Starting a community garden

Contents

“A garden is a lovesome thing.” – Thomas E. Brown

It’s no wonder that community gardens are growing in popularity. Working in a vegetable garden is a lot of fun, whether it’s digging for stray potatoes, pulling up funny-shaped carrots, or searching for elusive string beans. Once picked, it’s hard to beat a meal made of fresh, sun-ripened produce. More and more people want to grow their own food and have a connection to the food supply chain, but many live in small homes or apartments with limited access to growing space. A community garden is a good solution to that dilemma.

If your town or city doesn’t have one already, why not start a community garden yourself? Elizabeth Johnson runs a very successful and large community garden in Dorset, Ontario that was established six years ago on former industrial land. Since then the garden has become a focal point for the community, a source of seasonal organic produce for 15 households, and the recipient of many donations and grants. I asked Elizabeth (who is also my mother) to provide directions for how to start a community garden.

1. Start talking about a community garden.

Ask lots of questions. Let people in your town know that you really want to start a community garden.

2. Find some land.

Preferably it would be flat and sunny, with good soil, but the latter is not necessary, as soil can be built up over time. It’s even possible to grow vegetables on concrete in raised beds, so don’t overlook any possibilities.

3. Research any available grants in your area.

There are some organizations that want to support community gardens. Elizabeth’s garden received a grant from Sobey’s, the grocery store chain, that contained wood, three-way mix, and compost for 12 raised boxes.

4. Have a work bee.

Get everyone together who wants to participate and spend a day building raised boxes with scrap wood, or digging up ground for long beds. Elizabeth’s garden has had most success with boxes that sit directly on the ground (instead of standing on short legs), since they drain better and stay moist longer.

5. Individual beds are best.

That way each person is responsible for their own. Caring for large communal beds often falls to a few dedicated people. Set aside one box for herbs, which everyone can share.

6. Start a compost heap.

The 3-bin system is good and always has compost ready to use. It’s easy to assemble; you can find instructions online. Until your compost is ready, see if you can get some from your town or municipality.

7. Members can start their own seedlings at home.

That way, each person chooses and buys what they want to grow in their own box.

8. Build a fence, if possible.

It’s necessary to keep out hungry critters. A ‘no dogs allowed’ rule may be necessary, as dogs can wreak havoc in freshly planted soil.

9. Organize a watering schedule.

Get a calendar and assign a full week at a time to garden members. That way, nobody’s garden goes without water for more than a day. Set up rain barrels and hoses, or stick with watering cans, depending on the size of the garden.

As the garden grows:

10. You may need to create an informal board.

Having a secretary and treasurer is helpful. Have a few annual meetings with all members to talk about goals for the garden.

11. Invite guest speakers to give presentations.

This can be informative and inspiring for community garden members.

12. Make your space appealing.

Turn it into a place where people want to hang out. Put up a table, sun umbrella, and chairs.

13. Share community meals in the garden.

Especially at the end of the growing season, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the months of hard work and the delicious results.

How to Start a GreenThumb Community Garden

For those interested in starting a new community garden or farm, please keep in mind that there are already more than 550 community gardens and farms registered with NYC Parks GreenThumb across New York City. If you are not able to locate an existing garden in your neighborhood, here are the steps that we can take together to establish one.

  1. Contact GreenThumb
    Your first step should always be to contact GreenThumb. If you are located in a neighborhood that isn’t currently served by a community garden, there is a good chance that we have already been thinking about how to start one there. You can contact us to determine what efforts might already be underway, or to get some guidance on where to begin. We’re always excited to work with New Yorkers who are interested in starting a new community garden, and together we’ll take the following steps toward starting a new garden or farm to help beautify, feed, unify and strengthen your neighborhood and our city.

Find Available Land

You’ll have to start by finding a place to start the garden and getting permission to build it there.

  1. Identify a vacant lot
    Finding space for a new garden can be a challenge, but with a little research and a thorough walk through your neighborhood, we may be able to find a suitable spot. This is also a good chance to meet some of your neighbors to find out who might also be interested in pursuing this project with you. Remember – its takes a community to start a community garden. City-owned lots are best, and you can view available city-owned lots that are available and potentially suitable for urban agriculture here. This list changes periodically, so be sure to check back from time to time if you don’t see a potential lot immediately. Regardless of how you find it, pinpoint the site’s location and write it down. Be sure to note the exact location of the lot on the block, including the address of the next door building or house.
  2. Determine the ownership of the site
    If you can determine the address, or block and lot numbers, of the lot(s) that you are interested in, then you can determine their ownership by visiting the Department of Finance’s Digital Tax Map. You can also visit Oasis NYC and use the mapping system to find this information using the “identify” lot function. GreenThumb can help you with this step.
  3. Get permission!
    Before you start planning a garden, we need to make sure that you will have permission to use the space. If the lots that you’ve identified are on publicly-owned property, GreenThumb will facilitate the process with the City agency that has jurisdiction to determine if they are willing to allow it to be used as a community garden. This process can take some time, so speaking with GreenThumb first will help get things moving more quickly. If you’re pursuing a private lot, make sure you have the consent of the owner first. GreenThumb will only register community gardens that have written permission to be there.

