Little Eccentricities: A Visit to a Community Greenhouse

My friend and fellow plant/collecting enthusiast Uli Havermann (you may remember her from this incredible succulent pot, this stunning blue sea holly, and these beautiful urns) is a member of a large community greenhouse here in Toronto. Last week she treated me to a glimpse inside. Like community gardens and allotments, community greenhouses are not all created equal. Each function in their own way to achieve varying goals. Years back I was a member of a small community greenhouse that functioned more like a collective in which each member had a particular job or role and worked to help care for each other’s plants.

The greenhouse I visited last week is much, much, much larger and functions more like an allotment garden in which members pay an annual fee for a large, multi-tiered wooden bench (I don’t recall the dimensions) on which to house their plants. Taking care of other members’ plants is not expected, and I would imagine, discouraged.

Regardless of the model, a greenhouse like this is an invaluable resource for city dwellers who don’t have the space in their own homes to overwinter beloved houseplants and start seedlings. I can also see its benefit as a green refuge to enjoy on days like today when the garden is buried in snow and the temperature is too cold for life. Within just an hour-long(ish) visit I was practically wobbling down the aisles drunk on the scent and sight of plant life. I left feeling reinvigorated and positively giddy about the approaching garden season.

I approached this trip excited about burying my winter-worn mind into plant life, but what struck me almost immediately was the fascinating way that members brought their individuality to their spaces. The way that we gardeners leave our personal mark on garden spaces — whether intentional or not — is something that I appreciate in community gardens, but I was not expecting from the greenhouse.

Let me explain further. I’m not just talking about the plants that we choose or the way we arrange those plants within a space. That’s part of it but not the whole. There are also the decorative elements that we choose to place within a garden space: little tchotchkes, whimsy, artwork, sculptures, signage, plant tags, the containers we use, etc.

But there are unintentional marks as well. Looking around the greenhouse at all of the different benches, I found that I could pinpoint which benches belonged to whom, not just because of all of the aesthetic choices mentioned above, but for other reasons, too. Personalities reveal themselves in little things like the tools left behind and the way objects were put away or left out as if the gardener had never left. Personalities were further revealed through the different methods used in caring for plants and the way gardeners arranged their benches to leave their plants or linger. Some people had potting stations set up and others just had plants and nothing else.

Each bench revealed so many little clues that it felt as if I could imagine the person behind the plants. This is not a judgement; just an interesting observation. We are all so fascinatingly different and in being different I wonder this: If every gardener were forced to use exactly the same plants how much individuality would shine through? In small ways, gardeners make their plants (even the same plants) seem different, too.

Sometimes, visiting a large community garden space feels like looking at the same plants through many different eyes.

These are just some of the pictures I took at the greenhouse. More to follow.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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8 thoughts on “Little Eccentricities: A Visit to a Community Greenhouse

  1. On my “when I win the lottery dream” is to build a community greenhouse like this. I’ve been thinking about how awesome it would be to have something similar since you used to blog about the one you were a member of.

    Being able to walk into a place like this an enjoy all of these plants whenever you wanted would be awesome. Like visiting a friend or family member with a particularly cute pet or kid and enjoying spending time with them. All the fun without any of the commitment and hit to the pocketbook!

  2. Good call, MrBrownThumb – it would be like owning a kitchsy and collective botanical garden. It’s really fantastic. I’ve got a couple of locally owned garden centers near my house and I often go to their greenhouses in the winter for that hit of green relief, but it doesn’t have the same rush of joy that I get walking through a community garden or looking at these pictures. I’ll have to put feelers out in my area and see if anything like this is in the works or already in existance. I usually like winter, but this year I’m just too impatient to have my hands in the dirt again.

    • Uli and I were talking about that while there. It used to be that you could go to independent garden shops in the winter to get your fix but most aren’t around anymore.

      I used to go to a public greenhouse but this one was much more interesting.

  3. Ohhhh this is such a wonderful soul-refresher.
    Much needed in these blisteringly cold days!
    Thank you Gayla, I cannot wait for the next series of images~

  4. I LOVE this! I just joined our community garden here last season even though I have my own “Potager” (what I call my vegetable garden), to gain perspective and help others. THIS is something that I would LOVE to start here. I would love a “shelf” or “bench stack” in a greenhouse to start seeds or overwinter containers and just to VISIT over the winter. I really admire the individuality among these gardeners.

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