How to Start a Community Garden


Neighbors working in their community garden can see the city in the background.
Neighbors working in their community garden can see the city in the background.
Tony Anderson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

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 [source: Surls]. They also set aside much-needed green space and encourage physical activity.

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?

Community Garden Organization and Sponsorship

A car wash could be a good way to raise money for your garden fund.
A car wash could be a good way to raise money for your garden fund.
Yellow Dog Productions/Getty Images

The first step in creating a community garden is to round up support. Even with careful planning and the best intentions, your garden will fail without a reliable group of committed people. Canvass your neighborhood to find out who's interested. Then, schedule a series of meetings that everyone can attend.

At these meetings, elect officers who will be in charge of tasks like communication, organization and financial management. Discuss your goals and plans, and answer any questions, like:

  • What will you grow?
  • Will you grow food or focus on ornamental gardening?
  • Do you want an organic garden?
  • What will members' responsibilities be?
  • Will the garden be one big group effort, or will participants get their own plots?

Once you've answered these and any other questions, the next step is to draw up a contract that lists the group's rules or bylaws. Outline what's expected of members, and delineate any consequences for not meeting those expectations. Specify dues or membership fees, and note anything else you feel is important for your group's purpose. You may also want to address limit of liability, which puts a cap on the compensation a person could collect in the event of injuries or damages related to the project. You may also want to purchase liability insurance to protect yourself and your organization. You can find an example of bylaws in the links at the end of this article.

Once you've organized your members, you can get down to business. Your garden will almost certainly require a regular source of funding for tools, gardening supplies, water bills, trash pick-up and other expenses. Funding could come from a number of sources. Members can pay regular dues or hold fundraisers like yard sales or car washes. Or, you could seek sponsors.

Sponsors are often local businesses -- you can approach them and ask for their support. Be sure to describe the benefits your garden will bring to the community or to the business itself. Reliable sponsors can help not only by donating money or materials, but also by lending your garden moral support and making members feel accountable to something more than themselves.

With a little digging, you might also find organizations in your state or community that offer grants, gardening materials or helpful guidance to startups like yours. Depending on your area and your garden's focus, you might also qualify for federal assistance from government organizations like the USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program or the EPA Environmental Education Grants. Several seed companies, such as Asgrow Seed and the America the Beautiful Fund, also offer seed donations to community or school garden projects.

Once you've rounded up the troops and secured some funding, it's time to decide on a location. On the next page, you'll learn how to find and secure a good site for your project.

Community Garden Sites: Location, Location, Location

Make sure the lot you choose has access to a water source.
Make sure the lot you choose has access to a water source.
VEER Cheryl North/Coughlan/ Photonica/ Getty Images

You can secure a site for your community garden by buying or renting it. You may also use land from a land trust, or an organization protecting the property. Participating in a land trust will limit your choice of location and may have a few stipulations, but it saves you from having to rent or buy your land. Some cities are starting to see the benefits of community gardens and now make pieces of property available for the public to use.

It's not as difficult as it sounds to rent or buy land, but you'll want to keep a few things in mind when choosing the location. Ideally, the site you choose should get at least six to eight hours of sunlight each day and be free of pavement. Although you can turn a paved lot into a garden by building raised beds, this takes a lot of work. Finding an area that already has soil and isn't covered with trees, garbage or building materials is best.­

The lot should also be large enough to contain your garden, and it must have access to water. If there isn't a water source, you'll need to contact the local water provider to get a hookup and meter installed.

Above all, the location should be close to everyone involved -- preferably within walking distance and at most no more than a short drive. The shorter the travel time, the more likely people are to stay involved with the garden's mainten­ance.

With these guidelines in mind, walk around your area with a few group members. Look for vacant or abandoned lots to get an idea of where you'd like to set up shop. If you don't know who owns the property, write down the addresses so you can look up ownership records through your local tax assessor's office. You'll then need to approach the owner about either buying or leasing the land.

Often, especially if the land isn't being used for anything else, landowners will be more than willing to lease their land to you for a small fee. Some will treat it as a barter -- you trade free maintenance or fresh-grown produce for the right to use the land. Some owners may worry about being held liable if anyone were injured on their property, in which case you can include a liability waver in the lease. This is a statement explaining that any injuries are no fault of the owner. Everyone involved in the garden would need to sign the waiver.

Once you've secured a site for your garden, the real fun can begin. Continue reading for tips on how to get things growing.

Community Garden Steps: Plan. Plant. Play.

A weatherproof message board lets you post important notices and work schedules.
A weatherproof message board lets you post important notices and work schedules.
Tony Anderson/Digital Vision/ Getty Images

Once you've done all the grunt work, it's time to set things in motion. Before you start planting, you and the other participants should sketch out what you envision the garden looking like based on your original plans. Looking at other gardens in the area or clipping pictures from magazines may help you with ideas. However you decide to organize your layout, you will want to include several basic elements.

First, to prevent vandalism or theft, you may want to erect a fence with a lock. Good fences are sturdy and at least 8 feet (2.4 meters) high. Some veteran gardeners also suggest planting strange-looking vegetables like purple cauliflower or white eggplant to deter would-be thieves. Another trick is to plant thorny roses or blackberry bushes along the periphery to keep people out.

Next, designate one area of your garden as the composting area -- otherwise, garden refuse will pile up quickly. You'll probably also want a lockable storage shed for your supplies, benches, a meeting area and a weatherproof message board for posting important notices and work schedules.

Once you've set up the basic infrastructure of the garden, you can get your hands dirty and prepare the soil. You may want test your soil, which you can do by purchasing a kit or by hiring a professional. The test will let you know what nutrients you may need to add to your soil. As any good gardener will tell you, a good garden starts with the soil.

Once you have all of your materials ready, either purchased, donated or already owned, you may want to schedule a groundbreaking day to kick things off. Then, to maintain your hard-won efforts, you'll want to set up a schedule listing upkeep duties. Since your initial organizational meeting is probably ancient history at this point, you may want to have another meeting with everyone in attendance to make any additions or changes to the original charter. Who will be responsible for watering? What about weeding? Whose job will it be to harvest the carrots? You'll need to answer questions like these so there is no confusion about who is responsible for what.

Once you've established your own community garden, it will likely become obvious why there are currently more than 10,000 of them in U.S. cities alone. [source: Parham]. Not only will you benefit, but your entire community and the surrounding environment will as well. You'll enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people, reap the physical and psychological rewards of regular activity and be blown away by the delicious taste of fresh, homegrown tomatoes.

For more information on community gardens, helpful resources and some sample forms, be sure to look at the links on the following page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • American Community Gardening Association. "Starting a Community Garden." (March 7, 2008)http://www.communitygarden.org/learn/starting-a-community-garden.php#form
  • Parham, Susan Wells. "Funding and Other Support." Urban Community Gardens. (March 7, 2008)http://www.mindspring.com/~communitygardens/funds.html
  • Surls, Rachel. "Community Garden Start-Up Guide." University of California Cooperative Extension. March 2001. (March 7, 2008).http://celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/garden/articles/startup_guide.html
  • The Trust for Public Land. "Conserving Land for People." 2008. (March 10, 2008)http://www.tpl.org/tier3_cdl.cfm?content_item_id=19002&folder_id=2928