Garden Plot Rules and Guidelines

If in doubt about a program policy, look to the below for guidance. If the answer to a question about the rules is not found below, please get in touch with our program. Topics covered on this page include:

Water Usage

A large portion of your plot rental fee goes to paying the water bill at our gardens. This allows gardeners access to water when plants need it. In return, we ask that everyone be aware that wasteful water usage results in costs that prevent our program from doing other important work. Here are a few rules we have established to keep water costs down.

  • NO unattended sprinklers or hoses are allowed. Hand watering with a hose-end sprayer or drip tape is recommended for larger gardens. Unattended sprinklers will be removed. If your sprinkler was unattended and goes missing, an Extension employee is the culprit. Fee for sprinkler return is 100 pieces of trash from the garden.
  • Do not wash your car with water from our irrigation systems. Don’t do it. If your car gets muddy at the garden, take it to a car wash. Note: the garden is not a car wash.
  • If you see a leaking or dripping faucet, or other water-related issues, please report it quickly to the garden office so we can fix the problem.
  • Suggestion: water your garden in the early morning or evening during the summer to maximize the amount of water going to your plants and reducing loss to evaporation in the hot sun.


Ground Rules

Don’t trespass
Going into someone else’s plot without permission is prohibited. While undoubtedly clear to most people that trespassing in other people’s plots is not acceptable, it happens every year because people use poor judgment and act out of entitlement. We all put a lot of effort into our gardens—don’t be the reason someone loses trust in other gardeners. Remember: if it looks like someone has been messing around in your garden, it’s most likely wild animals or a UW-Extension employee doing their job.

Don’t steal
The results are in: theft is bad. In particular, don’t help yourself to something growing in someone else’s plot, even if you don’t think they’ll notice or care.  It’s always nicer to ask.

Don’t plant where you aren’t supposed to
When people see unused plots, it is natural for gardeners to be interested in planting them. However, we ask that you ask us before expanding to an unrented plot. Our program must keep records of who is gardening in which plots. Our “business model” relies on the revenue from plot rental fees to continue funding our operations in Milwaukee County— those unoccupied plots nonetheless took program time and resources to prepare. If plots are not occupied after June 1, they are eligible for reduced rental rates. Please inquire about the reduced-rate rental of those plots after June 1.

Don’t litter
We shouldn’t have to tell people this, but the community garden is not the right place to dispose of your garbage. Take home and properly dispose of any non-biodegradable waste you generate.


Personal Conduct

Manage disagreement constructively
Conflict arises easily in community gardens. Gardens are deeply personal, and we naturally tend to feel territorial about them. There are many schools of thought on gardening and a thousand things that people can disagree about in the garden. When disagreement arises, take a page from Martin’s 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Ruzicka, who only had one rule in her classroom: BE KIND.

  • For example: Extension’s registration and plot labeling system is confusing and people can easily make good-faith mistakes which lead to accidentally planting in plots assigned to others. If someone plants in your assigned plot, don’t freak out or assume your neighbor has bad intentions. Be kind. Contact the garden rental desk—we will work with all parties to get things sorted out amicably.
  • Weed pressure is another classic reason that relationships between neighboring gardeners can suffer. If you are concerned about the weeds in your neighbor’s plot, consider asking them if they would welcome help in managing their weeds. If they say no, don’t push it. Be kind. Let us know that you have a concern and we will work to address the issue.

Be a good listener
Being on the receiving end of feedback is often hard. It can be very tough to hear that a neighbor has a concern about your plot. If someone approaches you with a concern, try to hear what they are saying without defensiveness, even if they are not doing a good job calmly explaining the issue. Even the best neighbors can be unaware of how their actions impact others. Listen with care. Practice humility. Be kind. The policy of this program is that kindness and active listening are mandatory.

Keep the garden nice

Don’t set anything on fire in the garden. This includes uncontained bonfires to get rid of corn stalks and other post-harvest plant materials. Well-contained grilling is ok.

Most of our gardens have gravel or dirt roadways which allow folks to drive close to their plots. These require a lot of maintenance and get messed up easily by people driving too aggressively, especially when they are wet. Drive slowly on garden roads to keep them in decent shape. If they are muddy, consider parking at the garden entrance and walking to your plot to prevent deep ruts from forming.

We encourage perennial plantings in perennial plots but urge gardeners to be considerate of the needs of neighboring gardeners. Small trees become big in just a few seasons and can overshade neighboring plots unless carefully managed. If you are thinking of planting a tree, you must talk first with your neighbors and then with our office. We’ll try to work with you to find the right spot but unconditionally reserve the right to prohibit proposed plantings.  Annual growers should also be considerate about the heights of their plantings. Don’t be the person who plants 12-foot-tall sunflowers that shade out someone’s tomato patch two plots away.

