The joy and aggravations of community gardens

Growing veggies in a Chicago community garden is only partly about growing and much about getting along with other members of the community.

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    When you live in a high-rise in the heart of Chicago and want to grow vegetables, this community garden is one of your best options. But there are aggravations such as tomato thieves, as well as joys.
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For so many gardeners, especially those of us who live in colder climes, February is time for dreaming green dreams of the coming growing season, perusing seed catalogs, sketching out beds, and tabulating the bumper harvests soon to be ours.

But for those of us who tend plots in community gardens, these musings take on a tone entirely different — and more subversive — than those of propertied gardeners.

I live with my family in a 200-condo tower in the heart of Chicago. We have no balcony, and tomatoes are strictly banned from the manicured courtyard. To grow our favorite flowers and vegetables, we walk or catch a bus to a free community garden a mile away.

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Day by day, as the thaw approaches, I make the commute in my mind’s eye and ponder the eternal questions of the community gardener — conundrums baffling to anyone who has never shared a hose with 30 people.

Maybe this is the year I’ll unearth answers.

A community gardener's questions

Should I stay in this garden? Unlike the yard-bound gardeners of the suburbs, I can quit this particular plot of earth whenever I like. Maybe I could find a sunnier plot in a different garden, maybe even one closer to my house. That would certainly simplify daily chores such as watering. But in the inner city, garden space [PDF], like every other kind of real estate, is precious. There’s only a small chance that I can find and claim an unoccupied plot before someone else does. I'm probably better off keeping the one I have. A tomato in the hand is worth two on the vine, or something like that.

To lock or not to lock? It is common, after all, to fence in urban gardens, and mine has head-high, chain-link stockade intended to thwart dog walkers and produce poachers alike. However, the gates have gone unlocked for the past few seasons. A padlock would keep tomato thieves at bay — but it would also create opportunities for me to forget the combination. There is little so disheartening as walking a mile in August heat only to find myself locked out of my own garden.

Can I make friends with that bossy master gardener? Last year, he haughtily enunciated theories on soil microbes and “scientific gardening” as if speaking from a pulpit. And he hogged the hose and water cans! On the other hand, he all but abandoned his luscious heirloom eggplants to the rest of us. The ratatouille ingredients he unwittingly supplied more than balanced out his ‘tude. Seldom has an egotist fed me so well.

Looking for answers

For guidance, I tried favorite gardening books. Sally Jean Cunningham’s "Great Garden Companions," for instance, is normally full of practical ideas. I scanned the index for headings that might help me, like “poachers” and “hose etiquette,” but somehow she neglected such worthy topics. What gives, Sally?

Even sagacious Michael Pollen has nothing to say about a profound botanical question such as, “What do you do when someone picks your pickling peppers?”

This is the blessing and the curse of community gardening. At best, it’s only 50 percent about gardening. The other 50 percent: Embracing — or just tolerating — my community, which is at least as difficult as waiting for spring.

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Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at christopherweber.org.

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