Community Garden Plots: A Tragedy of the Commons?

by ARLnow.com February 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm 6,128 47 Comments

There are eight community gardens around Arlington, and each has a wait list. At the South Four Mile Run garden, however, one gardener is wondering why the county is allowing the high-demand plots to fall into a state of disrepair.

“I am a co-gardener of a garden plot in the Fort Barnard Community Gardens, [and] if my garden plot looked the way that many of the plots on South Four Mile Run do, my plot would be considered abandoned and the privileges to the plot would be revoked,” the man wrote in an email to a county official. He asked that his name not be used in this article.

“Nearly all of the plots are in violation of one or more of the County Community Garden Rules,” the gardener wrote. “I waited for 2 years to get a garden plot. To see residents [who] have garden plots neglect them and not use them to their full potential is frustrating.”

The man called the Four Mile Run garden an “eyesore” and said sent photos along to prove it. He said the photos show:

  • “Many of the plots were never cut back and cleared for the winter. Vines and weeds have overtaken many of the plots and fences. In some cases the vines have grown beyond the boundaries of garden plots.”
  • “Many of the gardeners have erected 6-8 ft wooden structures that are crudely constructed to grow vines on. Many of the structures have collapsed, are broken, or leaning.”
  • “Trash such as empty buckets, jugs, milk crates, tarps, propped up carpets that are used for weed barriers, wheelbarrows, shoes, lumbar, broken chairs, bed frames, and PVC pipes are some of the items that litter the garden plots.”
  • “The fences that create the boundaries for the community garden are in disrepair. Many of the rails are broken and laying on the ground. In one garden plot the fence has been pulled down because of the weight of the weedy vines growing on it.”

The county’s 200+ community garden plots are in high demand among apartment and condo dwellers who have a green thumb but no land to call their own. But Jamie Bartalon, the landscape and forestry supervisor for the county’s parks department, says that regulations only require the gardens to be cleaned up in time for the summer growing season.

“The rules for the community gardens do require that plot-holders have their plots cleaned up and ready for gardening by May 15,” he said.

According to Bartalon, the plots are supervised by a “chief gardener” who’s elected by a vote of the plot-holders. Should trash or debris become a major problem prior to May 15, the plot-holder can be asked by the chief gardener to tidy it up.

“If it’s being used for storage of non-gardening debris, they can be asked to clean it up… If there’s obvious trash, they can be asked to remove it,” Bartalong said. “If nothing happens, a plot can be reassigned… Obviously we don’t want them to look like an eyesore to the community.”

Bartalon said the parks department “occasionally” gets complaints, although he was unable to provide the number of complaints received or other related statistics.

  • Arlwhenever

    Oh, c’mon. It’s a garden. Gardening is about doing more with less.

    This fellow wants standards? Like only first-quality, newly manufactured Burpee tomato cages and cage extenders allowed, so it costs more to garden than to buy from the Safeway?

    It’s perfectly appropriate to build trellises out of recycled wood; and any one who has ever seriously gardened knows that vegetative debris should be aired out and exposed to freezing air to kill toxins and the larvae of noxious pests over the winter; also allowing it to desicate and partially decompose before being turned back into the soil in the spring.

    • Thirsty

      OK, we get it. You only grow heirloom tomatoes. That has nothing to do with this eyesore on Four Mile Run. Take a look at that place, there are bed frames nailed to the fences…that is, where the fences aren’t dry rotted and falling down. And I don’t believe a stack of old carpet rolls makes a good trellis. Do what you want in your backyard but this is in the middle of public space. It can be tidier. At the least, the county should maintain the fences better and the gardens should stay within their designated spaces.

      • Arlwhenever

        If there is trash stewn about then pick it up and carry it off to the recycle bins just up the street at the Columbia Pike intersection. Use a little self help for once.

      • Arlwhenever

        And by the way, carpet makes for great mulch, and better environmentally to use it that way rather than choking up a landfill.

        • Thirsty

          You’re funny. I like your posts.

          • Arlwhenever

            Thanks. Now, if only readers would laugh at the posts I intended to be funny.

          • borf


            Oh, wait, sorry.

    • Josh S

      I’m doubting that you’ve done any growing of vegetables. I know food prices have been going up, but of course it’s more expensive growing your own than buying from Safeway. This is why places like Safeway came to exist in the first place.
      The place is a dump. I’m sure the county has more important things to worry about, however. These should be turned over to some sort of civic association with powers to kick people out for failure to follow the rules.

  • Too Easy

    Imagine if someones yard looked that way , the county would be all over the homeowner.

    • FedUp

      I have seen many yards that look that way. The County has been notified but does not act. I suggest they only act when they want to retaliate against a property owner. That’s how they operate.

      • Too Easy

        So there is a handy number for reporting issues with private property? Wonder why the number to report the public plots is hidden?

    • Josh S

      I agree with Fedup that there are plenty of yards that look like this, and worse. Even in Arlington. However, the notion that the county only acts to “retaliate” is paranoia. It’ll destroy ya.

  • GMo

    My bicyle routes often take me past this plot and several others. The South Four Mile run plot is, as far as I can tell, the only one that looks like this.

    • brian

      i enjoy picking the fruit off the vines come end of summer.

      but watch out for the beehives!

      • DennisW

        Hey Brian

        Next time, stop by to help dig and chip in on the costs before picking the fruits of our labors.

        I’m rooting for the bees.

  • Robert

    So much for Utopia.

    • Too Easy

      Have some lead and pcbs with that tomato and like it !