Restrooms vs. bushes
Nature calls at inconvenient times. Fortunately, our program provides port-a-potties during the growing season. For the significant expense of our renting these portable toilets, we ask only that gardeners relieve themselves in the relative comfort and privacy of these magnificent commodes and not in the hedges of our gardens. Remember—you are not a bear.

Garden pathways
Pathways between plots are to be maintained by the gardening community. Paths must be kept mown or weeded. Pathways should have no planted material growing on them. All vegetable plantings should be kept inside your garden plot area. Please be sure that all paths to water and other plots are passable and not fenced off.

Plot Appearance
People have different gardening styles; one gardener’s dream plot might be another’s horticultural nightmare. Be considerate of how your choices impact others in this shared setting.

Weeds pressure is a collective problem
Don’t let weeds get out of hand. They will try.  Your neighbors will thank you if you manage weeds well and resent you if your plot is a source of weed seeds. Stay on top of weeding in the early, middle, and late seasons. If you want suggestions about how to keep weeds well-managed, don’t hesitate to ask Extension— our job is to help you succeed at gardening.  If it looks like you haven’t weeded for several weeks or if we begin to receive complaints about your plot, we’ll reach out with a three-week warning. If we don’t hear back after three weeks and a final warning two weeks after the first, we will conclude the plot has been abandoned and will terminate your rental agreement.

Don’t fill your plot with clutter
There’s no great way to define ‘clutter’ other than: “we know it when we see it.” Don’t let plant trays, pots, bags, cans, or other refuse accumulate in your plot. Some gardeners carry a roll of heavy garbage bags in their cars during the growing season to make sure that durable waste gets recycled or landfilled and doesn’t fill up plots… not a bad idea. If you see Extension employees in the garden, feel free to ask us for a trash bag.

Ugly orange construction fence
This stuff is the ultimate community garden eyesore. It looks hideous and awful against the beautiful green patchwork backdrop of the garden. If you put up orange construction fencing, expect cranky Extension employees to be in touch. If you have no better options for fencing material, contact us—we have quite a bit of fencing at our disposal and would be glad to share it with you.

Annual gardens
Please do not leave ANYTHING in the garden after the October clear-out date. We do quite a bit of roto-tilling and plowing in our annual gardens. Old tomato cages, carpet used as mulch, plastic weed barrier, tools, baling wire, decorative stones, t-posts, wind chimes—almost anything you can think of has gotten wrapped up in one of our machines causing damage and costly repairs. Carpet, burlap bags, and plastic mulch are such notorious offenders that we’d prefer not to see them at all in annual gardens. Follow the campsite rule: if you bring it into the garden, have a plan for clearing it out at the end of the season.

Funky perms:  If you are a gardener who has held a permanent/perennial plot, carefully consider whether everything that’s in your area looks good and needs to be there. Stuff accumulates. We love art and welcome weird garden sculptures and installations. It’s the old, busted projects, abandoned dreams, and other nonfunctional items that are no fun to look at and should be removed.

Plot abandonment:
If a plot remains a weedy mess for more than three weeks after we first ask the gardener responsible to fix the problem, Extension employees will go into the plot and terminate the weeds using mowers, tarps, or a roto-tiller. Two weeks after the first notice, we’ll communicate a 1-week warning, indicating that unless the plot is weeded, Extension is planning to intervene. We don’t like to do this, so don’t wreck your garden by letting it get weedy and making us wreck your garden.

Pesticides and fertilizers

Synthetic Pesticides
We are not a strictly organic program and understand that some gardeners choose to use synthetic pesticides against our recommendation to avoid their use. However, we will continue to encourage alternatives to their use in our gardens for myriad reasons related to community safety, efficacy, and environmental stewardship. Our reasoning is pretty simple: unless you’re a trained and licensed pesticide applicator, using chemicals from the hardware store or some secret insecticide powder that your uncle gave you are probably not the most effective ways to manage pests. At worst, misapplied pesticides are dangerous, toxic to wildlife, and illegal.  Not only are you risking the health of everyone who eats what you produce, applying pesticides in a community garden also puts neighbors at risk. Before applying synthetic pesticides to your garden, please reach out for research-based advice on managing pests. We won’t fix this issue in a single season, but please think twice before reaching for that can of Sevin, Raid, Carbaryl, or GrubEx (we have found empty containers of all these in our gardens).  We’d really prefer you not to use this stuff.

