Community gardens growing in popularity

Ray Mueller

One variation of gardening that has gained popularity within the past 20 years is that of the “community garden.” It refers to dedicated sites where people pay for a plot to grow their own food.

University of Wisconsin Extension Service offices have been among the promoters and coordinators of those community gardens. In most cases, the garden spaces are on property owned by churches, schools, units of government and private entities or individuals. Outagamie and Brown counties are among those with a community garden plot on the property housing their Extension Service office.

The Appleton area (Outagamie, Winnebago and Calumet counties) has a very successful community garden venture, according to Anne Dobkoski, who is the garden coordinator for Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin. She believes that the community garden concept took root in that area by about 1999.

Dobkoski oversees eight community garden sites under the “Goodwill Grows” program. In 2016, those sites had a total of 404 plots involving 608 people — 12 to 128 plots per site — that were rented for $20 for a 20 by 25 foot space or $10 for half that size.

As of late December, Dobkoski had a record high waiting list of 50 for those plots this year. The plot users encompass a wide ethnic spectrum of people: Hispanics, Hmong, other minority groups and Caucasians.

Brown County scene

In Brown County, the Extension Service coordinates 10 sites that had a total of 308 plots used by 200 families in 2016. That was up significantly from the total of only 75 gardeners at 5 sites in 2012. A wealth of information about those plots is available at

The county's Extension Service community gardens coordinator Margaret Franchino notes that the agency has been involved with the project since 1996. She also points out that the city of Green Bay oversees a community garden that dates to the 1970s and that a few independent parties and neighbor associations have also developed community gardens.

At the 10 sites coordinated by the Extension Service, Franchino estimates that the value of the food grown there in 2016 was about $300,000. Users pay $10 for a 4 by 8 foot space to $45 for a plot of 50 by 50 feet. She is aware a few of the users grow enough produce to sell at farmer's markets or to donate to food pantries.

Most of the plots are rented by people with low to moderate incomes, Franchino indicates. In 2016, the ethnic breakout of plot gardeners was 41 percent white Caucasian, 38 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3 percent who identified themselves as “other” on an ethnic designation.

County listings

In its 2016 edition, the Farm Fresh Atlas of Eastern Wisconsin included a listing of the community gardens in its circulation area. In addition to those for Brown and Outagamie counties, the only other two mentioned are at Algoma and Kewaunee in Kewaunee County.

I'm aware of two major sites, probably with larger plot sizes and rented mostly by Hmong families, in Sheboygan County. One is along Lakeshore Road a few miles north of Sheboygan and the other, established on former agricultural land about three years ago, is 2 miles east of Howards Grove.

For a few years, a number of Hmong families from the Fox Cities rented garden space from the late Reuben Ott on his farmland along Harvestore Road in the town of Woodville in northern Calumet County.

On a very cold Saturday in April of 2015, numerous volunteers put the structures in place for a community garden on unused land (formerly a dumping ground) on the south side in the city of Manitowoc. One of the features at that site are the raised beds for the convenience of gardeners with physical problems.

Local observations

In the Chilton area, the community garden has been promoted by the Calumet Medical Center within the past few years. So far, it hasn't taken root like the community gardens in localities with a higher population.

A number of the plots at that site are being rented by the Calumet County Master Gardeners, in part to grow items for a special display at the annual county fair. Several individuals have also rented plots there but not all of the available space at the site has been used for the intended purpose.

The latest development in the area is an announced effort by Salvation Army's Bread of Life Center to establish a garden to help serve the needs of its clients. A number of years ago, the Master Gardeners worked with the Salvation Army to create a garden in the back lot at its facility. That effort lasted a few years.

In the New Holstein area, the community garden idea has been discussed but nothing has happened. One potential site is on farmland. Another is on a church property.

A few years ago, a friend of mine in a neighboring county was involved with a church group which established a garden as a mission outreach for the congregation to provide fresh vegetables for food pantries and the needy. This was to be a volunteer group project, but when the “group” withered to one (my friend), that venture ended.

Personal experiences

During the one growing season when I was stationed at Pease Air Force Base in southern New Hampshire, I had a plot in the community garden on the base. I remember that my carrots were stolen. Apparently, base security had more important things to be concerned about.

While living in Sheboygan Falls, I also established a garden plot on available land — for two summers, I believe. One of the memories from then was growing a few peanuts one year. I believe one or two other persons had garden space at that site.

At my home turf in Chilton, it was in the mid to late 1990s that I found some garden space near the edge of the city which I used for nearly 10 years. Among the gardeners at that site during some of those years were an elderly gentleman who shared lots of gardening ideas (and other opinions), my dad, and the daughters and an employee of the landowners.

So, at least in my experience, the idea of a “community garden” has been around for a long time. The difference today is that the practice is much more formalized and apparently growing more popular.