Down With Lawns: Community Gardening in the Suburbs

Community garden plots, Blaine MNThe iconic suburban lawn may be losing popularity.

Oh, sure. Restrictive covenants still exist, and the guy who uses his leaf blower to vacuum up the lawn mulch wearing nothing but a Speedo at 9 at night in July still wanders, white hairy chest on display, in many communities. But as suburbanites face slowed development trends and uncertain economics, vegetables are becoming more and more appealing as a use of time, space and water.

Urban gardening is not new — people in many cities are turning their yards, their balconies and other available spaces into growing space for truly local food. However, while examples in Minneapolis and St. Paul get plenty of press due to location and tenure, suburbanites are getting in on the action. While homeowners can sometimes just dig up their own yards, apartment dwellers,seniors in rentals, and suburbanites who live under the thumbs of homeowner associations who are still romancing the lawn are finding other options. And cities are helping, via allocation of public land or land pending redevelopment, and via public-private partnerships encouraging businesses and organizations to offer up their space to eager gardeners.

A few examples, from the realm of what many would consider the deepest, darkest heart of dark suburbia — the northern suburbs:

  • The City of Blaine has community garden plots for rent near City Hall. They prep the plots and water is accessible; residents get first crack. The plots make vegetable growing space available to both apartment dwellers, and those Blaine residents who are prohibited by homeowner covenants from growing cucumbers. A small fee is charged for use of the space, but includes water.
  • The City of Anoka Human Rights Commission has made garden plots available in two city-owned lots. Again, a fee is charged, but one that can easily be made up via the value of home-grown tomatoes.
  • Brooklyn Park has installed 80 plots, 20×20 each, at the city-owned historic Eidem farm. They have an annual waitlist to get a spot.
  • Coon Rapids offers several community garden sites for residents, the most prominent being near a fire station (thus addressing water access).
  • Fridley has public land set aside for gardens, and also has a public-private partnership with Unity Hospital. The hospital has 62 plots on their private property, with preference for spots given to employees and residents of Fridley, Blaine, Hilltop, Mounds View and Spring Lake Park.

Squashes & melons in a Fridley community garden.Columbia Heights has perhaps gone farthest with the community garden concept, allocating a number of vacant properties pending long-term development plans to garden projects. One notable project specifically grows vegetables for the Anoka County food shelves, helping provide critical nutrition to needy families (and adding a little color to the typically bland offerings of the food shelf box).

Anoka County was also the recipient of a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation to create a public-private partnership model through which community churches — who often have both volunteer labor and plenty of land — create community gardens to support local food shelves and encourage healthy eating. In 2012, one garden in the program expects to produce more than 600 pounds of food (which is considerable if you consider how many beans make a pound), and has established the infrastructure to sustain the project for years to come.

Next up, watch for suburbanites to embrace the urban chicken phenomenon. It’s coming.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!