plots. Dawn said, “If someone neglects a plot or fails to plant it, I ask them to let it go.  If they want to keep it, we work with them to try to get it back in shape and perhaps suggest they get a smaller plot the following year.”

Growing Solutions for Community Gardeners

Since many gardeners start their own seeds at home and plant the seedlings in the spring, it’s smart for them to choose a mix that will yield great results. OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix is an ideal seed-starting medium to use. To prepare the garden plot prior to planting, gardeners can add Black Gold Garden Compost Blend or Earthworm Castings Blend, which are also OMRI Listed. Quality compost and castings are good additions for improving soil moisture, aeration, and drainage.

I asked Dawn what the Oswego community gardeners do with their excess produce, and she said they have boxes out for people to share their extra vegetables. Deliveries are also made to local food banks and other service organizations. So, community gardens help the larger community, too. [Click here to learn more about ways to share your produce!]

From talking with gardeners from other cities, it appears the community garden programs are vibrant and very popular. Even if you do not have a community garden plot, volunteers are always welcome and are rewarded with good growing tips and fresh produce.

About Mike Darcy

Mike lives and gardens in a suburb of Portland, Oregon where he has resided since 1969. He grew in up Tucson, Arizona where he worked at a small retail nursery during his high school and college years. He received his formal education at the University of Arizona where he was awarded a Bachelor of Science Degree in Horticulture, and though he values his formal education, he values his field-experience more. It is hard to beat the ‘hands on’ experience of actually gardening, visiting gardens, and sharing information with other gardeners. Mike has been involved with gardening communications throughout his adult life. In addition to garden writing, he has done television gardening shows in Portland, and for over 30 years he hosted a Saturday radio talk show in Portland. Now he writes, speaks, gardens and continues to share his love of gardening. To be connected to the gardening industry is a bonus in life for Mike. He has found gardeners to be among the friendliest and most caring, generous people. Consequently, many of his friends he has met through gardening.

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