Synthetic Fertilizer
Synthetic fertilizers are manufactured from fossil fuels or from mined minerals and use a lot of energy to produce. They’re generally not good for the beneficial microorganisms living in the soil. Synthetic fertilizers are not our favorite but are a lot less toxic compared to most synthetic pesticides. If you feel you must use MiracleGro or similar, please make sure you read labels carefully and apply these products conservatively—a little goes a long way. Before applying fertilizer of any kind, consider running an N-P-K nutrient analysis on your soil to inform the correct formula and concentration. There are plenty of highly effective options available which are healthier for the soil, your plants, and the planet. Depending on what you are growing and what your soil test results indicate, consider amending soil with products such as compost, blood meal, kelp meal, worm castings, insect frass, or fish emulsion fertilizer.

Safety in the garden

Gardening contains risks. Drink lots of water and wear sunblock. Don’t go too close to beehives. Get to know your neighbors. Let us know if you see something sketchy. Use good judgement.

We love dogs as much as anyone, but off-leash dogs in public spaces like community gardens can cause problems ranging from minor annoyance to serious safety risks. Many people are terrified of dogs and even the most well-intentioned greeting by your furry companion could make fellow gardeners feel extremely unsafe.  Gardens also present hazards for dogs, including harp tools, wire fences, vehicles, chemicals, poisonous plants, and more. If you bring your dog to the garden, they must always be on leash. First-time violators of this rule will be required to leash their dog and collect 200 pieces of trash. Repeat violators will be required to pick up 500 pieces of trash and write a 600-word essay to the prompt: “Why my dog and I are exempted from following the rules and practicing common courtesy.”

Community gardens are spaces for people of all ages. Kids are welcome, but can be destructive and annoying if unattended in the garden. Not everyone loves the youth. Some people like to be left alone. Some children need to be monitored carefully to prevent injury or mayhem. Gardens are hazard-rich environments and same stuff that can hurt dogs in gardens can also hurt all sizes and ages of humans. Any adult who brings a child into the garden is responsible for the behavior and safety of that kid.

Illegal activity
Our gardens are semi-public spaces in a big metropolitan area, which means that sometimes people go there to do activities unrelated to gardening. The strongest way to prevent theft or other crimes is to know and be known by your community of fellow gardeners. Gardeners are encouraged to introduce themselves to their neighbors early in the season and to share observations about what’s going on in the garden with each other. If something concerning but not imminently threatening to personal safety arises, please get in touch with Extension staff first .

Calling the police should only be done as a last resort. Before calling law enforcement consider the following:

  1. Is what is happening a threat to anyone’s safety?
  2. Is the action harmful or just inconvenient/weird/unpleasant?

If someone is creating a situation of imminent physical risk to themselves, another gardener, or you, get to safety and call law enforcement. If someone is behaving obnoxiously, doing vandalism, publicly intoxicated, dumping trash, or otherwise creating nuisance problems in a community garden, please communicate all relevant information and we will address the issue.

Garden Rules Summary:

  • Give neighboring gardeners the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions. Be kind.
  • Don’t go into a plot that’s not yours without express permission.
  • Don’t take anything that does not belong to you.
  • Work with your neighbors to keep pathways between plots clear and free of weeds.
  • No unattended hoses or sprinklers are allowed. Unattended sprinklers will be removed.
  • It is prohibited to wash your car in the garden. The garden is not a car wash.
  • No uncontained fires are allowed. Burning trash or plant residues is not allowed. Grilling is ok.
  • Drive slowly and carefully in the garden. If roads are muddy and soft, please walk to your plot.
  • Use our portable toilets when nature calls. Don’t relieve yourself in the bushes.
  • Don’t plant trees without asking us first. Trees planted where we don’t want them will be removed.
  • Don’t plant in abandoned or unoccupied plots without asking Extension first.
  • Don’t put tall plants (sunflowers, corn, etc.) where they will shade out neighboring plots.
  • Keep your plot weeded. A 3-week warning will be issued to gardeners in plots we deem to be neglected. A second warning will be issued 2 weeks after the first warning. If weed issues persist after 3 weeks we will consider the plot abandoned and return it to Extension management.
  • Don’t let trash accumulate in your plot. We will give two warnings to fix the issue before enacting penalties such as the cancellation of rental agreements.
  • No orange construction fence is allowed. Black and green plastic fences are ok.
  • Don’t leave anything in annual garden plots after the clear-out date in late October. This includes non-biodegradable ground cover/mulch, including burlap bags. Anything that goes into the annual plots must come out at the end of the season.
  • Avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Contact Extension for pest management and soil fertility advice.
  • Ideally, dogs will stay home. If they must come to the garden, dogs must always be leashed.
  • Children are the responsibility of their adults. Don’t let them run amok in the garden.
  • If you see something fishy, illegal, or otherwise concerning happening in the garden, stay safe and let Extension know.