Community gardens have been in existence for some time but have seen a huge spike in popularity in the last decade, and in the last few years especially. And it’s about time, some might say. After all, the benefits of community gardens are numerous and, by now, well known: making fresh produce accessible for everyone, encouraging physical activity and outdoor exercise, providing opportunities for socializing for adults and children alike, reducing crime, purifying the air, sustainability, and beautification are all important benefits, and that’s just a small sampling. They aren’t too difficult to start as that process is pretty cut and dry, but keeping them going can often prove to be a challenge that takes a little finesse. Here’s how to start a community garden, and some actionable tips for keeping it going.
The Potato Patch Plan
In 1893, the US fell into a deep recession that caused Americans and immigrants alike to lose their jobs by the tens of thousands. Called ‘The Panic of 1893,’ it was directly responsible for people’s inability to procure food. It wasn’t long before people were starving, creating a widespread atmosphere of unrest and incivility.
Hazen Pingree had an idea. As the mayor of Detroit, he was watching his city dissolve into mass hysteria and rapidly-increasing riots. It occurred to him that the city had ample vacant land available, which he decreed be given to those hardest hit by the economy, so that they could grow their food. The “Potato Patch Plan,” as it was called, was the first community garden in the US and proved to be successful not only here but during future times of widespread financial hardship as well.
Further merit was seen when schools began using them to teach children about the importance of a strong work ethic and civic virtue while giving them a chance to work outside in nature.
Economics and Other Benefits
If usable land with good soil or money (or both) are scarce, an even more economical option is to skip in-ground planting and use containers. This urban garden adds a rustic flare by using these vintage-style planter boxes.
In his TED talk almost a decade ago, famed and self-proclaimed “guerilla gardener” Ron Finley had this to say about why he’s passionate about gardening:
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
He said this because, when you crunch the numbers, the data shows that growing food is in every case exponentially cheaper than buying it at the store. Take tomatoes, for example:
- A tomato plant that costs about $4 will produce about 8 pounds of fruit
- Those same 8 pounds purchased at a store would cost about $20.48 ($2.56/pound average x 8)
- Total savings: over $16
- You can find out online what any type of plant costs, how much it will produce, and what it costs per pound to buy that same fruit or vegetable at the grocery store; once you have that information you can calculate the approximate savings
Other super-cost-effective vegetables to grow are lettuce, bell peppers, garlic, winter squash, and broccoli.
The economic impact may be the most lauded benefit of a community garden, but it’s just one of many.
Most Impactful Benefits of a Community Garden
One of the great benefits of community gardening is that it provides younger people with a constructive alternative to watching TV, playing video games, or looking at their phones.
- Exposure to diversity – people of all ages and cultures working together
- Makes healthy, fresh food available to more households on a regular basis
- Carbon footprint reduction (for example, reduction in usage of gas to drive to the store)
- The shared feeling of “community”, and what it’s like to work together within a group to achieve something that makes an impact
- Farm-to-table education
- Constructive alternative to less desirable activities (like playing video games or watching TV)
- The younger generation has an opportunity to sharpen their interpersonal skills
- Promotes beautification through sustainable practices
- Promotes an all-around healthier community
- Promotes culture diversity (for example, immigrants can grow foods from native counties not found here).
- Promotes ecosystem diversity by containing urban sprawl
- Creates a microclimate where full biological processes can be carried out, i.e. the “circle of life”
- They are great for the environment in a variety of ways (production of fresh oxygen, absorption of rainwater and prevention of run-off, improved water filtration thanks to improved soil, and more)
- Provides a sense of fulfillment that can also address depression and anxiety
- Community gardens symbolize a community’s dedication to making real, human connections happen, and in an ever-disconnected world, this is significant
- They provide a safe place for bees to pollinate and do other bee things, combating the problem of declining bee populations
As you can see, community gardens are so much more than just space used for gardening. At their core, they celebrate life and science, and promote both in a sustainable way. More importantly, they give everyone the priceless gift of participating in the seemingly inconsequential but in actuality incredibly meaningful experience of working together for the greater good.
How to Start a Community Garden: Follow These Steps
The very first thing to do? Form a startup committee.
If you have an opportunity to start a community garden but just haven’t known where to start, here’s a guide and series of checklists to guide you through the process. The more carefully and diligently you handle the process at startup, the more you set yourself up for long term success.
