For apartment dwellers, homeowners who’d rather not tear up their lawns, or Seattleites with limited gardening space, the city-run P-Patch organic garden program—so named not for the peas that often grow in them, but for Picardo family, which established the first P-Patch in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood in 1973—is the kind of tiny miracle that might just restore your faith in government. 

The P-Patch program, funded by fees from gardeners and contributions to the nonprofit Grow (formerly P-Patch Trust), is a program that, in exchange for a nominal $38 to $74 annual fee, provides a plot of land in one of about 90 community gardens around the city, plus all the soil, tools, compost, and organic fertilizer you need to start your own vegetable (and flower) garden. (Facilities and equipment vary.)

In exchange gardeners agree to keep their plots strictly organic, help maintain the garden’s common areas, and perform at least eight hours a year of volunteer service “for the common good of the garden.” 

I’ll admit right up front that I’m a total P-Patch evangelist. I truly believe it is one of the best programs any city has ever implemented; it encourages people to grow their own food at little cost, and gardening in a community creates, well, a sense of community: You get to know your neighbors (for better and sometimes for worse), and get a sense of what people eat, which, for me, is the same thing as knowing a little more about who they are. 

For example: that lady who shows up every Saturday at 7 in the morning to sift the compost and tend her accessible raised bed (several available, with a slightly higher application fee, in most gardens)? A lifer. The woman who built her own custom raised potato beds and plants symmetrical rows of cabbages under cloches in January? Way more OCD than I am, but I’m impressed. That guy who’s growing nothing but quinoa in his garden space? He’ll be buying his ancient grains at Whole Foods next year. 

And, to get hippie dippie for a second, gardening, especially if you live in an apartment and work an office job, is a way to feel connected to the food you eat and the work it takes to produce it. No you won’t grow enough to sustain yourself on a 100-square-foot plot of land, but you will know how much it takes to coax a tomato out of the soil, or what it means to eat food that’s in season right here, and to understand the limitations of our Northwest climate. But the quart of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes you harvest will be that much sweeter when you know you’ve grown something that belongs here.

Dig In

Sounds great, right? Time to start gardening! Slow down there, pardner: Getting a P-Patch can be both slow and a bit bewildering. Here are some tips to get you started.

First remember: Compromise is everything. If you’re applying for a plot in an established garden (the most likely option, although new P-Patches are coming on line all the time, including 14 in just the past three years—check Grow’s website for updates), your first step will be to choose two gardens, in order of preference. Be prepared to accept your second choice, and know that you’ll probably learn to love the “backup” alternative just as much. After waiting about a year, I ended up moving in to my third choice: a rather shaded, weed-choked plot in a garden established 15 years ago on a disused SDOT right-of-way near the Mount Baker neighborhood. 

The garden’s been spruced up a bit over the years (we have wood-chip pathways now and a garden shed that isn’t inhabited by a colony of rodents!), but I still think of it as the scrappy younger sister to our posher brethren down the street. And it’s mine: my own 100 square feet, full of artichokes and peas in spring, and tomatoes and peppers in summer. 

 

Keep It Clean

Once you do get accepted to the P-Patch tribe, be prepared (and eager) to be a good P-Patch citizen. That means paying on time, doing the required eight hours of volunteer work every year, and keeping your plot in good shape: clean and relatively weed free during the growing season, “overwintered” (that is, covered up with cardboard or mulch or planted with a cover crop) in the off season. 

Good behavior—additional volunteer hours keeping the garden in good shape or stepping up to serve informally as a garden manager—can sometimes be parlayed into better or larger plots (worth keeping in mind when you’re thinking that you don’t want to show up for a work party in the rain).

Like every tight-knit community, P-Patches have their share of politics. For every person who helps make the whole experience rewarding—the tomato guy who mysteriously grows a huge surplus each year, and is always willing to share; the compost lady who spends untold hours making sure the bins are sorted and sifted—there are those who clash with their fellow P-Patchers. To mention just a few recent examples from my own garden: a massive email tantrum about the overenthusiastic pruning of some fruit trees; a controversy over whether burlap coffee sacks are okay in compost given that they aren’t organic (verdict: nope); and a very angry lady who was convinced that by briefly setting a few leaves of baby lettuce on top of her newly planted soil, a gardener (okay, me) was “killing all the seeds.” The point is, tempers may flare just like they would in your neighborhood association or office; low-stakes temper tantrums often burn the brightest. 

 

Heartbreak Happens

A quick note about heartbreak: No, not personal heartbreak—that’s beyond the scope of my expertise—but the kind I experienced my first year, when I wasted scarce months and square yards growing one measly eggplant and, even sadder, one single stringy pod of okra. The lesson: Don’t plant things that don’t grow here. (Those huge, beautiful tomatoes in the garden catalogs? Buy them at the farmers market.) 

That said, it’s well worth taking on a challenge or two. My first couple of years, I decided it would be a great idea to try to, as gardeners say, “extend the season,” coddling everything from tomatillos to chard seeds from little pods of soil on heating pads indoors. I wouldn’t do it again, but it definitely gave me new respect for professional farmers. Now, as a lazier, older, and hopefully wiser gardener, I buy starts for the things I personally consider more hassle than they’re worth, like tomatoes, herbs, and brassicas like kale and broccoli, at Tilth’s two annual garden sales and my local garden store. 

Above all, I’ve learned that P-Patch gardening is relaxing and fun, and the experience of eating something that came from your own patch of ground is one of the great pleasures of life.