Build a Community for the Garden

If it looks like the site you’ve located might be available and suitable for a community garden, then it’s time to start building a group.

  1. Gather members
    Community gardens need more than one person to care for them and insure that they thrive. The more neighbors you are able to get involved, the better chance you’ll have of succeeding. If you don’t already have members, you can reach out to neighbors and local organizations to find other New Yorkers who might be interested in starting a community garden. One of GreenThumb’s Outreach Coordinators can support you in that effort – that’s what they do every day!
  2. Draft a proposal
    Now that there is a group, it’s time to begin translating the group’s vision into a reality. A written proposal demonstrates that the group is organized and ready to take the next step. The group’s proposal should include specifics such as how the group will be structured, how the garden will be planted and used, how decisions will be made, how resources will be obtained, and much more. GreenThumb has experienced staff ready to support the group with this effort.
  3. Seek support for your project
    Gaining local support is essential for the success and sustainability of the project. Community Boards have Parks, Open Space or Land Use Committees that directly address their area’s public space issues, and a letter of support from the community board shows that the group has local support, which is instrumental in gaining support from other agencies and organizations. By attending community board meetings, especially those of the Parks Committee, the group will be able to understand community needs and learn about potential resources for your community garden. Please visit the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit to find your community board. GreenThumb will meet with the community board with you to make the request for support and answer any related questions.

Get Resources!

You have a lot and your community is behind you. Great! Now it’s time to prepare the site for a garden.

  1. Gain access to water
    Plants need water. The group can develop its own rainwater harvesting system, or with GreenThumb’s help the group can reach out to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection to request a hydrant use permit. Or, the group can reach out to GrowNYC to learn more about capturing rainwater to feed your plants.
  2. Make healthy soil
    Healthy plants grow from healthy soil. All edible plants must be grown in a raised growing beds. The group can work with the NYC Urban Soils Institute at Brooklyn College to test the soil and work with the NYC Compost Project for opportunities to produce and use compost. And, now that your group is working with GreenThumb, we can deliver lumber and topsoil to the site for raised beds and provide additional support and resources.
  3. Find plants to grow
    Brush up on plant knowledge by finding out what’s in bloom, and get the seeds to start growing. GreenThumb provides free plant starts each spring for its network of registered community gardens, so check our events page and mark the calendars. You can also attend GreenThumb workshops and reach out to other organizations such as local botanical gardens to inquire about other opportunities.
  4. Locate funding
    Elbow grease is the universal currency of community gardening, but from time to time garden groups need funding to continue improving the garden and expanding the public programming. GreenThumb hosts numerous workshops on fundraising each year, and we can introduce you to a number of partners and resource providers who have a long history of supporting gardeners and farmers. Please visit our resource page or contact us to learn more.

Help Your Garden Group Grow

  1. Learn more and grow more
    Knowledge is power. Start by regularly attending GreenThumb’s free workshops and signing up for our newsletter. Check our events calendar to find free workshops all across NYC.
  2. Engage your community
    Just as with plants, the garden group needs to develop and deepen its roots in the neighborhood in order to grow. Reach out to neighbors, schools, tenant groups, community-based organizations, other gardens and others to get started. Contact your local elected officials to share the work of the garden group and join the New York City Community Garden Coalition, which promotes the preservation, creation, and empowerment of community gardens.
  3. Complete the GreenThumb Registration and build the garden
    Your group is almost done! Now that the group has created a garden, we’re looking forward to having you join our growing community of gardeners. To receive resources from GreenThumb, the group must register the garden and comply with the registration requirements.
  4. Cut the ribbon
    After all that work, the garden group deserves to celebrate. GreenThumb can help the garden group with planning a ribbon cutting, organizing programming, and inviting community members and elected officials to celebrate the garden’s opening.

Interested in starting a school garden? You can learn more by visiting the Grow to Learn Citywide School Gardens Initiative.

How to Start a Community Garden

Many people enjoy working with the soil and coaxing seeds into healthy, productive plants. Gardening offers physical and mental health benefits as well. But what if you don’t have any land to start a plot of your own? If you live in an apartment or a condo, how can you have a garden?

In recent years, people across the United States and around the world have banded together to create community gardens. These grassroots enterprises give groups of people the chance to garden. Community gardens have lots of benefits: They’ve been shown to reduce crime, foster relationships, provide low-cost food and benefit psychological health . They also set aside much-needed green space and encourage physical activity.

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Along with all their benefits, community gardens take a lot of work. They require more than just gathering up some buddies, grabbing some shovels and heading to a vacant field down the street. Along with an infrastructure, community gardens need an organizational committee, funding, rules, sponsorship and, above all else, committed people.

In this article, you’ll learn what it takes to start a community garden — from how to secure a site and raise money to how to organize the planting process. We’ll also look at how to maintain the garden once it gets going. To get started, it helps to ask two questions: Who is interested, and who is in charge?

In a quest to find more affordable, fresh and local food, many communities – particularly those in the urban, space-starved metropolitan areas – are moving towards the urban farming model of food production and distribution.