Step #1: Form a Planning Committee, Start Getting Organized
Perform this step about six months before the first growing season. The committee should decide:
- The type of garden best suited to serve the community (vegetable, fruit, mix, flowers, etc.)
- The overall layout – one big, shared open space or separate gardening areas
- If the garden wants to obtain and maintain an “organic” designation, for which there is a specific set of requirements
Not everything needs to fall on you, or the startup committee. Use the talents and skills of those participating in the endeavor with you, and appoint those people to oversee the management and execution of various aspects.
Step #2: Make Two Budgets: Start-Up Costs and Annual Costs
The startup committee should also be tasked with putting together two different budgets:
- One-time startup costs
- Ongoing annual costs
A through-the-trees glimpse of a community garden in India.
Items that need to be considered for both the initial startup and year-after-year are:
- Water – how will you be getting yours? Building a well on site or tapping into existing lines somewhere are the common methods.
- Monthly water bill (if applicable)
- Monthly electric bill (if applicable)
- Preparation of the site and soil: removal of existing weeds and debris (labor and dump fees); cost of application of pre-emergent by a licensed QP; labor to break up and aerate the soil prior to planting; labor to mark out and label the various growing areas and beds
- Weekly or monthly recurring maintenance of the site (or more or less often, as applicable)
- Extras like a shed for tools and equipment storage; other site amenities being implemented such as bathrooms, trash bins, and hardscape items like benches, tables, or decorative art
- Additional items to consider and included in the budget if needed:
- Liability insurance (the landowner will likely be relieved of any liability in the lease)
- The possible hiring of a lawyer to review and advise on documentation, i.e. bylaws
- Printing costs (flyers, announcements, etc.)
- Petty cash
- Team building events
This community garden features raised planter bed, prepped soil, an on-site water source with a hose, laser tubing irrigation, protection from the elements, and a retractable greenhouse for seedlings.
Step #3: Make a List of Potential Sponsors and All Available Resources
Though helpful, extensive knowledge of gardening is not necessarily needed to start a community garden, provided you have access to and use the appropriate resources.
Two good places to start:
- 1. American Community Gardening Association – an organization with a wide range of volunteers, all with different areas of expertise, willing to answer questions
- 2. Master Gardeners have completed a certain amount of hours of specialized education in botany. Upon completing the course, they volunteer within the community in various capacities and are a great resource.
- Local businesses might also prove worthwhile to visit as it’s possible they would be willing to donate supplies outright, or sell for a discounted rate, in exchange for a sponsorship or advertising at the site.
Step #4: The Site Selection Process
This site has been cleared and prepped and is ready for spring planting.
This step cannot be rushed. Site selection can single-handedly make or break a community garden, so it requires time and patience. You’re going to want to make sure your sight has the following:
- About 6-8 hours per day of sunlight for all planting areas
- A water source (unless your plan is to build a well)
- Proper drainage
- Good soil (more on this in step five)
- Proper zoning
This is one of those cases where you can never be too thorough. Have at least three locations that would work lined up so that there’s something to fall back on if plan A – or B – does not work out.
When you find a site that you want, you’ll need to then do the following:
- Go through your county’s recorder or assessor offices to find out who owns the parcel (this is public information and can be found online through either entity’s website)
- Reach out to the landowner in writing to inquire about leasing
- Your letter should include the garden’s mission statement and specific details as to the benefit to the community
- Should the landowner respond favorably, indicate if your team still needs to make the final decision or if a lease can be drawn up
- Before you sign anything, check and double check: that there’s a water source; that the soil is usable; and that there are no drainage issues that require grading.
In the event you’re unable to find any vacant land in your neighborhood, your team may want to check out Shared Earth. This website specializes in matching people who need land for gardening with people who have land.
Step #5: Soil
Any site you select must have good soil. If it’s not already there, it needs to be brought in, or another site should be chosen.
Soil is singled out from the other materials because it can make your job really easy or it can stymie the entire thing. It is of utmost importance that the site has good soil, or at least soil that can be amended (unless your budget allows for a total soil replacement). So, when a site is found that is desirable, have the soil tested before doing anything else.
