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Community Garden Plots: A Tragedy of the Commons?

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.

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