Community gardening and localized food production are not new concepts. These types of projects first made an appearance in American culture during World War I and World War II. Referred to as “Victory Gardens”, these spaces were implemented throughout the U.S. as a temporary solution to Depression-Era food shortages. Besides solving food problems, they had the added benefit of bringing neighbors together in difficult times and boosting wartime morale.

Similarly, the benefits of modern day community gardens go well beyond providing a fresh and local food source. Studies have shown that gardening can improve overall fitness, stress levels and general well-being.

During this digital age, community gardening can serve as a soothing balm for the sore of a disengaged, hyper-technological American culture. Many urban communities are already pursuing such projects but if your community is not, fret not. We offer these 6 easy steps to start your own!

First Step: Gain Community Support

There can be no community garden without a community. A successful project requires participation from local leaders and buy-in from trusted gatekeepers of the community. A great way to begin connecting with these influencers is to attend city council meetings and reach out to local government officials.

It’s also important to develop a group of committed, like-minded volunteers. Holding informational sessions at local farmer’s markets can help to boost interest and identify community members who are interested in your project.

A great way to organize participants is to create a Meet-Up that also allows you to schedule planting and gardening shifts.

Second Step: Find “The Place”

Once you have recruited a group of enthusiastic people for your project, you can begin searching for an available space for the garden.

The best place to start your search is your local city or county parks and recreation department. Many times, these offices will have open space that may be available for community projects. In addition, this office is a great resource for possible funding for your tools and seeds.

You can also check with local charities or churches that have charitable reaches within the community.

If these options are not viable, the final solution can be finding privately owned lands. If you discover a seemingly abandoned lot, contact the tax assessor’s office to find the current owner. Then you can contact the owner and request permission to use the space.

Third Step: Pick your Crop

Creating a nice, lush garden is more than just finding available space and volunteers. There are many other factors that can affect the success of your garden:

  1. Know the planting season for your area. Most seeds are planted in spring or early summer, but this varies by region and also among plants. Consult the Farmer’s Almanac for yearly planting date/time projections.
  2. Make sure you check which plants grow well together and which should be spaced apart. For example, beets do not do well when planted next to garlic or onion. In addition, many plants need extra room to grow or may need a trellis installed for proper support.

For a detailed Garden Planner Worksheet, check out NRCS’s guide, that helps you find the most suitable veggies for your project!

Fourth Step: Cultivate and Seed

After mapping out your prospective garden, it’s time to cultivate the soil and plant. This is probably the most grueling part of the process but also the most rewarding.

Pick a day when all of the members are available and schedule a full day to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. Depending on the type of soil and region where you live, this could be as easy as tilling up a few beds with the existing soil, or you may need to bring in mulch or compost to increase the soil quality. You can have the PH level of your soil tested at your Cooperative Extension County Office.

Fifth Step: Develop Harvesting and Work Schedules

The hard work doesn’t end with cultivating and planting. Vegetable plants need a lot of care and attention in order to produce good quality fruit. You should develop a schedule for the group in which each member is assigned tasks and times to water, weed and check on the plants. Always try to use organic means to de-bug and de-pest your gardens.

Sixth Step: Pay It Forward

Once up and going, vegetable and herb gardens can produce a surprisingly large amount of food. In order to avoid waste, you should donate the extra food to local food banks.

Well, now you know the essential parts of creating a community garden. If you just want to join an existing one, you can find a common garden search tool here.

If you enjoy working together on a more healthy, sustainable and equal future, hop on our newsletter to stay updated!

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Corey is the CEO of Better Word International, leading the development of The Good Cards which is an innovative online-gaming platform and app that engages people worldwide in doing good deeds for happiness and global sustainability. As an active life coach and aspiring social justice activist, Corey empowers individuals and communities and helps them to flourish through personal development coaching and community service involvement.

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In December, we posted about ways to find out who owns vacant lots in your neighborhood. One reason we thought ioby readers might be interested in this topic is that so many of you lead the charge to turn vacant lots into active amenities like community gardens. So cool!

The first step in this endeavor is usually to find out who owns the land you’re eyeing, which can take some digging. Below, we outline the next steps many ioby Leaders have told us they’ve taken to turn the empty lot on their block into a flourishing green oasis.

What is a community garden?

Just so we’re all starting on the same page, let’s spell out what a community garden is. According to the University of California Cooperative Extension’s Marin Master Gardeners: “A community garden is any piece of land gardened by a group of people, utilizing either individual or shared plots on private or public land. The land may produce fruit, vegetables, and/or ornamentals. Community gardens may be found in neighborhoods, schools, connected to institutions such as hospitals, and on residential housing grounds.”

There are an estimated 18,000 community gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada, and it’s easy to see why. Community gardens are known to…

    • Provide aesthetic benefits and fresh, healthy produce to neighbors
    • Make neighborhoods safer
    • Support food security and financial savings for individuals, especially the unemployed and those with low incomes
    • Improve soil, water, and air quality and increase biodiversity
    • Help cities save money through storm water retention and purification
    • Help keep food and yard waste out of landfills (when they compost)
    • Support neighborhood economic development by increasing property values
    • Provide educational opportunities for kids, adults, and seniors
    • Act as a beacon of permanence for traditionally transient communities
    • Promote individual health by offering physical activity, stress relief, and a connection to nature
  • Promote public health by giving people a space to congregate and define themselves as a community

What’s not to love about all that?! If you’re convinced, read on to get the real dirt.