Testing can be done using home testing kits purchased yourself, or, for more thorough results that include recommendations for needed amending, you can have a lab test it for you. You or someone on your team will have to collect samples and submit them to the lab. It’s a bit more work but lab results will tell you the current pH, along with vital nutrients present and what nutrients should be added.
Soil tests that come back indicating the presence of heavy metals are a potential major obstacle that leaves you two options: have the soil completely removed and replaced, or choose another location. This is when those back-up sites come in handy.
If it’s a site you absolutely love and cannot live without, you’ll have to explore the possibility of paying for all new soil. An emergency fund in the budget would cover this. If there is no emergency fund, perhaps a fundraiser can be held, the materials can be donated or sold at a reduced cost by a supplier looking for a sponsorship or advertising, or a collection among the current committee members can be taken up.
Step #6: Make and Follow a Plan
The more thorough your planning efforts are, the more successful the planting efforts will be.
Thorough planning generally results in successful planting, so take the time to draw up a site map and planting plan. If you know the overall square footage, the perimeter linear footage per side, and the overall shape, that’s enough information to draw a plan. Once you know how much space you have to work with and how it all lays out, designing the smaller components (i.e. planter boxes) comes easier, and seeing it scaled down on paper can make it feel more manageable too.
An aerial mock-up of the site can be achieved with a simple computer rendering or by hand. Professional blueprints aren’t necessary unless the city specifically asks for them, which they’ll typically only do if what you want to use it for or changes you want to make are not allowed under its current zoning designation.
Community garden plots in Fort Mason, San Francisco, California.
As the site map and planting plans are being drawn up, be sure to address the following items:
- Will the space be made up of many smaller, individual plots, or one communal plot?
- Decide on the style of beds – raised beds (more organized, more up-front costs), in-ground beds (less organized, less up-front costs), or both
- Fencing – determine necessity and note lengths and locations (if using)
- Fencing pros: security, keeps out pests, provides structural support to vegetables, fruits, and plants
- Fencing cons: additional start-up costs
- Account for space needed around planting beds for walking, driving small equipment, or storage of tools and equipment; walkways should be ADA compliant for wheelchair accessibility
- Indicate areas that require grading (to expose nutrient-rich soil, create drainage paths, and level the ground if necessary); this is typically done with a piece of equipment immediately following the removal of any existing debris or plant material
- Start small, especially if this is a new experience, as it is easier to scale up than scale down (meaning tackle a smaller space with a fewer number of vegetables and fruits planted to start)
- Following the planting plan designed by your team will help the initial installation process run smoothly
How to Maintain a Community Garden
The trickiest part of maintaining a community garden isn’t the maintenance – it’s the people. A collaborative mindset helps ensure smooth sailing.
When it comes to maintaining a community garden, the general upkeep, weeding, mowing, raking, and anything else of that nature are the easy parts. The potential challenge lies in the people – managing personalities, celebrating differences, and resolving conflicts.
There are three things you can do to prevent many issues from happening at all:
- Establish garden rules
- Anticipate issues and proactively address them
- Be skilled at dealing with the sea of different personalities, cultures, and opinions – confined to a small-ish space – in a way that does not detract from the garden’s mission
Establish Garden Rules and Operating Guidelines
This is something the startup committee or entire group of participants can do together, as rules tend to be less problematic if everyone they affect had a hand in making them. Try to word the final draft in a way that sounds positive and encourages good behavior, as opposed to punishing bad behavior.
Another approach is electing officers to form a board to manage the operations of the garden, which may be more efficient if the participating group is quite large. In this case, a detailed set of bylaws should be drafted in which the officer election process – and officer powers and responsibilities – are spelled out. Bylaws should be posted in the garden for all to see, and Emailed or mailed to each participant. Board meetings will need to be held regularly, and a portion will need to be open to all participants to attend.
This community garden in England is an example of a garden that allows structures, a type of inorganic material.
A good starting point for rules begins with addressing the following:
- The presence of weeds and the lack of removal in a proper time frame
- If inorganic items are allowed, such as decorative stoneware, tables, chairs, etc.
- Planting or working in the garden during periods of closure (unless it is open year-round)
- Clearly stating if any specific fruits or vegetables are prohibited from being planted
- The garden’s position on pest and weed treatment and if chemical pesticides and weed killers are allowed
The garden rules and guidelines should speak to the application process for joining, with a breakdown of any relevant fees.
