With a Little Help

Co-Gardening = Community Harvest

I look through my kitchen window and see a young couple tromping through my back yard, pitchfork and rake in hand. He chooses sticks from the brush pile to make a trellis for green beans; she bends over a raised bed and pulls tiny weeds. Who are these people, and why are they in my yard?

Happy co-gardeners harvest carrots at Ocean Glimpse Farm in Maine.
© JUDY BERK

Urban condo-dwellers desperate to dig in the dirt, my "co-gardeners," Maggie and Karl, are helping me to plant and tend a garden on my half-acre of real estate in the suburbs. I get to share the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and they give me support to become a successful gardener.

Like many modern suburbanites, I can use all the help I can get. Vegetable gardening is a dying art, and growing a garden can be daunting. Enter co-gardening, the act of gardening with friends, family and neighbors. Co-gardeners till, plant, weed, water and even cook together. Like urban community gardeners, they share garden space, and like Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSAs), they share produce. The difference is that co-gardening can happen on any scale, from two friends tending vegetables on a back patio, to whole communities cultivating large plots of land.

Roger Doiron is founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, a group dedicated to empowering people to achieve greater levels of food self-reliance. Doiron envisions food in concentric circles. Ideally, consumers should grow what they can in their own back yards. From there, they should look for the closest regional producers, such as local farms, CSAs and farmers" markets. Only after local sources are exhausted should consumers look beyond their own region for food.

According to Doiron, "In American suburban culture…the idea of shared space is relatively unknown."

On a Grand Scale

David Foley and Judy Berk of Ocean Glimpse Farm in Northport, Maine, are co-gardeners on a grand scale. For 16 years they have been sharing their half-acre garden space with up to eight local families at a time. The idea began when the couple became friends with their next-door neighbors, who lived on blueberry barrens. The neighbors expressed envy for Foley and Berk's fertile front yard, and the couple invited them to garden there. Soon, other neighbors were participating, including a friend who was suffering from leukemia and wanted to grow macrobiotic food and a farming couple who were between farms. Now a diverse group gardens together: the youngest gardener is two years old, and the oldest is 73.

The project has evolved into an informal but highly effective organization. Every January, gardeners gather for an event they've dubbed the Seed Summit. They reflect on the previous season's successes and failures, plan for next year and pore over seed catalogues.

During the growing season, the group meets on Sundays for a couple of hours of gardening and a potluck lunch. Those who enjoy the social aspects of gardening can join the group; others might stop by on a weekday for some early morning weeding.

One advantage of co-gardening, according to Berk, is that different people gravitate toward different parts of gardening—her group includes natural weeders, hoers and seed starters. Berk says, "There are leaders and laggards, as there are in everything," but for the most part the garden runs well on the honor system.

Suburban Eden

Every vegetable garden planted replaces one of the chemical-intensive lawns that cover 23 million acres of American soil, costing $30 billion, robbing us of productive land and consigning suburbanites to the weekly chore of lawn mowing.

And in the words of Judy Berk, co-gardening "allows people to share resources and skills and to develop a sense of community, which is really lacking in modern society."

Maggie and Karl know more than I do about both cooking and gardening, and working with them taught me more than my library of gardening books ever did. As Doiron put it, "If you tell people to plant a lot of Swiss chard without telling them what to do with it, then people just end up with a lot of Swiss chard."

The benefits of co-gardening extend well beyond a marriage of convenience. My co-gardeners and I have shared meals, frozen mountains of pesto, and enjoyed each other's company. In the process, I have gone from a reluctant lawn tender to an enthusiastic budding gardener.

HANNAH JONES is a writer and teacher who gardens in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.