Creating Community in a Community Garden

Reader Contribution by Brooke Wiland
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Photos by Cameron J. Taylor

Today as I was masked and gloved, working away in the community garden, I noticed my own inner urge to chat with the gardener in the plot behind me. Under normal circumstances — ya know, back in January — I wouldn’t hesitate to walk over, shake his hand, and have a less than socially distanced chat. But things are different now.

You don’t know if you’ll offend someone by trying to talk to them. You don’t know if they’re overly comfortable with the situation and if you’ll have to tell them to stand back a bit. I decided to stop over thinking it and I struck up a conversation. We talked about how great his plot is starting to look after only being there for 3 months. The crinkle in the corner of his eyes told me he was happy to have a break in the stifled humid air of an oncoming Texas storm.

We talked about peppers, how great cedar mulch is, and how I ended up with the biggest tomato plants in the garden. The conversation so naturally flowed even with the distance, and finally I felt a twinge of human contact coming back into my time at the community garden.

I started thinking exactly how do you go about rebuilding a sense of community at the community garden during a pandemic?

Varied, Vital Roles of a Community Garden

Community gardens are not a new concept. However, I did not understand how incredibly much I’d learn from my fellow gardeners. I had no idea how nice everyone would be and how much free produce I’d be offered just because “I planted too much”. I’ve mostly learned about gardening from YouTube. But then after succumbing to the fact that it would be a number of years more before I was going to have a backyard garden, I found my community garden.

For $50 per year, you get a 10-by-20-foot plot of land to garden. Mine was rough, to say the least, when I got a hold of it. We were able to tour the property and pick an open plot and when I found mine, it was about 5 to 6 feet tall with a litany of different species of weeds. But I saw a 4-foot collard green plant poking through trying to find the sun. And I remembered my grandma telling me, “If something is growing strong in it, it’s a good piece of land.”

Alas, it was mine. I tempted my boyfriend to come help me with the promise that he could use a machete and feel like Indiana Jones for a couple of hours. We got it cleared on a hot September day last year and ever since, it has evolved over the weeks and months into being what it is today — which is the Spring/Summer 2020 garden, abundant and beautiful even with my rookie gardener mistakes.

Community Lessons in Community Gardening

However, there’s no way I’d have gotten this far in such a short amount of time if it wasn’t for the community part of the community garden. Dave was the one who told me that you can grow sugar snap peas in Texas all winter long. Julio was the one who told me I could bury plants I’d pulled up to regenerate the soil. Kate informed me that my Brussels sprouts were far too close together. And Jeff was the one who told me to think about adding some beauty to my space, prompting me to get into flowers.

You can learn just about anything on the internet these days. But it’s the anecdotal word-of-mouth information you get from seasoned gardeners that is beyond valuable — actually being able to have someone walk you over to their plot and show you what they’re talking about, show you their success, and go back to your plot and tell you exactly what to do. It’s an element of the community garden that isn’t found anywhere else.

Community Garden as Pandemic Refuge

Thankfully, I’ve still been able to go tend my plot at the garden during the pandemic. Living in the one-bedroom apartment with another human and two large dogs, I needed the escape. I hadn’t seen anyone for a number of weeks and I could tell certain gardeners’ beds were being untended.

The mix of gardeners is extremely varied both in culture and age, which makes it so rich. But I could tell the older people’s plots around me were suffering. I’d try to water them as much as I could but didn’t want to step on their toes. But the first day I saw my older plot neighbors, I cried. I waved to them, as I was busy pulling weeds, and they were masked and gloved with eyes darting around in fear. The fear was crippling for them. They looked over the garden, made a list of projects, and left very quickly.

You could feel the anxious and scared energy. I was heartbroken. The plot they’ve had for the last 5 years, the soil they’ve tended so carefully, and the community that they love so much, they have fear of. I cried right there. Maybe I have a soft spot for older folks, because I have such a close and special relationship with my own grandparents. Whatever the reason, my heart felt heavier instead of lighter after leaving the garden that day.

It’s likely that the only permanent fix is time, a vaccine, and general improvement in overall health and healthcare. But I can’t help but think if there’s small ways we can start to connect again. Maybe it’s sending out a recipe for things in season to the garden community. Maybe it’s introducing new gardeners via email to everyone. Maybe it’s creating a network of people who can help out on older people’s plots if they aren’t comfortable returning right now. I certainly don’t have an answer right now. But I do have hope.

My first in-depth conversation yesterday gave me a smidge of hope that someday I’ll have my beloved community back in full effect. I keep coming back to the notion that the garden reminds us of, nature remains. Even when there’s so many things you can’t do, focusing on the things you can do like being a good steward of the Earth, will bring you hope. Nature will show you that things can live and thrive, even amongst unfavorable conditions.

And above all else, gardeners have the best sense of hope, faith, and vision in their plants, garden plans, and more. We have to hold onto that more than ever right now.

Brooke Wilandis a true millennial, who found her homestead inspiration on Netflix and now saves vegetable scraps to make stocks, produces homemade apple cider vinegar and gluten-free bread, and grows a high volume of produce in her 10-by-20-foot community garden plot in Austin, Texas. Connect with Brooke onInstagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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