And even that designation, he says, is of limited use, because few community gardens could assemble that much land, and that land-use category is only available in limited parts of the city.

Griffin says city planners feared that by sanctioning community gardens on land not zoned for gardening, the city would be legally changing the underlying "land use"—a technical consideration that can create legal holes in the fabric of citywide zoning requirements.

It's a complicated concept. But it means no.

Becky Smith and Don Lambert, reigning experts in the small universe of community gardening in Dallas, say gardens change the lives of the people who do the gardening.
Hal Samples
Becky Smith and Don Lambert, reigning experts in the small universe of community gardening in Dallas, say gardens change the lives of the people who do the gardening.
Hal Samples

No land in Dallas is zoned for gardening, bringing it all back to Lambert's story of city officials calling community gardens an "illegal use."

Griffin says that the city's answer to the illegal-use issue was to set up community gardens on city property because, "We, as the city, can do what we want to do on our own properties."

But now Dyer wants comprehensive policies in place and budgets authorized before new gardens can be created on city-owned property.

So: The zoning problem excludes vacant property not owned by the city. The Dyer problem excludes vacant property owned by the city. And that would leave what kind of vacant property?

No kind. And that's the secret, say community gardeners who have successfully found a way around City Hall. Don't even try it on vacant land owned by the city or by somebody else. Try it on land that already has an existing structure attached to it.


Despite all that, one of the city's most successful new gardens is on city-owned land. Tucked behind a former armory on a sloping lot that can't be seen from any nearby window, the Lake Highlands Community Garden on Goforth Road north of White Rock Lake is a beehive—literally and figuratively—of upscale, down-in-the-dirt activity. On any given afternoon in weather fair or foul, small children in private school uniforms and adults still in their office clothes prowl the carefully arranged garden, stooping over wood-framed raised beds to pluck weeds, sow and harvest food.

The garden has tripled in size in two years and now contains almost 90 family and individual garden plots, as well as a donation garden for the city's food pantries and a bee yard operated by ZIP Code Bees. The land was covered with asphalt before the would-be gardeners persuaded somebody to tear it up for free.

But A.L. Nickerson, a federal employee who is a founder of the Lake Highlands Garden, says this garden snuck in under the fence just before the big boom in community garden enthusiasm and before Paul Dyer decided to put on the brakes.

Because Lake Highlands was such a quick success, Nickerson is often asked for advice by other groups around the city interested in setting up their own gardens.

"I tell them to stay off city land," he says. And he tells them to stay off vacant private land too.

He is all too aware how difficult it would be for another group now to have the same good luck his group did finding city land behind the old armory. He also knows what people will face at City Hall if they try to set one up on vacant private land. So his answer is...?

"Go to church property."

In fact, that's where some of the city's most successful community gardens have been established. Putting a garden on church, synagogue or school property gets neatly around the pitfalls.

A community garden may not be a legally allowed "primary use" under Dallas zoning ordinances, but it's a fully legal "accessory use" in almost every zoning category, including places of worship and schools.

The Fairmont Hotel downtown has a 3,000-square-foot herb and vegetable garden on its roof. And who's going to come out in a car with a city logo on the side and tell Aunt Modita she can't grow 'maters? Especially if she's growing them at church?

Nickerson thinks community gardeners can solve most of their problems by avoiding city land altogether and finding private property with a pre-existing structure and a designated legal use. From that point on, he says, it's easy and even cheap.

Kent Binfield, president of the Lake Highlands Community Garden, says first-time gardeners who aren't sure how to do it will find plenty of resources to help them. "They can go to the Texas Discovery Gardens down at Fair Park," he says. "They have a great bunch of folks down there, and they have a lot of expertise." He recommends Howard Garrett's Web site, And visiting existing gardens is a good idea. "If some people really want to do this," Binfield says, "and they put together a community garden, they're going to find a lot of expertise just in the people who are already out there doing it."

All of the issues raised by city officials—who will pay for water, what will the management structure be?—can be solved by not dealing with the city, says Nickerson. Gardeners can avoid having their own water meter installed, for example, by agreeing to pay a fee to their host for water. They can mooch electricity or pay for it without having their own power pole installed.

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