Apartment owners and managers are adding wheelbarrows and shears to their amenity toolbox.

According to the American Community Gardening Association, there are at least 18,000 community gardens throughout the United States and Canada. And more and more of them are in apartment communities.

That's because property managers see vegetable and flower gardens as creative solutions to two pressing problems: increased competition for tenants and pressure to lower operating costs. But these resident-maintained green spaces yield other benefits, including stronger resident commitment, better retention, speedier entitlements, and improved property values.

BOUNTIFUL BENEFITS The promise of a working garden, no matter how small, can be a draw for residents.

For instance, The Danny Woo Community Garden in Seattle's International District serves low-income, elderly residents of the area's apartments and single-occupancy hotel rooms. “The residents need a place to plant vegetables they are used to eating, and the garden is a place to socialize with their peers,” explains Jennifer Jin Brower, garden/outreach manager for the Inter*Im Community Development Association, which created and maintains the garden to serve tenants in surrounding rental properties.

Garden space also can attract higher-income tenants, notes Todd Tibbits, senior vice president of property services for Post Properties. The Atlanta-based company maintains urban gardens at 14 of its 62 communities.

“The gardens are a great recruitment tool for empty nesters,” he says. “Often, downsizing from a house to an apartment means leaving your gardening hobby behind. Communities with urban vegetable gardens help alleviate that problem. During tours, the urban vegetable garden is a great conversation starter. It contributes so much to the sense of community.”

Retention increases, as well, since residents can interact with their neighbors. “Whether it's by gardening together or meeting at community-coordinated events in the garden, it helps our residents get to know each other,” Tibbits adds.

CLIPPING COSTS Tibbits estimates that the company's urban gardens cost between $5,000 and $30,000 to get started, depending on the size and hardscaping features. “Fencing, arbors, tool storage bins, and benches can get pricey, but the garden plots alone are quite affordable,” he says.

Community managers at Post properties allot $900 a year to maintain the gardens in addition to annual grounds maintenance costs of $300 per garden-style unit, $150 per mid-rise unit, and $75 per high-rise unit.

“This covers not only seeds, plants, and supplies for residents, but also refreshments served at garden events. Community gardens pay for themselves in the same way a community pool or tennis court does—in resident satisfaction.”

Gardens at Post Properties, such as this one at Post Stratford in Atlanta, help residents get to know their neighbors.
Gardens at Post Properties, such as this one at Post Stratford in Atlanta, help residents get to know their neighbors.

A number of resident gardens actually cover their own costs through plot-rental fees. Professional Community Management of California covers the cost of the 1.201 plots at Laguna Woods Village by doing just that. Rental charges range from $26 to $53 per vegetable plot annually, depending on the size. Fruit tree plots and shade-house space are less. The garden center has a net expense, after rental income, of approximately $60,000 per year.

“This is a reasonable cost compared to other amenities and when compared to the value that a garden adds,” explains Kurt Rahn, PCM's director of landscaping and recreation. PCM manages 225 homeowner and community associations. “Costs are lower because the residents are responsible for the care of their plots and less staff is needed.”