Note: While the steps below represent a basic plan for getting a community garden started, they’re very much an overview: every situation is unique, and you’ll get into plenty more details along the way! You might also find it makes more sense for you to proceed in a different order than the one outlined below, and you might omit some steps and add others. Only one way to find out!

How to turn a vacant lot into a community garden

1. Make sure the site is suitable

An urban land parcel with no buildings on it is a great start for a community garden, but there are other characteristics that make a vacant lot good or not-so-good for growing greens. Does the lot you’re eyeing get a good amount of sun—six to eight hours per day? Is it relatively flat? Is it within walking distance of nearby homes? Does it have any debris in it that couldn’t easily be moved by volunteers, like giant hunks of concrete or a rusted-out car? (If there is giant-size debris, you don’t need to write off the lot yet; just note that you’ll have to enlist some additional muscle to move it, and might have to make special arrangements to dispose of it.)

2. Get permission from the owner

San Diegoan Avital Aboody tuned into her neighbors’ wants and needs and rallied them to turn an underutilized parcel of land into a bright and beautiful community space for play, leisure, and gardening: The H.A.C.E.R. (Helping Achieve Community Empowerment and Revitalization) Project Gilliam Family Community Gathering Place. Her advice:

“Once you have a handle on , reach out to the owner, explain your idea, and ask for permission to use their land for this community benefit.” Read about how Avital connected with the owner of the land the H.A.C.E.R. Project garden is now on.

3. Check zoning laws & water availability

In most cases, the former won’t be a problem, since the lot you want to garden on is likely in a residential or mixed-use area, and since local governments are increasingly aware of the benefits community gardening brings. But especially if there’s any doubt, it doesn’t hurt to look up the lot’s address on your town’s zoning map (many are now online) to make sure that the district in question allows community gardens—or at least does not expressly prohibit them. (Some cities, like Raleigh, North Carolina, specifically mention community gardens in their zoning language, but many cities do not.) For a heftier introduction to zoning concerns, see this Modern Farmer article.

Water is the lifeblood of any garden, so definitely check into this! Try to find out if a water source is available on the site you’re interested in. If you can’t find evidence of one and the owner isn’t sure, contact your local water utility to ask if the property has a water meter. If they aren’t sure, you can ask if they’ll conduct a site investigation to find out. If your site has had water service in the past, it should be relatively inexpensive to get a new water meter installed (if you need one). If the site has never had water service, installing a line that connects to the street main could cost much more. Your water utility should be able to give you more info.

In general, while community garden arrangements are often made just between a land owner and a group of gardeners, it’s not a bad idea to touch base with your local government about your plans, too. Some cities have specific agencies that handle community garden affairs: Green Thumb in NYC and the Committee on Community Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin are two examples. At the very least, they will appreciate knowing about your efforts, and they may well be able to help you with advice or connections.

4. Crowdsource & formalize your efforts

A community garden is—you guessed it—all about community. It’s also a lot of work!, so you’ll want buy-in from at least a handful of your neighbors before you start. Ask other nearby residents to find out who might be interested in participating, and contact local organizations like block associations, houses of worship, gardening societies, and homeowners’ and tenants’ associations to see if they have any advice or would like to partner with you.

After you’ve roused some initial interest, form a group to take charge of the project. Invite the people who show the most interest and have the most time to invest to become your “steering committee.” To make sure all your bases get covered and stay that way, make a list of the tasks you think will need doing—funding, publicity, partnerships, garden construction, plant selection, etc—and ask each person to sign up to be responsible for at least one. People can choose whatever best suits their skills and interests, and then everyone will know who to turn to when a question comes up. You should also consider asking each founding member to sign an agreement that states their rights and obligations. Make sure all members have each other’s contact info.

You can treat your steering committee as a relatively informal group to start, but most successful community gardeners find it’s helpful to eventually draw up at least a simple legal document that explains how your garden is organized and governed, and get everyone to sign it. You should also consider forming an association or garden club; eventually, you may wish to incorporate as a nonprofit. Getting organized in this way can help you do things like establish garden rules, open a bank account and handle money, run meetings, and keep track of membership.

5. Brainstorm your garden

With your team, discuss what kind of garden would best serve the needs of your community and also suit your space: Do you want to grow vegetables, flowers, or both? All organic, or some pesticides okay? Will you have a single space that everyone manages together, or separate plots for individuals to tend? Will you be open to the public? If so, how often, and will a member need to supervise? You’ll probably find it helpful to draw a map of your garden on paper and sketch some initial ideas about where plots and paths—as well as amenities like a tool shed, benches, and a community bulletin board—might go. Also, you’ll need to answer this fun question: What will you name your garden?

As a part of the brainstorming process, it’s a good idea to have some soil from the lot tested for possible pollutants like heavy metals. Search for a private lab in your area that provides this service. If you do find the soil is polluted, you don’t necessarily need to abandon the garden idea altogether, but you will want to consider growing only inedible plants or installing raised beds so you can grow your food in fresh, clean soil. Testing can also tell you about soil fertility and pH: info that will be useful to have when you start preparing the site and selecting your plants.

