So, You Want to Join a Community Garden? - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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So, You Want to Join a Community Garden?

City dwellers frequently lack access to even the smallest patch of land, and often long to sink their hands into soil. It’s not surprising, since gardening provides us countless benefits—both as individuals and as part of the interconnected fabric of our communities, our city, and our planet.

Humans seem wired with a love of living things (sometimes referred to as “biophilia”), and the beauty of the natural world nourishes our physical and mental health. Further, growing food is a powerful act of self-determination and community-building.

The Nehemiah Ten Community Garden in East New York, Brooklyn. Photo by Nina Browne.

City folks—more than half the global population—can play a huge role in safeguarding the planet. Community gardens can help reduce the urban heat island effect and absorb stormwater runoff, while nurturing vital pockets of biodiversity. And all that beautiful biomass even sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

Yet despite all the benefits, perhaps you’re hesitant to join a community garden. After all, the process may seem daunting, not every garden appears welcoming, and expectations don’t always match reality. At one of my first classes on gardening in community I heard the phrase: “Plants are easy. People are hard”—a gentle reminder that community gardening is even more about growing community than it is about growing plants.

If you are considering getting involved, but don’t know where to start, here are a few tips.

1. Do your homework. Every community garden is unique, with different layouts, goals, membership protocols, plot distribution processes, traditions, and governance. There are lots of gardens; GreenThumb (the NYC Parks Department program that oversees most community gardens in NYC) supports more than 550 of them. Finding one close to home or work may be ideal, but convenience can be small consolation if the fit isn’t right.

GreenThumb’s website hosts tremendous resources that include a robust “Find a Garden” tool. Use it to locate your nearest garden, or if you have a specific garden in mind, to learn more about it. In-person research is great, too: Ask someone at the garden’s open hours, or at a local shop, salon, or library.

You can also reach out directly to a GreenThumb community engagement coordinator to help you get connected.

Prospect Park Community Farm, a 2011 Greenest Block in Brooklyn finalist.

2. Know your intentions. What are your goals? As GreenThumb staffer and Crown Heights community gardener Greg Anderson puts it: “Why are you joining? Do you want to learn? Do you want to work with other gardeners on shared spaces? Or do you want to grow your own food in your own plot? Do you want to take part in the movement and develop skills around advocacy?”

Knowing what you want will help you find the right fit. “No matter who you are and what you know,” Anderson reassures, “there is a place for you in a community garden group.”

3. Be curious. Begin your journey from a place of humility and avoid making assumptions about the garden based on what you see from the outside. Starting with words like “empty,” “abandoned,” or “lacking leadership” can sound like arrogance and saviorism to the people who are already involved.

If you are concerned that you’ll be seen as an unwelcome newcomer, or gentrifier, particularly if you are White, acknowledge the privilege you bring to the relationship. Introduce yourself by asking open, honest questions, and then practice active listening. 

In the words of Ena K. McPherson, a community garden leader based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, “Be adaptable. Meaning: Adapt to the way things are; don’t come in thinking you have to ‘fix’ everything.”

4. Think beyond growing plants. There are multiple ways to participate in a community garden. You might find that the garden needs things besides hands in the dirt: research, social media savvy, cooking skills, design, grant writing, event planning, and much more.

Listen to what your peer gardeners say they need, while being clear about your limits and capacity. Valery Zorrilla of GreenThumb describes three common levels of community garden engagement this way:

“There are those that want to ‘dip a toe’—coming to occasional events and community workdays. Then there are those who have plots, help regularly, and go to most meetings. And then there are those who grow and grow, expanding their role and becoming leaders.”

Stay open to what your involvement could look like—and blossom into.

Ingersoll Garden of Eden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

5. Learn more history—of the land you’re stewarding, and of the community garden movement.

“Gardens are spaces for reflection,” says McPherson. “We are on unceded Lenape land. We must reflect on that.” In addition, many lots where gardens now stand once held houses of worship. Whatever your garden’s history, consider that you are entering a sacred space. “Everyone can connect with their ancestors in these spaces,” says Anderson. “We want everyone to see themselves here.”

Remember, too, that community gardening in New York City has long been fraught with uncertainty. It has taken years of organized struggle to get many gardens where they are today. Leaders of the community garden movement—many of whom are Black and Brown—have made history struggling for the right to collectively steward land in their neighborhoods.

Consider yourself as standing on those mighty shoulders, part of assuring the future of community gardening in Brooklyn. Every garden member is an essential part of an urban gardening ecosystem, and knowing and acknowledging that history is important.

Zorrilla recommends diving into documentary films like City Farmers (1996), Rhythms of the Land (2023), and Farming While Black (2023). A Lenapehoking Anthology, published by the Lenape Center and Brooklyn Public Library, is another great resource, along with this video featuring Lenape Center co-founders and co-directors Joe Baker, Curtis Zunigha, and Hadrien Coumans in conversation with Brooklyn Public Library's Cora Fisher. 

6. Keep learning, and share your learning. No one is the perfect community gardener, and there is no perfect time to join a garden. But community gardens are perfect places for life-long learning and leadership development. 

Keep growing your skills and pay it forward. Take a gardening class at Brooklyn Botanic Garden or through GreenThumb. Consider expanding your skills by applying to BBG’s Brooklyn Urban Gardener volunteer program. 

Community gardening is incredibly rewarding work. And community gardening in New York City is at a crossroads moment, in vital need of greater participation. As the movement’s leaders—many of whom were founding visionaries—begin to step back, gardens need new members and new leaders of all ages. “We have to grow the next generation of the movement,” urges McPherson.

Perhaps their most valuable contribution to the health of the planet, community gardens grow deep connections within the web of living things all around and including us. Hopefully you’ll dig deep and find the courage to make connections and take root. We need you.

A special thank you to the community gardeners who contributed their wisdom to this article.

Further Resources

Learn more about joining a GreenThumb garden by watching this GreenThumb panel on YouTube.

Grow your gardening know-how and meet other gardeners on the same path at Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Making Brooklyn Bloom conference.

Take a free gardening class with Brooklyn Botanic Garden or GreenThumb.

Consider applying to become a certified BBG Brooklyn Urban Gardener.

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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