By Natasha Nargis

Community gardens throughout the world aren’t a new idea, but continue to spring up each year. One of the largest community gardens is in Barcelona, Spain. Can Masdeu is the social and environmental learning center of a community of squatters, established in 2001. The lush gardens overlooking Barcelona began when a radical group took over an abandoned building and the land surrounding it. The organic community garden feeds the residents and the surrounding community, and is cared for by both. 

In the UK and the rest of Europe, closely related “allotment gardens” can have dozens of plots, each measuring hundreds of square meters and rented by the same family for generations. Commonly held land for small gardens is a familiar part of the landscape, even in urban areas. 

In American community gardens, there is a strong tradition of cleaning up abandoned vacant lots and turning them into productive gardens.  Alternatively, space for community gardens is more and more often included in public park space. Historically, community gardens have provided food during wartime or periods of economic depression, as well as providing a sense of community. Access to land and security of land tenure still remain a major challenge for community gardeners and their supporters throughout the world, since in most cases the gardeners themselves do not own or control the land directly.

Railyard Community Garden

Community gardens are not new to Eliza Kretzmann, executive director of the Railyard Park Stewards. She helped start one in a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., a large urban setting where most people live in apartments. “Here I think the reasons for becoming involved in a community garden are different,” Kretzmann noted.  “People who call want to know how to grow food, as well as to connect with others in the community. I think a lot of people in Santa Fe have yard space, but gardening can be challenging because of the arid climate.”

Kretzmann began receiving phone calls from people interested in getting involved in the garden in January. It was a February morning and the sky was thick with snow when we talked. Garden time seemed light years away, but she said it’s never too early to plan. This year gardeners would begin preparing the soil and possibly extending the growing area and building a new fence in March—and March isn’t too early for planting greens and some of the other hardier plants.

“When the Community Garden in the Railyard Park was only a thought, I was advised by Andy Stone, the state director in New York for the Trust for Public Lands, not to do it yet because it would involve lengthy planning,” said Kretzmann “We decided to go ahead with it anyway. I have no regrets.” She noted that with the help of the Stewards, volunteers, the City of Santa Fe, political negotiations and public meetings, the community gardens were written into the Railyard Master Plan. 

Last year, a small group of enthusiastic gardeners turned soil, sowed seeds and placed small plants in the ground at the southwest end of the park near Alvord Elementary School and La Choza restaurant. Novices and experienced gardeners shared their knowledge, and parents planted with their young children. Jeff Emberton’s three-year-old son Levi was intrigued with the garden. His father did the heavy work, but it was Levi’s spirit that made it a colorful fantasy to include rainbow chard, rainbow carrots and giant marigolds.

After the first season, Kretzmann said, people learned more about the weaknesses and strengths of the space, which has many shaded areas.  One of the plans for this year is to grow more culinary herbs, which require less sunshine, water and attention. Vegetables will still be part of the garden and some of the produce will be donated to the Food Depot. 

Kretzmann said she sees the garden as a space in transition and is trying to move toward a truly communal garden rather than individual plots.  “But this year, because there is a demand for individual plots, we are going to continue with a hybrid model.”

Depending on interest, Kretzmann said she may extend plot sizes. The annual fee, which was $40 per plot, will be $15. “I think the value of what happens when the community gets involved is much greater than monetary,” Kretzmann noted, “so I decided to lower the fee this year.” The strength of the small spot, which is approximately 2,000 square feet, is its ability to educate, Kretzmann pointed out, adding that there will be ongoing workshops throughout the year. She would also like to see temporary moveable garden spaces so that people could grow food without changing the structure of the park. “I’m not sure yet where I’m going with it, but it is something that keeps percolating.”

Kretzmann, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, worked in environmental education and outdoor classrooms in New York City prior to returning to New Mexico. Quick to acknowledge that she is not a master gardener, she added that her strength is in bringing together people who have a broad range of expertise.

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