Outdoors

Guide to Starting and Maintaining a Community Garden

So people in your neighborhood are interested in a community garden. That's great news! But...now what? Read on to guide you through the process.

The community gardens of today check a lot of boxes as far as the benefits they offer and the positive impact they have for those involved. Over many decades, they have evolved to become iconic symbols for communities that aim to raise awareness of social issues and promote sustainable living. But they didn’t start that way. They came into existence to meet a far less glamorous need, but one just as purposeful: people were starving and needed to eat.

Birthplace of the Community Garden: Detroit, Michigan

Thirty-six years before the 1929 stock market crash that preceded The Great Depression, America entered a deep recession called The Panic of 1893. Tens of thousands of American citizens and immigrants alike lost their jobs and incomes, and consequently, their means of obtaining and providing food. People were not just hungry, they were starving. 

Desperate to quell the rising, inanition-driven hysteria and increasing frequency of riots, the then-Mayor of Detroit, Michigan, Hazen Pingree, came forward with a game-changing idea: to offer plots of vacant land to the city’s poor to grow their food. It was a hugely popular idea that was known as the “Potato Patch Plan.”

Pingree’s Potato Patch Plan was the first community garden. The practice continued in other economic downturns and was also implemented in schools to teach children about the wonders of nature while instilling a connected work ethic and sense of civic virtue. It was these school gardens that showed the added merit in their creation and upkeep.

Educational, Elevating, and Connecting

In his TED talk almost a decade ago, then-EVST lecturer and PEAS Farm Director and now-Missoula (Montana) County Commissioner Josh Slotnik had this to say about community gardening:

“It was the best educational experience I had ever had. I was elevated by it. I had never before felt so in tune with people and place.”

Whether it is one specific thing or everything collectively, the positive effects of a community garden experience are very tangible and powerful. 

Here are the most significant and impactful benefits of a community garden.

  • Participants have exposure to diversity they might not otherwise have. People of all ages and cultures engage each other while working side by side.
  • The practice consistently brings healthy, fresh food (that many may not have regular access to) to household tables. That encourages and often results in community-wide, healthier eating habits, most notably in young children. They are far more likely to eat fruits and vegetables they helped grow. 
  • Community gardens are part of the “sharing economy,” a concept that provides a way for a group of people to have access to something they could not afford on their own.
  • There is a significant economic impact due to spending less money at the store on food and spending less money on gas to drive to the store.
  • Urban gardening provides opportunities for all to build and contribute to the overall sense of community. Putting the food back out into the community and sharing with those in need, whether they participated in the growing or not, is one example of how that’s accomplished.
  • It provides a meaningful and connected way to educate people on how food goes from seed to table.
  • Participating in a community garden provides a valuable alternative to other, less-constructive activities like watching television, playing video games, etc.
  • It’s an ideal time and place to develop relationship and interpersonal skills.
  • People learn about and begin to live by proper social norms and values, much-needed for young people.
  • Throughout the community garden experience, exploration of cognitive and behavioral competencies occurs.
  • A community garden provides a consistent, dignified way to address the problem of food insecurity.
  • They beautify cities. Engaging in community gardening combats urban decay by using land the cities/governments have neglected or abandoned.
  • The activity effectively addresses the problem of “food justice” (when low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to fresh, healthy foods and consequently tend to have more health issues).
  • Community gardens are a great way to preserve culture, especially for immigrants; access to culture-centric foods not usually found here is now readily available.
  • City gardens control urban sprawl. That supports and maintains biodiversity on our planet by showcasing sustainably grown food.
  • On a small scale, they create spaces for life, biology, and nature to thrive that may not otherwise exist, especially in urban areas. Gardens are homes not only for plants and vegetables, but animals and insects, too. In turn, they become food for their natural predators, thus participating in the circle of life.
  • They improve the environment. Oxygen is added to the air, and pollutants are removed. The ground absorbs rainwater, which keeps contaminated runoff from tainting local lakes and rivers. Soil quality is improved, which also means improved water filtration processes. Composting and recycling turn waste into useful nutrient-rich fertilizer.
  • Participating in a community garden is a unique form of self-care (helps with anxiety and depression, and provides a feeling of nurture-driven satisfaction).
  • Community gardens can be the physical manifestations of the value a community places on compassionate connections with all humans, sending a positive message that is ideally instilled in children and passed along through the generations.
  • They aid ongoing initiatives to save the bees. Because they are pollination hotspots, bees get the space to regenerate, producing higher harvest yields as a result.
  • They promote the therapeutic gardening lifestyle by making it easier to explore or embrace a budding or existing gardening passion.
  • Community gardens foster a sense of hope for the planet and future generations.