6. Protect your arrangement

Once you have approval from the property owner, your steering committee confirmed, and at least a basic sketch of what your community garden will look like, you’ll want to sign a simple lease with the landowner; starting from a template is fine. Many garden leaders ask one of their partner organizations to sign it as the space’s representative. Include a waiver that protects both garden members and the property owner from liability if anyone is injured while working in or visiting the garden.

The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) counsels that garden groups seek leases of at least three years in length: starting and maintaining a winning community garden does not happen overnight! They also suggest researching whether you should buy public liability insurance.

7. Budget & fundraise

Now that you have a basic handle on how big your garden will be, what you want to grow there, and who will be involved to start, you can start figuring out how much it will cost to get it going, and make a plan to pay for it. Common costs include:

    • Seeds and/or seedlings
    • Tools: everything from spades and gloves to watering cans and hoses
    • Construction materials for beds, benches, bins, and more
  • Fertilizer and compost

According to The Community Garden Start-Up Guide produced by the University of California Cooperative Extension, starting a basic community garden typically costs between $2,500 and $5,000. Your mileage may vary!

The most common ways of funding a community garden include membership dues; cash or in-kind sponsorship from community organizations and/or your city’s department of parks and recreation; applying for grants; and crowdfunding. As you may have guessed, we’re huge fans of crowdfunding! Raising money this way helps neighborhood projects to build local buy-in and stay flexible as they grow, and you don’t need to be a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation to do it. Read more about why we love crowdfunding for community projects. (And when the time comes, we of course recommend crowdfunding on ioby!)

8. Prep & build the site

You can absolutely start to prepare your lot for gardening before your planting plan is totally worked out and before you’ve raised all the money you need. In fact, getting people away from the planning table and into getting their hands dirty is a great way to boost morale when it’s all starting to seem like too much! You can also gain some management practice by corralling your steering committee and potentially other volunteers to take care of tasks like removing any debris from the site, marking where your garden beds and paths will go, and putting up fencing (at least eight feet tall is best, to curb vandalism, and include a gate big enough for a truck to drive in).

Every garden is different, but most successful ones wind up containing some version of the following:

    • 15 or more plots assigned to individual members, located in the sunniest part of the garden.
    • Raised bed plots (if any) that are no more than 4 feet wide, and between 8 and 12 feet long.
    • In-ground ground plots (if any) that measure between 10 by 10 feet up to 20 by 20 feet.
    • Paths between beds that are no narrower than 3 feet—you want wheelchair accessibility!
    • Soil that is amended with aged compost or manure.
    • A simple irrigation system for every four plots. If no one in your group is very knowledgeable about irrigation, try asking a landscape contractor, plant nursery, or garden center pro to help you develop a basic layout and materials list.
    • A tool shed or similar structure for storing your supplies. Recycled metal shipping containers make super storage sheds!
    • A picnic table where gardeners can sit, relax, and have a snack. Locating this in the shade of trees is best, or you can build a simple arbor and plant it with vines.
    • A composting area. (Wood pallets can often be sourced for free from local businesses, and make great DIY compost bins! Search online for simple construction plans.)
  • A sign—of course! You want the whole neighborhood to know your garden’s name. It’s also wonderful to shout your sponsors out with signage, and to include an email address or other contact info for neighbors who have questions about what you’re doing. Make sure this info is in multiple languages if your community is bilingual.

Once your basic infrastructure is in place, you can start planting seeds and/or seedlings, as your garden plan dictates. Kids love this part, so don’t hesitate to recruit a few to help!

9. Celebrate—and keep celebrating!

Do not, we repeat, do not work so hard that you forget to have fun! Make a point of organizing an opening celebration for your garden, like a barbecue or potluck lunch, to thank everyone who’s put their time and effort into it so far, and to mark the milestone you’ve come to.

Then, keep it up! Regular programming does require extra effort, but even hosting just a few events a year will keep morale up, attract new members, and help maintain the “community” end of “community gardening.” Garden grow-and-tell tours, storytimes for kids, live music—there are as many good ideas for events as there are gardens. Keep your steering committee thinking about it and get creative!

Remember: Issues are inevitable

Not to end on a bummer note, but nothing is perfect: most every community garden will experience at least occasional problems with vandalism, security, miscommunication, trash, weeds, and gardener drop-out. The Community Garden Start-Up Guide mentioned above gives some great tips on dealing with each of these problems. Whatever comes up, let your group know that you believe in your collective ability to handle it, do your best to address the situation, then keep on keeping on!

Additional resources

– Learn from a Leader: How to turn a vacant lot into a multi-purpose community space: In addition to the “Awesome Project” blog post mentioned above, check out our Q & A with ioby Leader Avital about how she launched the H.A.C.E.R. Project in San Diego.

– The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) seeks to build community by increasing and enhancing community gardening and greening across the US and Canada. For those just starting out, their articles 10 Steps to Starting a Community Garden and this FAQ with information about making your garden wheelchair accessible are great starts.

