While community based agricultural has long been part of American culture, the modern allotment gardens reached their height during the Victory Garden program of World War II. During the war, gardens were planted according to a systematic plan for maximizing the productivity from a small space. It is estimated that this popular program produced a full forty percent of vegetables consumed in the United States during the war, allowing more surplus food and resources to be used to support the troops.
Today, community gardening is seeing a large resurgence. Of course these tiny plots of land can still be incredibly prolific; a carefully managed 20ftx20ft garden can potentially grow $2000 worth of produce annually. However, the diversity of gardening practices currently seen in these spaces suggests that community gardens possess other values to those who cultivate them.
Despite this long standing tradition, community gardens still exist in a manner quite novel to American land-use philosophy. Notably, our concept of land ownership, often thought in terms of a public/private dichotomy, becomes much murkier within these gardens. The gardens run the gamut between individuals cultivating their own plot to land worked in a truly communal manner. Gardens are often created on abandoned lots or publicly owned land, where individuals can ‘rent’ space for a nominal fee. Yet individual land ownership and the future of the garden as a whole are often quite tentative.
Perhaps due to this uncertainty and the initiative needed to start a garden, an especially strong sense of community often develops among the gardeners. And, For many communities, these gardens have also become central hubs of social integration. Conversely, the removal of this space from the ‘home’ and ‘yard’, as well as the small financial obligation entailed, seem to lessen some of the sense of personal responsibility to maintain the garden. Meticulously managed plots are often next to plots that have been forgotten.
While some gardeners adopt the classic Victory Garden model, others employ more innovative and experimental gardening choices. Also, ideas from many other gardening traditions coexist in current community gardens, from English flower to Japanese stone gardens. The modest scale of these spaces allows gardeners to personally reconnect to the land by inventing their own terms, yet complete escape from the urban environments these gardens are found within is impossible. The gardener’s visions span between adoptions of a view consistent with the pastoral ideal of the American landscape to a more realistic synthesis of this vernacular landscape.