From Vacants to Vegetables: So You Want to Garden in the City?

Urban blight turned into gardens

Urban blight turned into gardens (Photo credit: Bob Elderberry)

Almost one year ago, I moved from rural New Hampshire to urban, post-industrial Baltimore. I had lived in cities for most of my life, but always felt a visceral connection to the “great outdoors”. I also love to cook and am a big fan of anything DIY. This past summer I bought several herbs and vegetables for my apartment to cook with. Window space quickly disappeared, but my desire to grow did not. It became clear that I needed more space; I needed an urban garden.

But, how does one go about starting a garden with no land at their disposal? I had heard of, and seen, community gardens around Baltimore, but wanted to be part of something from the ground up. I also wanted to document my experience, both the victories and the failures, to act as a comprehensive guide to anyone who wanted to do the same thing.  What follows is the first step, as I saw it, in creating an urban/community garden.

Step #1: Find a space

I did some digging (pun intended) and came across a website called Power in Dirt, a Baltimore City initiative that allows Baltimore residents to adopt vacant lots.

Baltimore City has more than 14,000 vacant lots, mostly due to the precipitous decline in the city’s population in the latter half of the 20th century. Power in Dirt seeks to turn what is normally seen as a negative quality of a city, a huge amount of vacant properties, and turn it into a positive, free space for community gardens that provide fresh produce and improve the surrounding area in a variety of ways. And Baltimore is not the only city out there doing this; Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Jersey City, New York City, Chicago and Kansas City are just a few in a long list of cities across the nation that have similar programs in place.

So what is the actual process for obtaining a lot? In Baltimore’s case, the Power in Dirt website has very simple and straightforward steps, including a short application, to obtain a lot.

The black dots represent vacant lots up for adoption, while the green and red dots represent vacant lots that have been adopted (red) or turned into gardens (green).

The first thing I did was check out the Baltimore City interactive map that shows if there are any vacant lots in your neighborhood that are up for adoption. In my case, there are three free lots within six blocks of my apartment in Charles Village. You get the lot information, enter it into the application, along with your home address, and wait up to one month for a decision. Once you have received approval via mail, you print a couple of copies out, sign them, and return them to the city.

Check back a month from now and see how I have been progressing. In the meantime, go out there a claim your own plot of land!  Whether you are in Baltimore or another city, chances are, you too could be turning vacants into vegetables!

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James McComas

I bring a background in researching and writing to the Campaign Consultation team for my role as Administrative and Project Assistant. Prior to joining Campaign Consultation, I was a research intern for BUS 52, a year-long project which sought out organizations and individuals across the continental United States who worked to positively change their communities in innovative ways. I also assisted a journalist researching climate change issues. Read more.

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