  • MC

    Community gardens are great. I don’t know if Four Mile Run’s garden looks this bad during the growing season, but obviously at the moment a few people aren’t being sufficiently community-minded. I would hope this kind of activity could be self-regulating enough that County staff wouldn’t need to get involved. A community garden, by definition, is supposed to be a voluntary activity supported by the sweat equity of its members. If the plot-designees don’t clean up, others should be willing to take over the task as part of the privilege of using public land, and the free loaders should be booted.

  • Not sure why?

    Nobody who gardens on four mile run reads this. Arlnow.com isn’t in Spanish, gente.

  • BigSpender

    I love how this Bartalon guy has his “out” by saying “can” all the time. Sure we CAN do something about this.. Obviously no one has looked at this problem or there is poor management in place or both. Here is another situation where Arlington is not doing anything unless it results in additional profits for them or it costs them nothing out of pocket. Another situation where community gardens got someone a vote in the past, but there is hardly any plan to maintain it. Typical.

    • Josh S

      Profits? Huh? How does a government “profit?” Exactly?

      • borf

        If a specific government enterprise that charges money ends up collecting more money than it spends on that activity, that’s a profit.

      • BigSpender

        In lame-mans terms, “profit”, “cash flow”, “higher rate of income”, same thing, at least in the government sense.

  • TuesdaysChild

    What is the basis for saying these gardens are in “high demand”?

    Is there a waiting list? If so, then they should kick out the ones who are not taking care of it and give the plots to people on the list.

  • brendan

    Not saying this guy is wrong but is late February really the best time to be judging garden plots based on visual appearance? Okay, so they didn’t take down some of the dead vines at the end of the year and some stuff is scattered about, it happens.

    We all need more sun.

    • Burger


      • brian

        it looks like trash all year round

    • Josh S

      Did you look at the pictures? Do you really think it looked like Eden last Fall?

    • LBski

      This place looks like a dump. I run on the trail there often and am always appalled. And, I’m one of those folks on the wait list, so it frustrates me even more.

  • Set_the_Controls

    I used to have a community garden plot (did not get booted FTR) and the plaintiff here reminds me a lot of my gardening neighbors. They gotta find something to complain about-ninnies. In February it has been four months since gardeners have visited their plots and winter shows the plots at their shabbiest. No one would complain about this in August, because the bric-a-brac would be covered in vegetation. Not saying this excuses mattresses, though.

  • NArl

    I hope the county doesn’t waste tax payer money on these gardens

  • yellowliner

    It’s the winter! As a lucky community gardener, I can attest that all gardens look like crap in the winter. And that we deal with all sort of cranky jerks like the letter writer.

    • Just Me

      I think its more about the trash left around. If everyone took their buckets home and people didn’t use it as a dumping ground it wouldn’t be a problem. I see no reason for carpet being there, it looks like a dump. Saying that I think the community gardens are a great idea, if they are not trashed like the one shown.

      • LBski

        Agree! There is no logical reason for this amount of trash.

  • Overgrown Bush

    Careful how much you complain. The county may end up throwing up some pizza places and drinking establishments instead. I would guess they’d already be there except for the power line easement.

    In all seriousness, gardens can look junky especially in the winter. That said, there should be some kind of published and enforced standards. I don’t know if there is, but this garden can be an eyesore even in the summer.

  • Standards

    I agree, the carpet has to go. The rest looks like typical garden recycling to me — the plastic sheets are killing next year’s weeds, the dead plant material is a mulch layer and habitat for birds. But no carpet. That is definitely not recycling.

  • ohpuhleez

    If this person has such a bug up his tush about it, then he needs to switch places with the Chief Gardener and *he* can manage Four Mile Garden. Quit complaining and DO something about it. It’s just that simple.

    • Too Easy

      A big thumbs up for keeping South Arlington trashed.

      • ohpuhleez

        Nice strawman. You know that isn’t what I said.

        Since I live near those gardens, I have just as much a stake in them looking nice as anyone. But I don’t call the county with every nit. I have better things to do with my and the County’s time. If the original poster takes such offense to the garden, I made a suggestion on how he could mitigate it.

    • borf

      So if someone isn’t doing their job, you should do it for them?

    • say what?

      Wait, whaat? You mean the guy who’s job it actually is shouldn’t be held responsible? And the constituent whose taxes pay these guys salaries doesn’t have a right to complain?

  • Ground Squirrel

    Ditto what yellowliner, Overgrown Bush, and ohpuhleez said. The only things I see to complain about are the rolls of carpet, which do look bad, but that seems like an internal garden problem – not something you need to write the county about (and thus, bring negative attention to community gardens). And, yes, there is a huge waiting list for these plots — most of which do not look like Four Mile Run.

  • Steve O

    We’ll find out soon enough. Gardeners have to re-up their $50 or $60 by March 15 each year. Those that are abandoned will be reassigned.

  • Overgrown Bush

    Does anyone have any first-hand experience in these gardens? They seem to be in a location where theft of the crop could be an issue.

    • Ground Squirrel

      I don’t have firsthand experience, but I have heard that theft is pretty bad at this particular garden. See uncool comment from brian above.

      • DennisW

        Thank you!

        Yes, theft is an ongoing problem in the Four Mile Run garden.

        And, so is the trashy look. But, it doesn’t help to make ethnic cracks, i.e. from Not Sure Why? Totally off the mark.

        The carpets should be banned as they simply hide weeds, they’re not mulch and do make very nice homes for rodents.

        Keep in mind that the manager is a volunteer and there’s only so much one person can do. I don’t think anyone would really mind some standards being established and enforced by the county Extension Service.

        • dee

          The carpets are rolled up in a pile next to the fence. Looks more like a trash heap than any attempt to garden.


Subscribe to our mailing list