What Is a Community Garden?
How would you like to grow vegetables, get to know your neighbors, teach children where their food comes from and help the environment all at once? You can with a community garden.
What is a community garden? It's a piece of land where many individuals, families or groups cooperate to grow a garden. Community gardens may be found in towns, churches, or in public parks or common spaces in towns and cities across America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Although they seem like a relatively new invention, for centuries people cooperated to grow plants together to share the harvest. Community orchards, fields and village greens provided food and animal fodder for communities and towns.
Today, community gardens are a way for families, especially those who live in urban or suburban areas, to garden when they themselves do not own land. Many schools have added vegetable gardens to help children learn where their food comes from, and townships have set aside land to create community gardens.
Whether you're thinking about joining a community garden or creating one in your town, the basics behind community gardening remain the same.
How Community Gardens Work
Community gardens work in various ways depending on how the land owners or managers choose to establish the garden's rules.
One method holds the land in common. Each participants shares the roles and responsibilities for gardening the shared plot. In return, they share the harvest.
Another method divides plots or raised beds up by group, family or individual. Participants have their own set space in the garden. Some have their own raised bed, while other community gardens are divided up into rectangles or garden squares. Each person or family assigned to a plot or bed chooses what to plant, and takes care of his own plot. Tasks are not shared, but rather the garden plot is treated as one's individual garden space.
Community gardens may be free for use or may charge a fee for participation. Usually the fee covers the land use, and gardeners must supply their own tools and seeds. Others have a shed where shared tools are kept. Members take responsibility for cleaning tools after use and securing the shed.
How your community garden will operate depends upon the location and member preferences. A local community garden at the town park, divided into raised beds, may lend itself easily to the rent-a-garden bed model, in which families each pay a fee for the year to grow what they please in their rented raised garden bed. An urban lot, abandoned for years and filled with junk, may become a community challenge as neighbors meet on Saturday afternoons to clear the lot, build garden beds, and grow flowers, fruit or vegetables.
Tips for Making Community Gardens Work
The American Community Gardens association suggests a written set of guidelines and rules for a community garden. When shared gardens have established rules, norms and expectations, it's easier for all to get along.
Community gardens flourish when they agree upon the overall structure and management of the garden community. Who will be the leader? Most community gardens pride themselves on a democratic, inclusive model. If you have a leader, will it be one person or a small elected council who will guide members, listen and response to problems and grievances, and maintain order among the participants? And if you do have leaders, how long will they serve?
These and other questions are left to each individual group to answer. But they should be answered before the first families plant garden seeds. Otherwise, confusion may result.
How to Start a Community Garden
That empty lot is staring at you every day when you stop for the red light. Could it become a community garden? How do you start a community garden?
- Check who owns the land and talk to them first. Are they willing to allow a garden on the spot?
- Ask around in your community to see if people are interested in a garden. It won't be fun if you spend the time and effort to build a community garden and it turns to weeds due to lack of interest.
- Organize an initial meetings and publicize it in the town newspaper. Send flyers to local churches, schools, and civic organizations. Make it an open meeting so all can be heard.
- Ask for ideas about the garden at the meeting. Ask participants how they want it organized, what they think it should do. Be prepared to present for a few minutes to start the meeting off with a shared understanding of the definition of the community garden, and then open the floor for ideas.
- Form a task force. Ask for volunteers to start the community garden project.
- Look for a sponsor. Would a local garden center or civic group sponsor the community garden? You will need money to build beds, improve the soil, and even pay for insurance if that is required. Brainstorm ways to raise money. Perhaps your group can charge a membership fee, or sell plots?
- Secure written permission to use the site from the site owners. Have an attorney or another qualified professional review any leases or agreements. Also ask your attorney or professional for advice on insurance, licenses or any other requirements for your township.
- Prepare the site. Get the group together to create the beds, till the soil, and fence the area in. You may need to make numbered signs for the plots to assign them, and even build a website to share information online with potential members.
- Don't forget water! A source of water - and bathrooms - if important. Water is essential for gardening, and when families come to the garden, you know someone is going to need a bathroom. Are there facilities nearby? What can you do to make sure water and toilet facilities are available?
- Do you need a fence? Whether to keep deer out of the vegetable garden or to keep strangers from casually picking a tomato here and there, talk to the group to determine whether or not you need fencing. You may need another scheduled group work day to establish the fence. Don't forget a sign, with the group's contact information on it, to alert the public that they can look (but not touch, harvest or eat!) the produce. It's also a great way to advertise the group to potential new members.
Building a community garden takes vision. It also takes hard work, capital, and follow up. But many communities across the world are finding that they are building more than garden beds when they gather together to create a community garden. They build healthy bodies by growing organic vegetables. They build healthy minds by solving the challenges of how to build a garden, how to grow great vegetables and more. And they build a healthy sense of community spirit by working together to reclaim a bit of ground for all.
For more information about Community Gardens, visit the American Community Garden website, or check with your local Cooperative Extension Office to see if there is already a community garden in your area.
© 2013 Jeanne Grunert