How to Make a Co-op Garden Grow

Want to create a sense of community? Take a few lessons from a cooperative that blazed new ground to cultivate camaraderie.

With shade trees spreading their limbs, flowering shrubs dappled with flowers, blossoming annuals cheerfully packing containers with color, juicy vegetables waiting for harvest, and smiling cooperative members communing with nature and each other, a garden is the pride of the Claridge cooperative in White Plains. There was a time when the area was nothing more than a bare roof above a parking garage, so boring that any apartment overlooking the area sold for 15-20 percent less than units facing away. Throwaway space for the condos, the roof harbored no plant life and had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. “It looked like a prison yard,” was the general sentiment. But one shareholder had the vision to transform that idle footage into an engaging landscape. 

The garden was a hard sell. At first, nobody took co-op board president Joseph Camastra’s proposal seriously. But it was the only way that the forward-thinking former contractor would agree to remain a resident of the two-building, 200-family apartment complex built in 1950. He had a plan to convert the 17,000 sq ft concrete deck in the center of the complex into an oasis — and he did the math to make the budget work. The building went co-op in 1984, but 53 of the 200 units were owned and rented out by the co-op. As renters left, Camastra renovated (acting as building contractor to save money) and sold those units to fund the project. 

He began modestly in 2007, with a 20’x20’ section of awning-covered outdoor space off the main lobby. Residents applauded the improvement. Dangling that triumph before the shareholders, Camastra got the buy-in for the rest of the project. Baby step by baby step, the garden was expanded to its current splendor — finished in 2015, with 32 trees in 6’x6’ cedar containers, a pergola, seating areas, dining and lounging sections, night lighting, three fountains, and vegetable containers “farmed” by residents. Units facing the landscape now sell for 15-20 percent more than apartments with no garden view.

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How do they make it work? Ask Camastra, and he will talk about decking material (he favors Trex composite wood-alternative decking) combined with building/financial savvy. Ask Robert Kulka, the board member who serves as garden caretaker, and he will point to watering, maintenance, and aesthetics. Together, they make magic happen. 

Here are some of their suggestions for making your own co-op garden work:

Find a leader.

You need someone with a vision and tenacity to see the project to fruition. The Claridge cooperative community agrees that Camastra’s dedication to the project made its green space possible.

Creatively explore space for a garden.

When Camastra originally proposed the idea, fellow board members didn’t believe that their eyesore parking-garage roof could possibly shoulder a garden. Camastra proved them wrong.

Do your homework.

Consult local regulations and get any building-permit approval necessary from your town or city. Do it right: Put safety first.

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Get expert advice.

Hire professional engineers to explore the options and check safety issues. At Claridge, engineers examined the beams of the roof to make sure they could handle the weight of a garden. 

Do the math.

Before purchase, all building materials (“every plank,” according to Camastra), each tree (figuring in its mature size), and every bag of soil was carefully weighed for compliance. 

Research materials.

To fill containers, Camastra ordered 800 bags of lightweight soil mix with good drainage from Long Island.

Don’t rush in.

Start gradually and be realistic about the changes your community is willing to accept. The Claridge community expanded the garden section by section.

Think about the future when funding.

Keep in mind that a project will require a dedicated maintenance budget. 

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Hire a savvy landscape architect.

You need an expert to oversee plant selection. Thanks to careful research, the trees selected for the Claridge garden are cultivars that remain shorter than two stories tall and are suitable for growing in containers. 

Enlist residents.

Don’t depend solely on groundskeeping staff for the garden’s maintenance. The garden will need an overseeing committee, as well as at least one dedicated resident to help with daily maintenance. Kulka shares the watering, pruning, grooming, and deadheading duties with paid staff. Other residents help. “The garden creates a sense of community among the people who take part in it,” says Kulka.

Think small.

Rather than one big, open space, divide the area into intimate spaces where residents can eat, play, and rest. Furniture, tables, and dining areas complete the floor plan; focal points such as vines on trellises, an arbor, and fountains create a park-like mood.

Have backup plans.

Install irrigation, but keep in mind that hand-watering might be necessary. Assign people to monitor the garden for glitches.

Be realistic about plantings.

Watch how the sun shifts in the space and discuss those realities with landscape designers. Residents might request their favorite plants, but they may not be right for the space.

Get everyone involved.

At Claridge, residents are offered the opportunity to grow their own planter boxes by lottery. Some grow vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers are favorites); others cultivate herbs (basil is omnipresent) or flowers. It gets the community invested.

Make it safe.

The garden at Claridge is accessible only from inside the building (thus, no street access). That fact proved difficult for delivering building materials, but it makes the area secure for residents. When laying out the area, remember that kids will be kids, so make sure railings and planters are appropriately placed.

Use the space for good.

Encourage residents to spend time outdoors; talk up the beneficial butterflies and birds the venue will host. At Claridge, the space went from an environmental gray zone to an oasis as soon as the garden started blooming, proving the “plant it, and they will come” adage.

Celebrate your garden.

The Claridge cooperative has implemented an annual barbecue, to bring the community together in the garden. Members are encouraged to invite friends, to show off their “park,” spreading the pride. 

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