Fresh and local. Two words that have defined the farm-to-table movement have permeated communities, as residents and home-gardening enthusiasts turn urban rooftops, vacant lots and public land into growing spaces. In recent years, the Pine Tree State has led the charge for community gardens that serve individuals without space to grow and organizations such as food pantries that struggle to provide fresh food to needy families. “I think a lot of folks are realizing they don’t have the resources they need in their backyard. … Lead is a problem with a lot of urban sites, and well-developed trees — though a good thing — can make it challenging to impossible” said Kate Garland, a horticulturist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Penobscot County.

Growing community

Traditionally, a community garden is a piece of public land divided into plots cultivated by people who want to use the space to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. Many times, they are on abandoned lots and create a sense of partnership among gardeners working different plots within the space. “They create great learning environments for new gardeners or people who haven’t done gardening before,” Dan Muth, co-coordinator of the Bangor Community Garden, said. “Usually in that environment, everyone is willing to help.” Some gardens have a defined organizational system with a steering committee or board of directors. Others, including the Bangor garden, partner with large organizations such as Cultivating Community, a nonprofit that manages the community gardens for the City of Portland. Similar to the differences in supervisory structure, funding for gardens differs throughout the state. In Bangor, the garden’s budget exclusively comes from membership fees. In exchange for the fees, gardeners are assigned a plot to garden in — or two, if they wish. The fees are used to pay for hoses, the garden’s water bill and maintenance of common areas. Members of Bangor’s Community Garden also are required to help maintain the overall space. However, in Portland, city officials determine the funding needed each year to maintain the city’s 350-plus community plots.

For the common good

The number and location of the hundreds of gardens throughout Maine is difficult to track, Garland said. However, she said she’s confident the number has increased in recent years. Interest is so high in some places that there is more demand than space allows. For example, in Portland, more than 150 people have been waiting for several years to get one of the 350-plus community garden plots, according to Laura Mailander, urban agricultural specialist for Cultivating Community. “People are so committed to local food in Maine, and I do think we lead the country in having that ethic of wanting to know where our food comes from,” she said. Garland echoed that sentiment, saying many Mainers, especially those in Portland, where the soil contains high amounts of lead, are unable to have successful backyard gardens and turn to alternatives such as community gardens. “I think it’s due to the interest in locally sourced food but also knowing where your food comes from, and a lot of folks are realizing they don’t have the resources they need in their backyard,” Garland said. Many are enthusiastic about using their local gardens for the common good. In Yarmouth, the community garden has distributed more than 25,000 pounds of food to people in need. In Bangor, along with paying a $25 fee, community gardeners also must commit to working a few hours a season on the community plot that supports Maine Harvest for Hunger.

Looking to grow

This year’s community growing season promises to be robust, as many existing gardens look to expand. Now in it’s fifth year, the Bangor garden has plans to expand again this year. It has added nearly 50 additional beds per year since its inception five years ago. Plans also are in the works for a new garden in Portland and the city’s first rooftop space, which will include a greenhouse and several raised beds. “We’re not meeting the demand, but we’re hoping to get there soon,” Mailander said. “We’re really committed to adding a community garden every year.” But community gardens in Maine also are going beyond the typical fenced-in vacant lot turned mini farm. Bangor offers residents the chance to create edible landscaping throughout the city’s downtown area. Last summer and fall, chard could be seen growing among flowers in Norumbega Parkway and tomatoes were planted on Main Street. While Garland said there isn’t a map of all the gardens statewide, it is in the works. Information to be included in the database would relate to where community gardens and food pantries are located. “There’s a significant amount of food mapping work being done, and community gardens are going to be part of that collective data,” she said. However, it is a daunting task because of the nature of gardens. “Community gardens can be very small, grass-roots projects or they can be loosely organized, so it’s hard to track all of that,” Garland said. Eventually, however, she said she hopes the map will be as comprehensive as possible and allow people to add their own information. “A community garden is anywhere folks are gardening together,” Garland said. “We’d want to include anywhere people are building community and place.”

Starting a community garden

Anyone with a yearning to create unused space into a community garden can do so with a little planning and determination. The UMaine extension program offers the following tips for organizing a community garden: 1. Organize a meeting of interested people and determine what type of garden is needed or wanted. Consider whether to include individual or group plots. 2. Form a planning committee of people who want to devote time to organizing tasks, such as finding and obtaining land, writing guidelines, finding sponsors and communicating with participants. 3. Find a sponsor that can help the garden with expensive items, such as irrigation or fencing. Consider recreation departments, civic groups and churches. 4. Choose a site that will have a minimum of eight hours of sun per day during the growing season. Make sure the site also has ample parking space, access to water and offers good drainage. 5. Prepare the site working to till, adjust soil as need and lay out plots and paths. 6. Consider creating a space just for children, which can help promote family time and encourage the development of lifelong gardeners. 7. Determine the garden’s rules and put them in writing. Talk about things like fees and how the money will used, who will maintain common areas and whether pets will be allowed. 8. Work together to create a community, and make sure whoever the coordinator is has contact information for all participants. Find a way to exchange messages and post updates or notices.

Natalie Feulner

Natalie Feulner is a journalist and “semi-crunchy” cloth diapering momma to a rambunctious toddler named after a county in California. She drinks too much tea and loves to climb rocks but not at the...