Before noon on a sunny Friday in June, Nadia Billig Daniel stood in her plot of land at Fairmount’s Corinthian Gardens and tore a spinachlike leaf from a plant as high as her hips. She took a bite, a prelunch nibble.
"Sorrel’s one of my favorites — it has this crisp, lemony flavor,” the volunteer coordinator said. Daniel is one of only a few members growing the tangy herb in this 69-plot garden. Elsewhere in Corinthian, one finds ripe strawberries, budding broccoli plants, and hearty patches of basil.
“Planting teaches you patience and persistence,” says Sally McCabe, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s associate director of community education. In a garden, she says, neighbors share the same goal, regardless of status. “The garden becomes an equalizer, a place to pass around knowledge.”
Philadelphia has around 400 community gardens, each with its own personality, rules, fees, and, often, waiting list. As Community Gardens Day (June 15) approaches, here’s a guide to getting a plot.
Finding your community garden
Community gardens are designed to welcome all gardeners, whether seasoned veterans or first-timers, so proximity is likely your primary consideration. Organizations like PHS and Neighborhood Gardens Trust have mapped out many of Philly’s community gardens, but perhaps the best way to find one is by taking a stroll.
“Some gardens don’t have legal ownership of the lands, which prevents the city from creating a comprehensive database,” explains Jennifer Greenberg, executive director of NGT.
Once you find one, look for contact information on the garden’s signage. If details aren’t listed, reach out to PHS or NGT for help with connecting. Or try visiting on a Saturday morning — prime time to catch current plot-holders in action.
Some gardens, especially in neighborhoods around Center City, require that you live within a certain radius to join. But many outside Center City welcome stakeholders from elsewhere, including North Philly’s Glenwood Green Acres, West Philly’s Aspen Farms, and the Northeast’s Benjamin Rush Gardens. Those further-flung locations also offer more space, with plots as large as 10 feet by 40 feet. (Gardeners take note: You’ll need to commit to planting the entire plot, or arrange to share it.)
What to do if you’re wait-listed
To get a plot at the Spring Gardens in Fairmount, you’ll need patience: Its notoriously lengthy waiting list is just under two years at the moment.
Waiting lists are common at most downtown gardens, but Spring Gardens volunteer coordinator Liz McIlvaine says it shouldn’t deter you from signing up.
“It took me a year and a half to get my plot, which was a lot less time than I was imagining,” McIlvaine says. This will be her fifth season at the 180-family community garden. “There’s a surprising amount of turnover every year with families who move away or people who age out of the garden."
While you bide your time, there are other ways to get involved — and sometimes they speed up the process.
“Let people get familiar with who you are and show that you’re a hard worker,” McCabe says. She advises volunteering on a communal work day, often held monthly or biweekly. While you’re there, befriend the organizers and the resident gardeners. “Sometimes people will be willing to share a plot with you, especially if they’ll be traveling over the summer.”
“Depending on the garden, something as simple as owning a truck could move you up on the list,” McCabe says.
You can also secure a more distant plot while you wait, but that may have drawbacks. “Something further away becomes more of a project,” McCabe says. “If you have to pack up the kids or borrow a truck or take three buses to get to your garden, you’re not going to be running over there to pick basil in the half-hour before dinner.”
Rules, fees, and other costs
If a garden has available space, they’ll have you fill out an application and agree to its regulations. Rules vary but often include not using pesticides, keeping pets leashed or at home, and planting by a designated date.
Many gardens have an annual fee, usually between $35 to $50. Membership dues go toward shared benefits like buying flowers for communal spaces, maintaining fences, and providing lawn-mowing services.
Other costs include plants, compost, and gardening tools. Planting seeds is cheapest — seed packets are often $1 or less, while one heirloom tomato plant can cost $5 — but requires more planning and time. Compost is affordable; some gardens provide it, and Fairmount Park’s Philadelphia Recycling Center provides up to 30 gallons free (beyond that, it’s $50 per ton). Tools can add up, but sharing can save you in all instances.
“A garden can cost you nothing or it can cost you a gazillion dollars," McCabe says. “It’s all about who you get to know ... You don’t need six tomatoes from a starter pack, so trade for three of someone else’s peppers.”
Community service and other commitments
As enjoyable and rewarding as it is, gardening takes effort.
“This is a community space, and it takes a community to keep it beautiful,” says Janice Trapp, 78, current copresident of Aspen Farms and a plot-holder of 38 years. “There are never-ending weeds and work you’ll have to do outside of your own plot.”
As a community gardener, you’ll likely need to weed, water, and shovel in communal spaces. Service requirements vary but average around 10 hours per season.
To keep your own plot presentable, expect to weed once a week. You’ll spend even more time watering, which can be a daily activity during the summer, especially if storms don’t roll in. If you don’t have access to a hose, you’ll need to fill up watering cans.
“You’re not going to get a drip irrigation system in a community garden,” Daniel says. She recommends teaming up with your fellow plot-holders. “Get to know your neighbors and share schedules so that you can share watering responsibilities.”
Making the most of a plot
According to PHS, the average community garden plot is 4 by 8 or so feet. To maximize your space, you’ll want to consider your priorities and the room each plant needs to thrive. Avoid squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, melons, and other vine vegetables inclined to take over in all directions. Certain herbs, such as mint and lemon balm, also spread like wildfire.
Do your research to see which plants can grow vertically (on a trellis), like cucumbers and green beans. You’ll also want to practice succession planting — staggering plantings by season. A row of spring-planted carrots, for instance, can be harvested in early summer, then replaced with a few eggplant plants.
Most importantly, use your space to grow what you’ll use and love to cook.
“Tomatoes are absolute musts because you can’t get any fresher than growing your own,” McCabe says. “Then, just grow whatever your heart desires. If you cherish collards and want to grow an entire plot of them, that’s up to you."