Are you short of gardening space? Do you live in an apartment, or in a town house with a hopelessly shady lot?

There is a solution for you--provided you don't mind investing time and effort in locating a vacant lot and negotiating with its owner.

"The District has approximately 20,000 vacant lots, most of them less than 2,000 square feet, and many of them contiguous," says Bob Beck, chief of D.C.'s Bureau of Community Hygiene, Neighborhood Improvement. "If the lot is properly identified, we'll provide the name and address of the owner to contact. We will not contact the owner ourselves. But we will respond if you write us a letter with the request or call us on the telephone--it takes us about three minutes to look up the name and address."

The bureau's address is 120 Ingraham St. NE. The phone number is 576-7187.

The bureau's primary responsibility is to send out notices to people whose property is overgrown with weeds or littered with trash. It has two field investigators checking complaints and two other officials keeping track of violations.

Beck says that vacant lots are spread throughout the city. "You shouldn't have any problem finding a vacant lot," he says. "There is one in every six-block square area. Just drive up and down any street, and you'll find a vacant lot."

However, Beck cautions, gardening on someone else's property is not necessarily a simple matter. Insurance is a problem--what happens if a person gets hurt? (Beck's bureau--and the city government--definitely doesn't want to get involved in such a case.) Then, who is responsible if an individual starts a garden but abandons the project or doesn't clean up after the season is over? Or if soil erodes and spills into the pavement? As far as Beck's bureau is concerned, the property owner is responsible.

"We don't want to discourage any program that beautifies the city," Beck says. His bureau is planning to mail out to property owners brochures on vacant lot utilization issued by GROW, a nonprofit organization of individuals and groups dedicated to urban gardening. "We are willing to cooperate with any nonprofit organization that wants to work in a community and to help to beautify it," Beck says. "Growing gardens is one way to solve the problem of vacant lots in the area. It is better if a community uses a property constructively."

"We highly recommend that the individual interested in adopting someone else's vacant lot for gardening signs a contract with the owner," says William Easley of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of the District of Columbia. "A contract protects both sides. It specifies the period of the lease, the conditions and the standards of maintenance. We also recommend short-term liability insurance."

According to Karen Grykiewicz, project coordinator for GROW, $500,000 worth of insurance for an average vacant lot costs between $20 and $50 a year. Grykiewicz says that of the 25 absentee owners GROW contacted last year five answered, and said they had no problems. In addition, Metro and the National Park Service responded positively to every request to garden on its vacant lots.

To receive a simple, one-page sample contract, call 282-7400. The telephone belongs to Hortline, which is a free urban gardening information service offered by UDC.

Easley suggests that D.C. residents use the educational resources of their wards. The numbers to call for horticultural information are: 727-6880 for Wards 1 and 2; 282-7412 for Wards 3 and 4; 576-7415 for Wards 5 and 6; 576-7419 for Wards 7 and 8.

He says the main obstacle to gardening on a vacant lot is that it is often hard to locate absentee owners.

It is a good idea to check with the immediate neighbors of vacant lots, and even to discuss the crops about to be planted. For instance, not everybody likes the impression created by rows of corn growing in a city lot.

Easley's office estimates that last season as many as 4,000 D.C. residents gardened on lots that belong to the federal government, the District and absentee private owners. Easley expects "a large increase" this season.