The Community Garden Concept

“Community garden” is a term that, simply put, refers to any piece of land gardened by a group of people. A correct description, yes, but it’s also much more. 

It’s a symbol of a community’s commitment to sustainability and biodiversity, and their shared willingness to come and work together for the greater good. As such, involvement with a community garden has the far-reaching ability to have a profound impact on both individual and global levels.

Starting a Community Garden: Step by Step Checklist

So people in your neighborhood are interested in a community garden. Both local individuals and organizations have been brought into the discussion and have committed to support the cause. That’s great news! But…now what? 

You can start right here. This checklist is a useful tool to guide you through the process. Thorough and conscientious efforts at this point aid in setting yourself up for success with the ongoing maintenance.

Form a Planning Committee, Start Getting Organized

  • Form the committee at least six months before the garden’s first expected growing season
  • At this time, collectively decide what kind of garden would best serve the community (vegetable, fruit, mix, flowers, etc.). Also decide if the garden will consist of individual plots, one communal, shared plot, or both. Lastly, decide if the garden will be organic or inorganic. Organic gardens have specific guidelines to follow to obtain organic certification.
  • Within the planning committee have sub-committees or appoint individuals to spearhead efforts in specific areas: budgeting, sponsorships, site selection, soil, etc., as outlined in this list.

Make Two Budgets: Start-Up Costs and Annual Costs

  • Create two budgets: one-time start-up costs and recurring monthly/yearly costs on an annual basis
  • Allot funds for major components such as:
    • Water source: are you tapping into existing lines, running new water lines, or drilling a water well on-site?
    • Recurring water bill to pay for the water source (if applicable)
    • Recurring electricity bill (to run any irrigation or lighting components, if applicable)
    • Site and soil prep: labor and dump fees to remove existing weeds and debris; cost to have a licensed technician apply pre-emergent weed killer in the soil, labor for tilling and turning the soil, and labor for staking out and marking the various plots and growing areas
    • Site maintenance: mowing, cleaning, and mulching (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or as-needed)
    • Other site extras such as a shed for tool and equipment storage, portable restroom facilities, fencing, and common area site amenities like seating, water features, and trash receptacles
  • Consider other potential expenses that are outside the garden but still applicable:
    • Liability insurance (the lease should release the landowner of any liability)
    • Attorney to look over bylaws and agreements
    • Postage/flyers/announcements
    • Meeting expenses
    • Social events

Identify Resources and Sponsors

The size, scope, and mission of the garden are ultimately only limited by the resources to which you have access. No matter how much (or little) you know about gardening or botany, it seems like there is always someone who knows more, and those people aren’t hard to find. So the parameters don’t have to be reined in to match your level of expertise; they can be widened to correspond to the expertise of anyone else willing to share what they know.  

If you’re in a need of a local expert to provide guidance, the first two places to start are:

  • American Community Gardening Association – this organization’s “diverse membership includes active community gardeners, supportive volunteers, garden organizing and sponsoring organizations, governmental agencies, and horticultural professionals including teachers, horticultural therapists, Cooperative Extension agents, landscape architects, and academic researchers” (Home | ACGA, n.d.).
  • Master Gardeners undergo specialized intensive training through university programs and then volunteer in their local communities by starting up new community gardens, giving educational talks and presentations, and conducting research.
  • Other potential resources and sponsors/providers of materials are:
    • Local library
    • Municipalities
    • Hospitals
    • Local businesses (ask for in-kind donations/free materials in exchange for sponsorship)

Site Selection

This step requires great patience and perseverance, as sites that meet all the needed requirements are not easy to find. 

The success of the garden is hugely dependent upon the existence of the following conditions:

  • 6-8 hours of direct sunlight for all planting areas
  • the presence of (or the ability to install) a reliable water source
  • proper drainage
  • the presence of good quality soil (more on this in step five)
  • zoning requirements are met

If there’s any concern as to the viability of the land as a growing medium, it may be worthwhile to investigate the history of the location. Choose more than one site so that backup options are in place, just in case the first choice is not available. Narrowing the final decision down to three options generally works well. 

