If you live in a city and want to grow your own fruits and vegetables, you need a backyard, right? Not if you have a community garden in your neighbourhood.

More and more, urban Canadians are discovering the benefits of growing their own fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs in community gardens across the country.

What are the benefits of community gardens?

The Ontario Health Promotion E-Bulletin (OHPE) is an online newsletter from Health Nexus, a long-established, research-based health promotion organization. According to OHPE, community gardens can have a wide range of benefits.

Here’s what some of those benefits look like:

Social benefits.  Getting your hands dirty alongside neighbours of all ages and backgrounds promotes friendship and understanding. You can swap gardening tips, seeds, recipes and produce – and discover the delights of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Then celebrate together at harvest parties and other special events. The whole community can benefit, too: Many community gardens help supply food banks and other support agencies. Some host field trips for local schoolchildren. As well, turning vacant lots into gardens can cut down on illegal dumping. The community gardeners become “eyes on the street,” which can discourage theft and vandalism. And changing eyesores into flourishing green spaces can even lift local property values.

Environmental benefits. Growing food so close to home cuts way down on your carbon footprint. It reduces the need for packaging, in-transit refrigeration and long-distance trucking. Community gardens, while not usually certifiably organic, tend to be free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Another benefit is water. Community gardens help keep storm water – whether straight from the sky or collected in rain-barrels – from overflowing storm drains.   

Economic benefits. Growing your own produce is nearly always cheaper than buying it. For example, a tomato plant that could produce more than 11 kg of tomatoes over the season might cost around $4 to buy. Add the cost of water and perhaps some tomato food, and you’re looking at spending no more than $8 for all those tomatoes. The same tomatoes from the supermarket could cost nearly $24, at $2.18 per kilo. This is especially helpful for families with lower incomes and those living in “food deserts.” Those are neighbourhoods without supermarkets, which limits access to affordable and nutritious food.

Physical and mental health benefits. Aside from the cost advantage, fresh and tasty just-picked produce is a lot more appealing than much of what’s on offer in the supermarket. So it’s not surprising that, according to OHPE, community gardeners eat more vegetables than the rest of us. Gardening is also terrific exercise. It can improve your strength, endurance and flexibility. It’s also excellent stress relief, and helps build support networks among singles, newcomers and seniors, and combat social isolation.

How does community gardening work?

You can find community gardens on city-owned land such as vacant lots, parks or hydro-fields. You may also find them on rooftops, on school property and next to seniors’ residences. You might pay an annual registration fee to help cover the cost of things like water, tools and compost. The fee may be subsidized. Many community gardens encourage seniors and people with physical challenges to take part, with raised beds and other accessibility features. Gardeners who are able may also be asked to pitch in with shared maintenance tasks.

Ecosource is an environmental education non-profit group that helps to organize and manage some of the community gardens in Brampton and Mississauga, Ontario. Rav Singh is an urban agriculture co-ordinator with Ecosource. She describes how community gardening works there:

“Every site has a shed with tools, hoses, gloves and other items,” Singh says. All have rain-barrels as well as access to city water. All members have to bring is the plants or seeds and the elbow grease – digging, planting, weeding and harvesting. Most of the Ecosource gardens have raised beds, which makes gardening easier for those with creaky knees and backs.

“Our gardeners come from all walks of life,” Singh says. “Along with many seniors, we have families with young children, apartment-dwellers and newcomer families. The newcomers bring a tradition of growing their own food with them, and they plant fruits and vegetables that may be new to the average Canadian.”

Singh says the most common crop in her area is probably tomatoes: “That’s because so many cultures use it in their cooking.”

How much can you grow in a community garden?

Among the many factors that affect the size of your crop are the length of the growing season in your region, and the size of your plot. Plot sizes vary. For example, the plots at Toronto’s Fort York Community Garden average about 30 square feet. Plots at the HOPE Community Garden, also in Toronto, are closer to 80 square feet. Montreal has been in the forefront of the Canadian community garden movement since 1975. There, plots in the Habitations Jeanne-Mance Community Garden measure 200 square feet. In Vancouver, with its enviably long growing season and abundance of rain, city guidelines recommend plots of at least 24 square feet.

Community gardens are so popular that there may be more would-be gardeners than available plots where you live, leading to long waiting lists. Singh says there are about 200 families and individuals on Ecosource’s Mississauga list. The group adds about one new garden site each year, but the waiting list is still about two years long. Wait times are even longer in some other cities.

If you don’t want to wait for a plot in a community garden, you could look into starting your own. Many municipalities encourage citizens to come forward with their proposals and plans. They may offer detailed guidelines, tips for lining up sponsors and funding, and even subsidies and property tax breaks.

To learn more, visit your city’s community gardening webpage.