– The Community Garden Start-Up Guide produced by the University of California Cooperative Extension: As noted above, this guide provides lots of great info about planning, building, and troubleshooting a community garden; it also offers a sample member contract.

– UrbanAgLaw.org: A project of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, this website is a collection of resources on laws and rules that regulate “who, how, and where” urban agriculture can occur—all in the service of getting more “urban ag” projects off the ground.

– State and Provincial Master Gardener Programs: This list, curated by the Cooperative Extension System, can help you find master gardeners in your area. Their websites and trainings can be great sources of info for community gardeners just starting out.

– What Is a Community Garden – Benefits & How to Start Your Own: Ecofrugal Living blogger Amy Livingston wrote this super-helpful how-to that also includes an interesting history of New York City’s Clinton Community Garden, which has been going strong for almost 40 years.

– How Do I Start Up a Community Garden? Modern Farmer enlisted the help of a zoning and land use attorney for this informative article. Be sure to note the additional resources they list at the bottom.

Money Crashers

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as growing your own fresh flowers and vegetables in a home garden. Especially if you spend most of your day sitting behind a desk, it’s a welcome change of pace to spend some time outdoors, working with your hands and feeling physically connected to the Earth. And although a garden can be a lot of work, it more than pays for itself in tender lettuce and juicy, homegrown tomatoes that taste far superior to anything you can buy at the supermarket.

Unfortunately, many city dwellers don’t have a yard to plant a garden in, or even a sunny balcony for a container garden. And yet at the same time, many cities are dotted with vacant lots – perfectly good land sitting unused and filling up with ugly debris. Turning that land into urban gardening space that residents could share would be a win-win for everyone.

That’s exactly the idea behind community gardens. They’re shared plots of land where people gather together to grow fresh veggies and flowers. In cities all over America, community gardens are turning ugly, unused spaces into green, productive vegetable plots – as well as giving apartment dwellers a chance to enjoy the pleasures of gardening.

Benefits of Community Gardens

Community gardens are part of the sharing economy. They make it possible for many people to enjoy a resource – in this case, land for gardening – that they couldn’t afford on their own. However, it’s not just the gardeners themselves who gain from community gardens – the benefits extend to the rest of the neighborhood and even to society as a whole.

Here are a number of the benefits of community gardens:

  • Beautifying Cities. Many community gardens sit on what were once vacant lots filled with rubbish. When urban gardeners take over, they clear away the debris and replace it with lush greenery. Community gardening turns urban eyesores into vibrant green space, which improves the quality of life for everyone in the neighborhood – not just the people who actually tend the garden. There’s even some evidence that having a community garden increases property values in the surrounding area.
  • Fresh Produce. Many urban neighborhoods are “food deserts” – places where it’s nearly impossible to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Community gardens provide fresh, nutritious produce for many families who couldn’t otherwise afford it, improving their diet and their overall health. They also relieve hunger by donating their excess produce to food pantries.
  • Healthy Lifestyles. Urban gardening gives city dwellers a chance to enjoy fresh air and healthy outdoor exercise. They also provide a peaceful retreat from the noise and bustle of an urban neighborhood, easing stress for residents.
  • A Cleaner Environment. The plants in a community garden add oxygen to the air and help reduce air pollution. They also absorb rainwater, reducing the amount of runoff that runs through the streets and carries pollutants into rivers and lakes. Many community gardens also take part in composting, recycling plant waste such as leaves and tree trimmings into useful fertilizer.
  • Stronger Communities. Sharing a community garden gives people a chance to connect with their neighbors. Gardeners also feel more personally invested in the places where they live, gaining sense of ownership and community spirit. And because they get people out of their apartments where they can keep an eye on the street, community gardens can help reduce crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Educational Opportunities. Working in a community garden is a good way for kids to learn about where food comes from and gain a basic introduction to environmental issues, work skills, and business principles. It can be educational for adults as well. Community gardens give people a chance to meet and learn about neighbors who come from different backgrounds, including people of different ages, races, cultures, and social classes.

Inside a Community Garden

In the heart of the New York City neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen nestles a patch of green called the Clinton Community Garden. This 15,000-square-foot lot contains 110 individual garden plots, as well as a public area with a lawn and beds of flowers and herbs.

It’s also home to a colony of bees, tended by the residents, and a haven for at least 60 species of birds. Through the garden wind paths of salvaged brick, flanked by benches made from concrete blocks and slabs of reclaimed slate.

History of Clinton Community Garden

In 1978, the spot where the Clinton Community Garden now sits was a vacant lot, owned by the city and abandoned for 28 years. It was strewn with trash, debris from two demolished buildings, and rusted-out cars, and nothing flourished there except crime. However, a few residents spotted some wild tomato plants growing out of the rubble and had the idea that this trash heap could become a garden. A year later, they leased the lot from the city and began planting flowers, herbs, vegetables, and fruits.

In 1981, the garden was thriving, but so was the city’s real estate market, and developers saw the 15,000-square-foot lot as a prime building site. The city was preparing to sell it, so the residents went into action, starting a “Square-Inch Campaign” to raise funds and buy the property. Mayor Ed Koch joined the fight, making the first $5 pledge to save one square inch of the garden space. Eventually, the residents won out, and in 1984 the Clinton Community Garden became the first community garden in the city to receive permanent parkland status.

