Community gardens are much more than neighboring plots. Given enough energy and enthusiasm, they morph into support groups, horticulture classes, swap meets or modest profit centers for low- and fixed-income growers. Small wonder there often is more demand than availability.
Many have waiting lists. In the Los Angeles area, for example, it can be a year or more before people are able to acquire garden plots, said Yvonne Savio of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County.
"Sometimes, people drive clear across town because that's where their plot opened up first," Savio said. "Some people bring their tools with them on the bus."
Locations are advertised in newspapers, on the Internet and on neighborhood bulletin boards. Sponsors vary from churches to hospitals, municipalities to large corporations.
"One of our gardens is run by five guys from a church," Savio said. "They literally farm. They plant what the parishioners want, then harvest the stuff and bring it to church every Sunday."
One Los Angeles-area hospital subsidizes a serenity garden. "They believe it's healthier for people to be outside in nature rather than stuck in hospital rooms," Savio said. "It's not so much what they harvest as it is the occupational therapists being able to exercise their clients."
Many cities offer grants to help get gardens started, said Bill Dawson, a community garden coordinator with the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. "They recognize it's an amenity, much like a park. Corporations are doing it, too, as a perk to employees."
Community gardens range in size from a few 4-by-10-foot sections to several acres. They are managed either communally -- the people in charge decide what needs to be done and when -- or left open for individual use. Sites might be offered free, or priced from $5 to $50 and more per season.
"Most gardens set fees because their expenditures in time, transportation (for gathering fertilizer, compost, mulch), water and storage are so high," Savio said.
Consider these elements of community gardening before signing up:
• Know what you're buying into. Many people join simply to work on their own in personal plots. Communal gardening, however, is a commitment -- a chance to interact and share cultures with others, Dawson said. Be open to teaching or learning.
• Embrace giving. Part of the harvest often is donated to food pantries or people in need.
• Engage in intergenerational gardening. "Our children come home from school telling us about composting and organic gardening," Dawson said. "The elderly know how to preserve and put things by. Families should learn from each other and enjoy. Share stories."
• Turn surplus properties into green spaces. "Haul away the needles and trash and convert the areas into something beautiful and productive," Dawson said.
• Community gardening prompts families to make healthier food choices. "They get better at understanding the nutritional value of fresh carrots over fast foods," he said. "And if the kids are growing it, they're eating it."
• You can sell some or all of what you grow, Dawson said. "Gardeners can learn marketing skills, while at the same time get some seed money from their gardens."