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How to Start a Community Garden (In 5 Steps)

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How to Start a Community Garden (In 5 Steps)

March 2, 2022

You want to to have a vegetable garden, but you live in an apartment building or have a very shady yard. What can you do? Start a community garden!

A community garden is a garden built in a community—and the community built around a garden. It allows a group of people to grow food for the benefit of their community. That community could be the gardeners themselves, others in the community, such as seniors, or a local food pantry. The work of creating, maintaining, planting, and harvesting is done by the members of the community garden.

Here are the five steps you need to start a community garden.

Featured photograph by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista, from Garden Visit: Summit Street in Red Hook.

1. Find your people.

Above: Self-named “Gangsta Gardener” Ron Finley transformed a strip of land alongside a sidewalk next to his South Los Angeles home into a lush community garden. His nonprofit, The Ron Finley Project, helps others living in food deserts do the same. Photograph by  Stacey Lindsay, from City Sidewalks: A Garden Visit with Ron Finley in South Los Angeles.

Gather a group of like-minded people interested in starting the garden and—this is important—able to do the work. Identify who has what skills. You will need the obvious gardening skill set, but also consider those skilled in carpentry, financial matters, and leadership. Most of the work needed will be done by the members themselves. Ideally you will need a mix of both experienced gardeners and enthusiastic novices willing to learn.

2. Secure the location.

Above: Unlike many community green spaces, this rooftop garden in Manhattan is not owned by the city. “It was born out of a rare public-private partnership between local activists and developer William Zeckendorf, Jr., who agreed to build the rooftop space as part of his plans to develop the Columbia, one of the first 35-story condominiums above 96th Street,” writes Monica Willis, who tends a plot there. Photograph by Monica Michael Willis for Gardenista, from My Garden Story: A Secret Rooftop Oasis on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

You may be able to approach your town or city about a vacant lot or work with a non-profit or house of worship to use their land. Ideally, the site should be level, have at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight per day, and easy access to water. Other considerations are soil contamination, ability to get supplies in, and critters. Make sure you look into liability insurance. If someone gets hurt, you don’t want to be sued.

3. Determine the scope and budget.

Above: The International Rescue Committee runs a New Roots program that offers refugees, asylees, and other special immigrants to grow food for their own families in community-shared gardens. This one is on the campus of Laney College in Oakland, CA. Photograph by J. P. Dobrin, from Garden Visit: New Roots Edible Garden.

Come up with a building plan and a budget. The planning should include how many and how large the beds should be (normally, they are four feet wide for easy access from either side, but the length and height can vary) and where the water source will be (is one spigot with a very long hose adequate, or will you require several spigots and hoses, so more than one person can water at a time?).

For the budget, you will need to figure out material costs to build the beds and fill them with soil. If you live in a suburban or urban area, you should test the soil for contaminants. Building raised beds and filling them with new soil takes the guesswork and remediation out of the equation. If you live in deer country, you’ll need to consider the additional cost of fencing. The budget should be translated into a per-member fee, with the first year costing more than subsequent years due to start-up costs. For all years after, you need to account for yearly expenses such as new soil, water bills, and routine maintenance. You will also need to build up a rainy day fund to do major repairs. Eventually you may need to replace beds, the fence, or the water line.

4. Decide on the rules.

Above: Writer and photographer Christine Chitnis’s community garden allows for chickens. Photograph by Christine Chitnis, from Garden Visit: A Family Friendly Vegetable Garden (Chickens Optional).

You will need to figure out who can be a member. It can be limited to being a resident, a member of a local organization, or any other criteria so long as it’s clear and applied to everyone equally. There should be a board of directors to run the garden, to be the liaison with the landowner, and to create the rules.

Some rules will come from the landowner, such as hours of operation. Others are determined collectively by the members, such as: is it only for vegetables, or can flowers be grown? What plants are not allowed (think invasives or ones that will block the sun for others)? Is it an organic garden? What happens if someone doesn’t maintain their plot? Will some of the plots be for food pantry donation or are they only for the members? Do members get to keep their plot year after year, or do they need to reapply each year? Who takes care of the spaces between the beds? What is your garden season? How early and late can you go, and do you allow winter gardening with hoop houses or cold frames? These are just a few things to consider, and you should look into local ordinances before starting.

5. Promote togetherness.

Above: At a community garden in Berlin, summer means group dinners, where menus are decided by what’s in season. See A Moveable Feast: Berlin’s Portable Garden.

Finally, don’t forget to foster a sense of community. In the winter, have a seed-catalog party, where everyone brings and shares their catalogs and what they are planning on growing. Have tomato tastings and a junior garden club to get the kids involved. Throw monthly potluck gatherings at the garden where everyone brings a blanket and something made with something they grew. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. This applies both to the garden and the community it creates.

For more on growing your own food, see:

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