How Clinton Community Garden Operates

The Clinton Community Garden is a 501(c)(3) – a type of nonprofit organization that’s exempt from taxes. It’s run by a steering committee elected by all the gardeners at their annual membership meeting. The organization has a detailed set of bylaws explaining who can be a member, how the officers are elected, and what their powers and responsibilities are.

Gardening and maintenance tasks are done entirely by volunteers. Individual gardeners are required to work their own plots – planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting – at least once a week during the growing season, and they must also spend at least 10 hours a year to helping maintain the rest of the garden. They are required to keep the paths next to their garden beds weed-free and take proper care of the garden tools and hoses. At the end of the year, they must explain how they fulfilled their volunteer requirements before they can renew the plot for another year.

Strict as these rules are, it’s very rare for anyone who holds one of the garden plots to give it up. The waiting list for garden beds has nearly 100 people on it, with applications stretching back over six years. Only residents of the immediate neighborhood – between 34th and 57th Streets, from the west side of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River – are eligible to claim a plot.

Visiting the Garden

Clinton Community Garden is open to the public 20 hours each week, on weekends and sometimes early on Wednesday mornings. Like the gardeners themselves, visitors to the garden have to follow a strict set of rules. Pets, bicycles, smoking, littering, amplified music, horseplay of any kind, and picking flowers or plants – except for herbs from the community herb bed – are not allowed. Groups of 10 or more people can’t visit the garden without permission from the steering committee.

To make sure that visitors follow the rules, the committee tries to have one of the gardeners present as a “host” whenever the garden is open. They can do a bit of work in their plots during this time, but they have to keep most of their attention on the front garden area and the people in it.

When it’s not open to the public, the garden gate is kept locked. However, for a $10 fee, members can get a key and let themselves in at any time between dawn and dusk. They can also bring guests into their individual garden areas, as long as they follow all garden rules.

Finding or Starting a Community Garden

The best way to find a community garden in your area is through the website of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), an organization that promotes community gardening throughout the United States and Canada. The ACGA site has a list of community gardens that you can search by address, city, or ZIP code to find gardens within a radius of 5, 10, 25, 50, or 100 miles.

If there is no community garden in your area, the ACGA offers information on how to start your own. Here’s a basic outline of the steps you need to follow to put together a community garden in your neighborhood.

1. Talk to Your Neighbors

Talk to people in your neighborhood to find out whether they are interested in a community garden. Include both people and local organizations – such as community groups, gardening societies, and homeowners’ and tenants’ associations – in the conversation.

Discuss what kind of garden would best serve the needs of your community. For instance, talk about what would be most useful to grow in the garden: vegetables, flowers, or both. Discuss whether people would prefer a single space that everyone manages together, or separate plots for individual people to tend. Also, find out whether people would prefer to make the garden organic.

If there seems to be enough support for the idea of a community garden, form a group to take charge of the project. Invite the people who are most interested, and who have the time to invest, to be part of this committee. Once you form your group, get together to talk about your ideas for the project and develop a plan. If necessary, assign specific people to particular jobs, such as funding, publicity, and preparing the garden site.

2. Identify Resources

Figure out what resources your town has that could help you with your community garden project. Possible resources include:

  • Local municipal planners, who can help you find possible sites for your garden
  • Gardening clubs and societies, as well as individuals with experience in gardening and landscaping
  • Your state’s Master Gardener program, if there is one, which can help you deal with gardening challenges

You can also find useful resources online. The Community Garden Resource Guide on the website of Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity, includes links to a variety of sources on community gardens, gardening in general, urban agriculture, and how to find funding.

3. Find a Site

This is the most crucial step in planning a community garden. Look around your neighborhood for a lot that has the following traits:

  • Is not being used for anything else.
  • Gets plenty of sunshine – at least six hours a day, if you are planning to grow vegetables.
  • Is relatively flat.
  • Has a source of water available. If you are not sure, contact your local water utility to ask whether the property has a water meter.
  • Does not contain any large, heavy pieces of debris that would be difficult to remove.
  • Is close to you and the other neighbors who want to take part in the community garden – ideally within walking distance.

Try to find at least three different sites that could work for your garden so you have backups in case your first choice doesn’t work out. Write down the address of each site; if you can’t find its address, write down the addresses of the properties on either side.

Contact the owner of the site you like best to ask whether you can use the land. If you don’t know who owns the lot, you can find out by going to the county tax assessor’s office. Write the owner a letter describing how your community garden project will work and its benefits to the community, and ask whether you can lease the land for a nominal fee, such as $1 per year.

If the owner agrees, the next step is to negotiate a lease. Try to lease the land for at least three years. Include a waiver that protects the owner from liability if anyone is injured while working in the garden. Look into the possibility of buying liability insurance to protect yourself in the same case.

Before you sign your lease, have the soil at the site tested for possible pollutants, such as heavy metals. If any are present, this site probably isn’t a good choice for your garden. A soil test can also tell you about the soil’s fertility and pH, which is useful information to have when you’re preparing the site.