The garden should also have a mission statement, created and agreed upon by the appropriate parties, that is clearly posted for all to see. Whatever the mission statement is, its upholding must be a priority for every participant.
And last but not least, regular communication amongst all participants is crucial. An Email distribution list or group text is a good way to start, depending on how large or small the group is. The more communication there is, the greater the sense of inclusion.
Most people are eager to show up to garden their plots, but in the event of problematic no-shows, consider implementing non-refundable plot deposits and an abandonment-forfeiture policy.
The more people you work with, the harder it can be to successfully anticipate every issue that might arise. But there are some potential obstacles that are more commonplace, and they are:
- Spotty participation – community gardening is voluntary and it’s possible people just won’t show up to garden their plot. To prevent this, non-refundable deposits on the plots can be taken along with implementation of some type of abandonment policy.
- Disruptive visitors – this shouldn’t be an issue as long as guests follow the garden rules. If it becomes a recurring problem, visiting hours may need to be implemented, along with participants signing off that they are responsible for damages caused by their guest(s).
- Theft or vandalism – bold as it may seem, community gardens are the target of theft and vandalism. The more people in the community that are involved, the more eyes there will be on the space. A perimeter fence with a locking gate may be a necessity. Leaving a gift basket full of fruits and vegetables outside the gate for people to help themselves to may also deter forced entry.
- Personality conflicts – putting different cultures, different languages, different ages, and just downright different people in a small space is almost certain to result in someone rubbing someone else the wrong way. Consider organizing events outside of the garden where participants can spend time together and get to know each other outside of the garden setting.
- Drinking, smoking, or using drugs on site – community gardens promote a clean, healthy lifestyle and allowing alcohol consumption and smoking is therefore typically not done. Anything that might dull the senses would be a liability issue. Whatever the policy, ensure it is clearly stated in the rules. Illegal drug use is straightforward; in keeping with the law, it should be unequivocally forbidden and punishable as law enforcement sees fit.
To properly address these and any other matters that may arise, consider the formation of a specialized, objective conduct committee. It will be their responsibility to review cases of broken rules and enforce the predetermined results.
Use Your People Skills
When everyone can work together synergistically, beautiful things happen. This is a nice example of a simple but visually pleasing design that was well executed and is nicely maintained.
If you have a knack for de-escalating situations or smoothing ruffled feathers, or have a way about you that people find calming, you’ve already got some of the most important tools you need. Patience, empathy, and compassion will also come in handy.
Let’s face it, people are people, and people have emotions, and a lot of the time they will act on or respond to them. Something that could be a simple misunderstanding might escalate unnecessarily without someone to intervene and diffuse the situation. And while “reading the room” and knowing when to step in will be helpful, it’s more than that. When you do intervene, it must be done in a subtle way sensitive to the different feelings of everything involved.
In the event of a rule infraction, at least two parties will be stating their take on the situation. You will need to be authoritative, yet respectful. Unless it’s an egregious, obvious case of behavior that the whole of society would frown upon, you’ll need to give everyone’s perspective equal importance – or at least be able to make them feel like you are. Focusing on solutions, not problems, and making your decision effectively will ensure the quickest, fairest outcome possible.
Regardless of what situation may arise, remain calm and act with confidence. You’d be surprised at how much this alone will set the tone for how the rest of a situation unfolds. And above all else, even if you don’t know what else to do, always be honest. If you at least start here, the rest can be sorted out. Your personal credibility and the integrity of the mission of the garden depend on it.
So, Is All This Work Worth It?
Community gardens are an opportunity for all people to experience what it means to be a part of doing something for the greater good, a value that is important to instill in young people.
You’re taking on a pretty sizable endeavor, that’s a fact. And there may be times you feel like giving up and calling it quits. But before making that decision, remember the vast array of resources available out there and look more to those resources to ease some of the burden.
While it will at times be a stressful process happening at what feels like a frantic pace, it’s important you take whatever measures necessary to step away from it for a moment to recharge your batteries and stay centered. Meditate on why you wanted to do this in the first place, and what it will accomplish.
Above all, remember that all-important benefit of the opportunity to work for the greater good, and how rarely people get to participate in something that marries passion and purpose. There is real power in that…the kind of power that can result in change.