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gardners trading vegetables at community garden

How to Organize a Community Garden in 5 Steps

Not everyone has a yard large enough to grow veggies or award-winning flowers. Food deserts, where access to healthy, unprocessed foods is limited, are on the rise in inner cities and rural regions. In some dense urban areas, any kind of green space is hard to come by, let alone sources for home-grown produce. Even in suburban areas, there's a need.

Community gardens offer opportunities for self-reliance, socialization, cultural sharing, and outreach. It helps us reconnect with nature. So, how do you get a community garden started in your neighborhood?

Step 1: Recruit a planning committee

At some point, you'll want to write bylaws and elect officers. Community gardens fail if there isn't a core group of committed activists steering the project throughout the year. Before that point, though, you need to rally community support and gauge genuine interest among residents and local businesses. The more your neighbors are involved, the higher their sense of ownership and pride.

Find a champion among community leaders, such as a member of your local planning commission or city council. You'll also want to schmooze with an attorney to help with contracts and other legal issues.

Remember, gardening season is vacation season, and that means having people flake out on your meetings. Think about putting together a larger committee than you think you'd need. While you're at it, find out if there's a community garden advocacy group in your town that can advise you along the way.

Step 2: Develop a plan and a purpose

When you have, at the very least, a mission statement and a steering committee, property owners and local officials are more likely to take you seriously. Better yet, be able to show how you'll organize and govern your community garden.

Individual planter boxes or plots vs. communal gardening?

The traditional community garden model rents raised beds to individuals or families. This is an excellent option for gardeners who want to do their own thing while benefiting from a little social interaction. The downsides? Sometimes, gardeners lose interest, and their beds turn to weed (not that kind) farms. The funds raised through the use fee don't really justify the wasted space and shabby appearance.

That's what happened at Columbia Heights Green (CHG) in Washington, D.C. before agroecology professor Dr. Kate Tully stepped into a managing role. Under her leadership, CHG transitioned from private raised beds to community plots. Garden members, with the help of Tully's grad students, created a community farm model in which participants received shares, and donated the surplus produce to local soup kitchens. This new model increased productivity, interaction, and participation while opening up education and outreach opportunities.

There's nothing wrong with having areas set aside for private gardening, or group projects. Community input will help you decide what will work best for your project.

How will you determine entitlement to shares?

If you do opt for the cooperative route, consider scheduling regular group work sessions throughout the growing season for garden chores: Developing, planting, weeding, maintenance, harvesting...offer alternate dates to accommodate members who might have to work weekends, but have free time during the week.

wide shot gardeners working on community garden

Decide how many official events each member needs to attend to earn their share of the harvest. Consider allowing people to buddy up, splitting a share as well as their obligations.

Be clear about your organization's expectations, but be creative in making sure members have an opportunity to participate. And speaking of members, think about applying that label to everyone in the community. (See #4 for more thoughts on membership.)

What will you do with the surplus?

Whether you stick with individual garden beds or choose the everybody-pulls-together route, consider giving back to the community with shares or donations as CHG did. Decide on criteria for donations to individuals or families in need. If you decide to support food banks or kitchens, be sure they're legally allowed to accept your produce. If so, you might be required to process and pack it in a specific way.

No, really—some laws prevent these organizations from sourcing food from the public for biosecurity reasons.

How will you handle conflict resolution?

Set up clear guidelines for behavior at the garden. You'll want to be painfully specific because nobody wants to have to play Judge Judy and interpret the gray areas if a member acts up. "Unruly" is about as vague as "obscene," and either can apply to those crazy zinnia freaks.

"Community gardens throw a cross-section of people cheek to cheek, shovel to shovel, on a continual, regular basis. There's bound to be some issues." — Jesse Hirsch, “Thievery, Fraud, Fistfights and Weed: The Other Side of Community Gardens” (The Modern Farmer)

Step 3: Identify potential locations

This is, by far, the most challenging step in the planning process! High property values, even for abandoned lots, are an obstacle for many garden planners.

Chances are, you've got an eyesore of a vacant lot in mind. Hopefully, it gets at least six hours of sun each day, is close to public transportation, has access to water, and hasn't been a dumping ground for nuclear waste, motor oil, or dead bodies. Hunt down the owners using city or county tax records, and ask if they'd be willing to lease the property to your organization if not sell it outright. In some cases, derelict properties are in default to city tax collectors or financial institutions and are available for purchase well below market value.

Don't skip the legal stuff

The lease should specify which improvements you have permission to make or structures you're able to build—fences, raised beds, hoop houses, and potting sheds—and who is responsible for their upkeep or eventual removal. What might seem obvious could become a nightmare down the road.

Be sure to check with your local zoning laws, too. Established community garden associations might be able to intercede or at least advise you on this process, and your local government might offer property tax breaks for owners willing to lease or loan their parcels.

Think outside the box

Is a rooftop garden a possibility? How about public library property, or a corner of a public park? You might have to make do with a smaller space than you'd imagined, but there's nothing wrong with creating multiple "garden islands" within your neighborhood.

School gardens are great, but unfortunately, the kids are on summer break during the growing season. But if there was a cooperative effort, spring semester science classes could grow seedlings in a greenhouse or hoop house and participate in a planting event if the campus hosted a garden available to the community.

Step 4. Set a budget and fundraise like crazy

Forget about property purchase prices or lease fees. What's the value of the labor, tools, and materials you'll need to clear debris from the site, build fences and infrastructure, break ground, and amend the soil? How much will insurance, water, and power cost? Pester local businesses for sponsorships, set up GoFundMe campaigns, and hold fundraising events. There are grants set up for community gardens, especially if they have education and outreach programs.

Carefully consider whether you want to charge dues for your members in addition to the time they spend pitching in with garden chores. Even the most modest fees could be a hardship to those who are most in need of inexpensive, nutritious food. Also, donations should be met with gratitude, but shouldn't entitle a member (or non-member donor) to special privileges or benefits.

Step 5. Keep things rolling year 'round

Don't lose momentum after you've put your gardens to bed for the winter. Keep up your committee meeting schedules, and plan an event or two in the off-season. Throw a seed planting party if you have the space to set up nursery trays, or host guest speakers or classes at a free meeting facility:

  • Canning and food preserving
  • Cooking classes using basic ingredients
  • Economy-savvy healthy menu planning and shopping
  • Urban beekeeping
  • Urban chickens

In the spirit of servicing the greater community (and keeping up appearances for funding agencies), keep these events open to the public. Be sure to have handouts promoting your community garden, though, and setting up a donation box never hurts.

Useful resources for planning a community garden

Whatever you want to do with your project, chances are someone's blazed the trail. If you don't have access to established garden organizers in your town, you'll find support and guidance through these organizations and publications:

Don't forget us here at Seed Needs! We're always willing to help out with gardening advice, and we might be able to assist your community garden project with discounts or overstock donations. We only keep on hand what we can sell in a given season, so fall is the best time to hit us up. If you are breaking ground on a new community garden, and you're on social media, tag us! We want to see your photos and keep track of your progress!
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