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Etiquette is always important in communal spaces. For community gardeners in years past, being considerate of others meant keeping your bed neat, treating communal tools with care, chatting with fellow gardeners about their summer plans and resisting the urge to snatch a tomato from your neighbor’s plot.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, though, the rules for being a good garden bed neighbor have changed. Community gardens across the state have established new rules for the growing season in accordance with the governor’s orders, the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension guidelines.
“Garden guidelines provide a framework for people with different experiences and viewpoints to work within a community space respectfully,” Jamie Pacheco, program manager at the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, which runs the Thomas Settlemire Community Garden.
If you are wondering what the best practice is, the first step is to check the rules for your community garden. Keep abreast of any changes that the garden might make over the course of the crisis.
“We don’t consider ourselves the definitive answer to community gardening during the virus, but we’re doing our best,” said Peg Mills, chair of the Saco Community Garden. “We will adjust our rules and habits as laws and knowledge change.”
In addition to following these new rules, here are some steps that gardeners can take to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in their community garden.
Watch out at the water spigot
Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that gardeners should be extra cognizant of personal space and sanitation around high-traffic areas in the community garden — particularly communal water spigots, where gardeners attach their hoses. Make sure you are staying six feet away from people, while also being conscious of disinfecting this high-contact surface.
“I use a clean pair of gloves before I go water and turn on the spigot that way,” Garland said. “Minimize the number of times you need to touch that surface [by watering] at the end or beginning of your time [in the garden].”
The key, Pacheco said, is not to recontaminate sanitized surfaces — especially communal ones.
“If you forget to sanitize the faucet before washing your hands, as soon as you turn the faucet off you are re-contaminating your hands,” Pacheco explained.
Go during off-hours
To reduce the number of people that are in the community garden at any given time, try to plan your gardening schedule around the off-hours.
“During the weekends would probably be the busiest times for community gardens,” Garland said. “If you can, avoid the weekends. Evenings are [also] oftentimes a busier time in community gardens.”
Some community gardens have new rules limiting the number of gardeners that can be in the space at one time.
“We put together a detailed plan that staggers the time renters are allowed to work in their plots in order to minimize contact with other gardeners,” said Joan Dollarhite, co-chair of the Yarmouth Community Garden.
Dollarhite said that a quick visual test is to scan the cars in the parking lot.
“If gardeners see five cars in the parking lot, they must come back to the garden at a different time,” she said.
If your adjusted schedule means that you are watering at a suboptimal time, just make sure you are watering well.
“The key is not wetting the foliage,” Garland said. “Even if you water in the evening, if you water targeting the soil, that’s absolutely fine.”
Minimize your trips
Like with the grocery store, minimizing your trips to the community garden will limit your potential for contact with other people.
Garland said that you can take measures to minimize the number of times you have to go to your garden, including by planting more low-maintenance crops like onions, beets and carrots or mulching to reduce the need to weed and water.
If you are still apprehensive, another strategy is to wait for a fall planting of carrots, broccoli and cabbage, when most people fall off of their community garden duties.
“By midsummer, a lot of people get tired of the garden,” Garland said. “The traffic really changes dramatically when the weather turns to more beach weather.”
When you visit the community garden, do so alone. Some people love gardening with their kids, but for this season, keep them at home.
“I love having my kids at the garden, but in a community space like this I can’t justify having them here,” Garland said. “It’s not worth the risk to them and to other people.”
Many community gardens are limiting the number of visitors who can come to the garden in general. Respect the rules where you are, and encourage your neighbors to do so as well.
“We have requested that gardeners do not bring friends or family members with them,” Dollarhite said.
Bring your own tools
Perhaps the greatest variation between the coronavirus-adjusted rules in community gardens this season is with respect to communal tools. For example, Pacheco said that the Thomas Settlemire Community Garden is allowing volunteers to use communal tools as long as they use the provided sanitation, whereas the Bangor Community Garden is requiring all gardeners to bring their own tools.
Even if your community garden is allowing access to communal tools, though, Garland said to bring your own tools if you can.
“I would strongly suggest not using any shared tools, including watering wands and hoses,” Garland said. “It just provides that extra level of safety.”
Carry a mask
Most community gardens encourage their gardeners to wear masks while gardening. However, they are not requiring community gardeners to wear masks if they are alone.
“Much of the time plotholders spend in the garden is solitary, so it is up to them to make the decision they are most comfortable with and that is most appropriate based [on] who else [is] in the garden,” Pacheco said.
Still, always bring a mask with you to the community garden, just in case a gardener on a neighboring plot or raised bed happens to be working at the same time you are.
If you’re at risk, consider container gardening
Garland said that at-risk individuals should consider taking the season off from community gardening.
“[That] is one of the hardest recommendations to make, quite frankly,” Garland lamented. “It’s more than food for some folks.”
If the main reason you garden is for fresh local produce, Garland recommended connecting with your local farmer for a CSA share. The Maine Senior Farm Share program is great for older individuals with limited money resources.
If you simply need to scratch that gardening itch, Garland recommended container gardening at home.
“You can still enjoy one of those fresh warm tomatoes out of the garden, but maybe it’s out of a container garden on your back deck,” Garland said.
“I like planting tomatoes in a bag of potting mix,” Garland said. “Poke some holes in the bag and put the transplants in and you’re good to go.”
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