Calling All Community Gardens: Think Outside the Gate! - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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Calling All Community Gardens: Think Outside the Gate!

Community gardens are essential to a city’s well-being. Yet they seldom get the credit they deserve, and too many suffer from lack of visibility and participation. One potential remedy is for gardens to embrace their role as “curbside educators” and take their talents out to the streetscapes along their gardens’ gates.

St. Marks Avenue Prospect Heights Community Garden in Prospect Heights spills out onto the sidewalk with plantings and containers. Photo by BBG Staff.

The annual Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest, led by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, offers a Best Community Garden Streetscape award. This award inspires community gardens to extend their garden’s borders and engage the surrounding community.

After managing the contest for over ten years and visiting many community gardens, I’ve learned what works well. Whether you want to wow the judges or simply create more beauty for your neighbors, here are my top tips gleaned from Brooklyn's greenest blocks.

Swing for the fences. Greenest Block winners often make use of limited space by going vertical. Tall exterior gates can make impressive trellises for plants like trumpet vine, climbing roses, berries, or hardy kiwi. 

But even if your garden doesn’t want to obstruct sight lines or cast shade with tall, dense plantings on your fences, simply paying attention to these often-overlooked edges can make a huge difference to how your garden is viewed from the street.

Hollenback Community Garden in Clinton Hill, a former Best Community Garden Streetscape winner, utilized lush climbing plantings and even installed a bench in front of their garden. Photo by BBG Staff.

Think outside the gate. Be sure to research and follow local regulations for sidewalk planters. Local rules can vary, though most focus on the need to leave plenty of space for egress. 

Small containers, under 24 inches in width, placed right along the property line are usually permissible. New Yorkers can call 311 or check out the city’s sidewalk usage guide. Even one or two well-placed planters can do wonders for creating a colorful focal point that draws people in.

Lefferts Place Block Association Garden in Bedford-Stuyvesant welcomes neighbors with sidewalk containers. Photo by Nina Browne.

Don’t forget the street tree beds. Street trees are the lungs of the city. Is your garden paying them the attention they need and deserve? Use best practices in tree bed care, such as gentle watering, carefully placing natural wood chip mulch, and installing an appropriate tree guard if you can. Be sure to do some research first—improper tree bed gardening and guards can do more harm than good.

This modest street tree bed outside of 61 Franklin Street Garden in Greenpoint is doing so many things right: its guard allows water to flow into the bed, it has no added soil, and is planted with a healthy combination of mulch and groundcovers. Photo by Nina Browne.

Use signage to engage and educate. Your neighbors are curious. Does your garden collect rainwater? Grow medicinal herbs? Feature native plants for pollinators? Donate food for mutual aid? A few simple and fun signs can help let passersby know what you’re doing.

A row of five long wooden planters with plants growing in them sits in front of a chain link fence covered in signs containing a garden with trees and green plants.
Newkirk Community Garden in Kensington, Best Community Garden Streetscape winner in 2022, used tasty herbs and informative signage to engage their neighbors. Photo by Nina Browne.

Get creative. Brooklyn’s community gardens continue to educate the Greenest Block judges with their innovative thinking. What unique characteristics of your block’s street or sidewalk could you make the most of? We’ve even seen temporary construction fences transformed by acts of guerilla gardening, covered in vines that were planted in several five-gallon buckets.

Take a slow, intentional walk past your community garden with fresh eyes. We think you’ll observe that the sky truly is the limit.

Nina Browne, a former Brooklyn community gardener, is community field manager at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and has been co-facilitator of the Brooklyn Urban Gardener volunteer training program since 2011.

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Image, top of page: Nina Browne