When you find a desirable location, reach out to the landowner in writing to inquire about leasing it. Property ownership is public information and can be found through city tax assessor offices, among other sources. In your letter, take the time to detail the garden’s mission and how it will benefit the community. 

Once an owner is found who is interested in leasing the land, the lease needs to be drawn up and signed. Be sure to check the water source, soil health, and confirm adequate drainage before signing the lease.

If you are having trouble locating any vacant parcels in your neighborhood, Shared Earth may be a helpful resource. It is a website that connects people who have land with people who need land specifically for communal gardening.

Soil

Soil is singled out from the other materials because it plays a much larger role. Without good soil, there is no garden.

  • Before you make a verbal agreement or sign any lease, start taking measurements, or even get too excited about a location, have the soil tested. There are home testing kits you can buy, or you can take samples from the location to a lab for more thorough readings. Depending on the results, you may be able to amend or replace any as needed to achieve the desired pH and mix of necessary nutrients.
  • If lab results come back showing heavy metals, the soil needs to be entirely removed and replaced, or another location used.
  • Have a backup plan (including emergency funds) in place that allows for complete replacement of the existing soil as needed (for community gardens and non-profits, many suppliers donate material in exchange for sponsorship, or sell at a reduced cost).

Garden Layout and Installation

Successful planting is a result of thorough planning, and part of that is the planting plan. Knowing a parcel’s square footage, perimeter linear footages, and shape is usually enough to draw up a fairly detailed plan, and it will streamline the process. Once you know how much overall space you have to work with, designing the smaller components (i.e., planter boxes) comes easier. 

Professional blueprints or plans aren’t necessary unless required by the city for approval of the project. Any of the volunteers with any design experience can create a plan with home-based software, and even a careful, neat hand rendering will suffice. 

During the design and layout process, be prepared to address the following items:

  • Will gardeners have access to private, individualized plots, or will they share one big space?
  • Decide on raised beds (more organized, more up-front costs), in-ground beds (less organized, less up-front costs), or both
  • Fencing – is it necessary?
    • Pros: security, keeps out pests, provides structural support to vegetables, fruits, and plants
    • Cons: additional start-up costs
    • If using fencing, measure lengths and locations
  • Provide ample room both inside and out of the growing beds; look at pathways and provide ADA compliant clearance for wheelchair accessibility
  • Show areas that require grading (to expose nutrient-rich soil, create drainage paths, and level the ground if necessary); this will need to be done 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 (smaller space and a fewer number of vegetables and fruits planted)
  • When you are ready to begin planting, follow the planting plan designed by your team

Maintaining a Community Garden

Building a community garden is only a part of the experience. Once that is done, it needs to be efficiently maintained. Three easy ingredients for success are:

  • implementing a garden-wide set of rules and guidelines for everyone to follow
  • preventing issues instead of fixing them
  • skillfully 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

Implementing a Garden-Wide Set of Rules and Guidelines

Everyone participating in the community garden can also participate in setting up the community rules. The more people feel they had a hand in creating those rules, the more they uphold them. Just remember, the experience is supposed to be fun, and a long list of “don’ts” can feel restrictive. It’s OK to start with just a few basic requirements and add-on as situations present themselves. 

If a sizable group of people is involved, trying to have everyone participate in every decision is inefficient. At this point, choosing officers to manage the operations of the garden is a good strategy. When this happens, draft a detailed set of bylaws explaining, along with membership requirements, the officer election process, and officer powers and responsibilities. Completed bylaws can then be made available to all participants. A part of the board meetings held by the chosen officers should be open to all garden participants to attend.

Some of the more common issues that arise within a community garden (and so need clearly stated requirements and consequences for non-compliance) are:

  • the presence of weeds and the lack of removal in a proper time frame
  • whether structures are allowed and, if not, the results of violating the policy
  • planting or working in the garden during periods of closure (unless it is open year-round)
  • predetermined crop restrictions and the consequences for planting restricted crops
  • determination of approved and unapproved pest treatments, and the results of using unapproved methods

Part of this process should also include creating and implementing a straightforward application process for community members who want to join, complete with a breakdown of all required fees.

Something else everyone should be following are the outlined pathways to achieving the garden’s mission and goals. They should be put in writing, posted on a community garden bulletin board for all to see, and upheld by the entire group.

