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Starting a Community Garden

Community gardens grow in many forms, limited only by the imaginative resources of the community in which they are rooted. From street-side container gardens to intensive food production on vacant land, community gardens provide a gathering point for cooperative activity, food security, and civic improvement.

The Basics of Organizing a Community Garden

Determine the Garden's Mission

  • Define the garden's Objectives with clear intent. Begin with broad goals, then focus on regular duties and functional details.
    • What is the main purpose of the garden? These may include food production, community building or service-learning, plant science or environmental education, therapy or recreation, or any other key goal.
  • Who will the garden serve? The answer to this question will significantly determine the mission, organization, and outreach of garden activities.
  • Where is the proposed garden site? This site should be visible, safe, accessible to garden participants, and have the support of neighbors.
  • The Garden's Mission, distilled, should be a clear formula of People, Place, and Plants.

Build a Core Group.

  • A team of dedicated people is necessary to get things done. This team may be drawn from an existing organization or it may be effective to create a new one for management of the garden program. Solicit support from Administrators, Staff, Neighbors, Master Gardeners, etc. Anyone who enjoys gardening knows the myriad benefits, blessings, and hard work involved in a garden project and generally is passionate about sharing their knowledge and time on like ventures.
  • Leadership and organization are key to garden success.
    • Apppoint a garden coordinator. This person should be enthusiastic, innovative, well-organized, and have horticultural knowledge and good writing and public speaking skills. Responsibilities revolve around establishing functional systems for the garden (water and tool usage, compost, trash removal), programming, and volunteer work, and often include mapping the site, staking and assigning plots, general maintenance, and communication and public relations.
    • Ascertain the level of commitment of core members. The core group will be responsible for the establishment of garden rules, a garden budget, participant enrollment, obtaining liabilty insurance, and resolving conflicts and challenges.
    • Determine capacity for continuous maintenance. If there are numerous activities planned or extensive outreach required, consider creating committees to manage the workload. Smaller groups are able to define the details of site development, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, public relations, educational programming, etc.
  • Give thoughtful consideration to potential partners and supporters when building the core group.
  • Communication among members at regular meetings is essential. Choose dates that are consistent and easy to remember to insure popular attendance.

Develop the Garden Site.

  • The most important considerations of a good garden site include light, soil, drainage, and source of water, but do not overlook the effects of the surrounding environment (wildlife, physical features, and neighbors). Be mindful of possible runoff or nearby features, such as tall structures or black walnut trees, that will affect the growth of plants. Plants have different requirements, but in general, seek a site with:
    • Direct sunlight for at least 6-8 hours per day.
    • Good soil conditions. Healthy, loamy soil will be rich in color and have good drainage. Pooling water in the garden will suffocate plant roots and may breed pests and disease. Annual inputs from compost will keep soil nutrient rich.
    • A nearby spigot, hose, or rainwater catchment system to provide water access.
    • Fairly even gradient to avoid erosion.
  • The garden must be of adequate size for project goals. It should be accessible to all garden participants, safe, and, if possible, visible to the community at large.
  • Learn the history of the site and take into account the amount of work required to amend the current conditions. A soil test should be performed to determine soil tilth, pH, possible residues, and nutrients.
  • Other issues to consider include parking, restroom facilities, and trash collection.
  • Plan the garden site around the garden mission statement. Determine what structures (raised beds, closed compost system, tool shed, bench, barbeque), plant types (tolerance to site conditions, usage in nutrition programs, cultural value, shelf life), and surface treatments (mulches, landscape cover) will be necessary to meet garden objectives and within the capacity of the garden program.
  • Consider the educational component of the garden. A Demonstration area can showcase favored growing techniques, intriguing garden-scapes, new vegetable varieties, edible or perennial habitats, or simply display the rewards of collective effort.
  • Land tenure is important to a garden's sustainability. If the garden organization does not own and cannot purchase the site, consider a lease with the land owner.

Sustaining the Garden

  • Grants are a common, effective means of getting a garden project off the ground, so to speak, but a sustainable garden project will eventually draw support from its roots. Resources within the community are the nutrients that will sustain a community-based garden project. To turn up and tap into them, the garden must cultivate community partnerships. Reach out to neighborhood groups, organizations, private businesses, schools, and spiritual or religious foundations of the community to determine their interest in participation.
  • Solicit donations from these local groups and businesses. Encourage active participation from the community, and include all who may benefit from the garden or who may actively oppose it.
  • Community sponsors and donations are important for obtaining materials and funds, but they can also truly enhance the garden project. Encourage volunteers and mentors to share their skills, participate in workdays, or make other non-monetary contributions. Volunteers will have a variety of skill levels, so offer guidance and support, provide incentives when possible, and, most importantly, Recognize volunteer efforts!
  • Capitalize on hard work and creativity. Fresh picked and value-added products can be sold at markets or local stores. Garden-inspired art can be auctioned at fundraising events. Bake sales, perennial swaps, and seed exchanges are universal ideas for gathering resources from within the community while encouraging social interaction and garden stewardship.
  • Collect membership fees for gardens with rental plots or dues for garden club membership.
  • Control costs. Balance revenue sources with the budget, and consider all resources, including meeting space. More necessary than money, People make gardens grow, so keep an open mind about the possible contributions of community members, and trade, borrow, and share whenever possible.
  • Communication is of utmost importance in getting things done and keeping them running. An information board, monthly newsletter, mailing list, or local media avenue will connect garden members to rules and regulations, workdays, workshops, celebrations, etc.

Community Relations

  • Community support is essential to a garden's longevity, but it is especially important if the land is borrowed. Never underestimate the importance of keeping the community informed about the garden mission and activities. Communicate about the benefits of community gardening and improvement of the neighborhood, work with neighbors and residents, and keep the garden tidy.
  • Documentation of a clear mission statement is important in helping others see the value of the garden project. A brochure provides both a comprehensive project description and an invitation for support. A scrapbook of photos, news articles, letters of support, and future project goals can be exhibited at various public gatherings.
  • Publicly share the calendar of activities, including fundraising efforts, work projects, committee meetings, and special events.
  • Recognize support from local officials, organizations, volunteers, and businesses. Make sure to share appreciation with sponsors, both personally and publicly.
  • Use the local media. From breaking ground to harvest celebrations and local food bank donations, each garden story is unique and strengthens the grassroots efforts of community gardens everywhere. Be sure to highlight supporters in press releases and interviews.

In every community, in every garden, Diversity is of utmost value. Gardens bring youth and elders together, transmit heritage, dismantle cultural barriers, enhance myriad skills, and provide exercise, recreation, and rewarding work for idle hands. Gardens help build sustainable communities by integrating community members into their food system as well as their habitat, but Community Gardening is not just food, it's fun.

Checklist for Garden Coordinators; the Garden's First Growing Season

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