My first foray into community gardening was here in Charleston, South Carolina.
I’ve gardened and even farmed in various locations both in the United States and in Africa. But gardening in a plot as part of a community garden is a different experience entirely. While it has its benefits, there is no question there have been some negatives to my experience as well.
But first, a personal story to explain why I dabbled with community gardening in the first place.
The Pleasures and Frustrations of Living in Downtown Charleston, SC
I live on the second floor of a historic home in downtown Charleston. While I love my apartment and my roommates (in case they’re reading this), one drawback is the lack of land with which to do anything. Since I left college, I have grown or had some kind of livestock (often both) everywhere I’ve lived. And I was determined to not give that up once I arrived in the city.
I suppose I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
I wanted the cultural attractions and cosmopolitanism of a larger city. At the same time, I also wanted some of the small-town feel of being able to work the soil and knowing my neighbors.
Community gardening seemed the perfect opportunity to get the best of both worlds–though, as I learned, nothing is perfect.
The Elliotborough Community Garden in Downtown Charleston
On Halloween, shortly after moving here, I attended a Halloween event in the Elliotborough Community Garden. I was really excited to discover a community garden purely by happenstance. I started bouncing around the plots pointing-out vegetables, herbs, and flowers I recognized to one of my roommates. She was kind enough to humor my geeky moment.
A few months later, I found the website maintained by the Charleston Parks Conservancy. There, I got myself on their waitlist. At the beginning of March, I received a plot. It was a bit off the beaten path and didn’t receive as much sun in the fall, winter, and spring as most of the other plots. But whatever, I had something on which to work.
My first free weekend, I started amending the soil of my 8 foot by 4 foot plot. I shoveled a layer of compost supplied by the community garden, then put a thick layer of mulch on top (in this case, seed-less hay). Afterwards, I watered it all down to help it start decomposing.
Then, I planted:
- bronze fennel
- a yam vine
- Egyptian walking onions
- mustard greens
- Lacinato kale
- collard greens
- water celery
It was a little late in the season to start from seed, so I had to buy some mustard, collards, and kale starts. Many of the plants came from seeds and starts I brought with me from Connecticut.
Everything was growing fairly well, and I started harvesting mustard, then kale and collards.
Lesson #1 from Community Gardening in Charleston
But then my first lesson of community gardening occurred.
One day, while tending to my plot, a college-aged girl approached. She greeted me, I responded back warmly, and she then proceeded to yank leaves off of my kale plants.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind sharing–that is a tenet of gardening in a community on collective land, after all. It did bother me that she didn’t even bother to ask.
And this was actually fairly common.
After that first encounter, I began to notice big chunks of my plants missing each time I came to check on my garden. My lesson was the need to plant more than you can eat (in what is already limited space) to feed yourself as well as the entire frickin’ neighborhood.
Lesson #2 from Community Gardening in Charleston
But the absolute most obnoxious lesson I have learned about community gardening was yet to come. After a week away from my plot due to visits from family, I returned to discover my plot had been decimated. It was akin to the Romans plowing a furrow through Carthage and sowing salt.
I’m just kidding, but seriously, my plot was a mess. Someone had walked through and yanked-up all my collards and mustard plants and piled them up next to the raised bed. They then shoved some scraggly-looking eggplants in their place. The new plants looked more like the Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas special than healthy, happy vegetable plants.
Again, I got over the annoyance of the situation and planted other hot weather crops instead, like tomatoes, bell peppers, okra, and sweet potatoes. I even got a little passive-aggressive and ripped-out an eggplant or two to make space for my own stuff.
And so by August, my hot weather plants were producing. While the sweet potato vines were spreading like crazy, I was again unable to harvest any of my own peppers, eggplants, or tomatoes. The whole neighborhood is again helping themselves.
Putting a sign titled “Pearon’s Plot” up might have helped a bit.
I’ve realized I should focus on growing things that the typical community garden raider might ignore while plundering. My conventional veggies get raided constantly, while my anise-hyssop, water celery and sweet potato greens grow in peace.
Community Garden Benefits
So to put it all in a nutshell:
- Community gardening is great because it gives apartment dwellers access to land that they can steward as they choose.
- It’s also a great opportunity to meet your neighbors. Whether they steal your food or not.
However, it can be frustrating. Here are a couple ways I’ve learned to deal with the annoying parts.
- Put up a sign. My neighborhood has a rumor going around that any plots without a sign are fair game when in reality the public plots are all marked. Remove the guesswork and make it obvious.
- Plant more than you need. That way hopefully something will be left over after raiding parties pass through, be they human, animal, or fungal.
- Plant unconventional stuff. There are lots of really delicious and highly nutritious vegetables out there of which most people are unaware.
Forewarned is forearmed.
But in the end, that one year was my last one working in a Charleston community garden. Even having a sign wasn’t enough to prevent the pillaging.
And eventually even my sign got nicked.
How’s that for irony?
Gardening is supposed to be a relaxing endeavor for me. Preparing myself as I walked to my plot to find something new stolen was anxiety-inducing.
The next year, I ripped-up the small front yard of my little duplex and focused my efforts there instead.
Are There Successful Community Gardens in Charleston?
I can’t answer that one. There’s another community garden in the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley. The Magnolia Park and Community Garden appears to be self-sustaining.
But I’m not ready to go through the stress of trying another one out.
Happy community gardening!