In the interest of group cohesion and making sure the mission and goals are the heartbeats of the community garden, it’s crucial to have regular communication between all members. Membership should require them to participate in the garden’s social media activity or allow members to miss only a set number of group meetings. 

If everyone is aware of the guidelines before joining, there shouldn’t be a problem with compliance.

Common Community Garden Problems

There’s an old saying – probably a lot of them – that speaks to how much easier it is to prevent a problem than it is to solve it. The more people you work with, the more this tends to be true, yet harder to achieve. If you are at least aware of the most commonly reported issues, you’re halfway there.

Problem: Workforce

Participating in a community garden is done on a voluntary basis, and because of that fact, gardeners can stop showing up whenever they want. Unfortunately, some do just that often without any notice. 

Possible preventative measures: collect refundable deposits; implement an abandonment/forfeiture policy

Problem: Unwanted Visitors

Many participants in the community garden may invite family members or friends to garden with them as their guests because they are not official members. Parents may occasionally be left without care for their human or fur babies and will bring them to the garden. This usually does not create any problems, provided all guests adhere to the rules, and members clean after children and pets.

Possible preventative measures: the community garden rules should clearly state whether these types of guests are allowed. If they are, the rules should further elaborate as to visiting days and hours and the number of guests allowed. Both the member and the guest should sign a visitor form accepting responsibility for violated rules or damage.

Problem: Theft and Vandalism

Though it seems like bad karma to do so, even community gardens suffer theft and vandalism. 

Possible preventative measures: make sure the surrounding community knows what the garden is, why it’s there, and what it’s accomplishing; install fence and lock; lock the equipment in a shed for storage; have a give-away box with surplus fruits and vegetables that stays outside during off-hours; start a hotline to report theft and vandalism and offer rewards.

Problem: Personality Conflicts

The diverse nature of the community garden concept is lovely in theory but doesn’t always translate well into reality. Tension and conflict sometimes arise due to cultural differences, language barriers and misunderstandings, and workload resentments. 

Possible preventative measures: offer events and activities that get the participants together, spending time with and getting to know each other; engage in friendly competitions with other community gardens, i.e. gardening competitions or an intramural sports league.

Problem: Smoking/Drinking/Drug Use on Site

Many habitual smokers of either nicotine or now-legal marijuana cigarettes may use the activity to relax or relieve stress, and, as such, combine it with the relaxing effects of gardening. Whether such activity is allowed should already be expressed in the community rules.

Though legal, smoking and alcohol consumption are typically prohibited in this type of setting. Cigarettes are a direct contradiction of the healthy lifestyle community gardens promote. Drinking is as well, and has the added downside of presenting a potential liability issue. It is in the garden’s best interest to have everyone of sound mind and body when on site.

Preventative measures: make sure the guidelines clearly state policy on these activities and that the effects are spelled out, be they a series of warnings up to removal from the community, or immediate removal after the first occurrence. 

Drug use is illegal and never allowed. The garden’s rules should clearly back the law in this case and immediately discontinue the membership of anyone in violation. Whether an officer from the garden reports the activity to law enforcement officials is at their discretion, but the policy on this should be decided in advance and clearly stated in the rules.

While a conscientious system geared toward prevention may have a high success rate, not everything can or will be prevented; there will still be conflicts to resolve, and violations of rules to address. Serious offenses may require the attention of a specialized as-needed conduct committee. They should work together as a cohesive group to deal with the infraction, and the person as professionally and compassionately as possible.

What a Difference a Community Garden Makes

Starting and maintaining a community garden is a challenging, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating undertaking. It’s something that requires incredible organization, patience, tenacity, and kindness from everyone involved. You’ll feel tested and past your limits. It will feel like too much, and scrapping the whole thing starts to make more sense. 

But before you do that, remember your resources, and see if you can lean on them more. Revisit your mission and goals, and tap into the emotions behind deciding to do this in the first place. Close your eyes, and imagine the finished product. 

See the smiling faces of people in relationships made stronger from having resolved conflict together.

See the bees lazily dipping in and out of colorful flowers.

See the look in the eyes of someone down on their luck as your team invites them to help themselves to freshly picked fruit. 

Community gardens make a difference. Your garden will make a difference. And sometimes, different is what the world needs.

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