4. Plan Your Garden

Decide what you want your community garden to include. Measure the site and draw out a simple scale map that you can use to plan out the location of different components, such as garden beds and paths. Then meet with your garden group to discuss how you want to lay out your garden.

Community gardens commonly include:

  • Individual garden plots
  • Paths between beds
  • Compost bins
  • A shed or other structure for storing tools
  • Spots to hook up hoses for watering
  • A common area for gathering, which could include benches or picnic tables and a source of shade
  • A fence around the outside to protect your garden from vandalism and theft

Some other nice elements to include are flower beds, fruit trees, and a community bulletin board. Another possible feature is a special garden area just for kids, who are usually more interested in the process of digging and planting than in the size of the harvest.

5. Develop a Budget

Once you know what you want your garden to include, you can figure out what it’s all going to cost. Even if all the labor is provided by volunteers, you still need to pay to lease the land and to buy seeds, tools, fertilizer, compost, and other garden needs. The Community Garden Start-Up Guide developed by the University of California Co-Operative Extension, Los Angeles County, says that starting a basic community garden typically costs between $2,500 and $5,000.

There are several ways to fund your community garden:

  • Charge Membership Dues. Under this system, each member pays an annual fee to support the garden. You can raise enough this way to pay your ongoing costs from year to year, but it isn’t an ideal way to raise your start-up costs. Raising several thousand dollars at once would make the dues so high that many members would no longer be interested.
  • Find Sponsors. Possible sponsors for a community garden include churches, local businesses, and your town’s department of parks and recreation. If you can’t find one sponsor to cover the whole cost of starting the garden, you can try asking for smaller contributions from many sponsors. Local businesses can also help with donations of seeds, plants, tools, or other materials.
  • Seek Grants. Various grants are available for funding community projects. However, applying for them is a long and complex process that can take six months or more. Also, you need to have a sponsor or agent that is that is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, such as a church or a charity, to administer your funding.
  • Hold Fundraisers. You can raise money from the community through a variety of fundraising activities. Possibilities include car washes, rummage sales, and bake sales.

If you can’t raise enough money to fund all your dreams for the garden at once, you can try scaling back your plans. Start out with just a basic garden design, and save some of your other ideas to be added in future years.

While you’re working on budgeting, talk to an accountant or a lawyer to find out whether there are any tax issues that could affect your community garden. According to UrbanAgLaw.org, a website devoted to legal issues surrounding urban gardening, most community gardens operate as either 501(c)(3) organizations or 501(c)(7) organizations, which are informal clubs formed strictly for social purposes. These groups do not have to pay taxes as long as they earn no money from their activities.

6. Prepare the Site

Even before you’ve worked out all the details for your design or raised all the money you need to build the garden, you can get started preparing the site for planting. Organize teams of volunteers to do the following:

  • Clear the site of debris
  • Set up the irrigation system, digging trenches and laying pipes if necessary
  • Mark the locations of beds and paths
  • Put up a fence
  • Dig the beds and add compost
  • Plant shade and fruit trees, if they are a part of your garden
  • Cover paths with mulch or gravel

7. Establish Rules

Before you can actually start gardening, you need to set some rules. This ensures that all gardeners know exactly what’s expected of them. Get the rest of the gardeners involved in this process, since people are more likely to follow rules they have helped to create.

Your rules should cover such topics as:

  • Funding. Decide whether gardeners should pay any annual dues, and if so, who collects them. Also, figure out who gets to decide how to use the money raised for the garden. Set up a bank account specifically for the community garden funds.
  • Membership. Decide what people have to do to join the garden and how plots are assigned. Figure out whether you want all the gardeners to meet on a regular basis, and if so, how often. Also, decide what hours the garden should be open and, if your gate has a lock, who should have keys.
  • Maintenance. Determine whether gardeners should share tools or bring their own. Also, decide who is responsible for caring for the shared areas of the garden, such as weeding paths and mowing lawns. Contact the city council for help setting up city services, such as trash pickup.

8. Start Gardening

Now that you have your funds in hand, your site prepared, and your rules laid out, your community garden is ready to open for business. Let all the gardeners in to start planting their individual beds, and work together to plant common areas such as flower beds.

Once your garden is up and running, spread the word to let the rest of the community know about it. Invite visitors to tour the garden, and share updates through town bulletin boards or social media networks. You can even throw a party to celebrate the “grand opening” of your garden and recognize all the people who helped make it happen.

Don’t forget to keep lines of communication open among members, as well. Ways to do this include a telephone tree, an e-mail list, or a rainproof bulletin board in the garden itself. Make sure all gardeners know about small problems early on, before they turn into big problems. Continue to meet regularly to review your garden plan and make any changes as needed, based on what you have learned or on feedback from the neighbors.

Final Word

A community garden is a big project, and definitely not one you should undertake lightly. It can take months of hard work and planning before your garden project finally bears fruit – or vegetables, as the case may be. But for many people, the benefits of community gardening – fresh air and exercise, green space in cities, the chance to build community, and the taste of a ripe tomato you grew – make the effort well worth it.

Would you like to belong to a community garden? Have you ever tried it?

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