5 Ways to Garden Together

1. Connect. I am a private person, but my community garden plot allows me to share a bit of myself with passing strangers. For the benefit of riders on the local commuter train line, which overlooks the garden, I plant a showy, dramatic border of flowers: cascading “love lies bleeding” amaranth or tall fairy columns of foxgloves or the papery, heroic “Flanders Fields” poppies. A wanderer might stumble on the makeshift poetry post that displays the Gettysburg Address, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or a haiku about mosquitoes. Several years ago, a garden neighbor added an old yellow plastic garbage can lid that he had repurposed into an oversize emoji using black duct tape—a smiling face with sunglasses. I knitted a red heart and attached it. We all need more love.

2. Maintain boundaries. Again, I repeat that I am a private person. Paths in community gardens demarcate your space from mine. Keep them tidy and weed-free by laying down cardboard, wood chips, grass clippings, nutshells, leaves, or some combination. Sprinkle with fresh flowers. For interest, edge the paths with pruned tree branches or concrete blocks of an old sidewalk. At the same time, a garden at its best should burst at the seams. Stray raspberry canes escape, tomato plants are unruly, mounds of nasturtiums and sweet-scented alyssum tumble into paths, and tentacled pumpkin vines sprawl in all directions. And what to do when a neighbor’s towering hollyhock shades your sun-loving pumpkin?

3. Let go. The neighbor’s hollyhock is undisputedly spectacular in size and blooms. It is so full of possibility for pollinators, caterpillars, and floating bouquets that it approaches heresy to discuss the hollyhock’s removal with the owner. Remind yourself that your Cinderella pumpkin, now living in the hollyhock’s shadow, will be fine. It is a vine and will spread out to find what it needs. The pumpkin will still dazzle your front porch at Halloween.

4. Understand your choices affect others. Clashes of gardening styles happen in a shared space where attachments to food, land, and identity can evoke an intense response. Lost or damaged tools, water left on, chemical weed killers, and an overgrown, neglected plot impact the entire garden. Powdery mildew on your pumpkin leaves will probably infect your neighbor’s squash leaves; uncontained mint is invasive. Ask yourself how you can make the soil in your plot healthier. Lead by example. Enough said.

5. Pay it forward.
Community gardens are found on church property, at parks, or in abandoned lots. They are tended by dedicated individuals—novice and veteran gardeners, the homesick, community-minded—and both their existence and success are acts of trust and sometimes leaps of faith. Theft and vandalism happen. Cabbages are slashed and beheaded; heirloom sweet peas disappear into a stranger’s bouquet; and the giant pumpkin, relocated to the road as a temporary roadblock by a nighttime prankster, is smashed into dozens of pieces. Instead of getting angry or discouraged, grow extra of everything for wanderers to help themselves. Hang an inspirational message: please do touch. please do eat. but please, take only what you need.

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Melanie Moler has been involved with community gardens for twenty-five years. She currently gardens in Hillsboro, Oregon.


  1. Thanks for these valuable reminders and useful tips. I love them.

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