Lessons Learned from Starting a Community Garden
You can benefit from our experience and help ensure your success in creating a thriving community garden…Posted Jun 10, 2013
Over the past 12 months a piece of land in my hometown has been transformed from an unknown piece of a tree farm to a vibrant community garden. The startup experience has been challenging but highly gratifying, and I’m happy to share my lessons learned with a healthy dose of hindsight.
Things to Know Up Front
You can do it.
With the right piece of land, some organization, a strong partner, and some time, you can create a valuable asset for your community. The rewards are immediate and ongoing.
Not just for cities.
Community Gardens can work in a variety of towns, as well as in cities. People who have space for gardens in their yards give other reasons for joining a community garden: better sunlight, protection from deer and other animals, and a desire to be part of a community effort either for learning or social purposes.
This takes a long time.
It was about a year between the initial proposal of this idea and the groundbreaking on site. Progress moves slowly, especially in winter when the gardening season seems so far away. Our project would have turned out even better if we’d given it more time in preparation.
Partnerships are key.
Partnership was the only reason our community garden project was successful; one nonprofit had gardening expertise and a strong community presence, and the other – a tiny local land trust – had an ideal parcel of land. A happenstance conversation between two board members, one from each group, was the genesis of our collaboration. Significantly, both board members were personally willing to invest considerable time and effort to make this project succeed.
Prepare your soil carefully, and early.
Much of your garden’s growing success will hinge on the quality of your soil. The right pH, enough organic matter, good soil structure and drainage are all as important as having a good sunny spot. Our plan was to install raised beds with new soil and compost, so we didn’t worry about the condition of the existing soil. This was our biggest mistake – more on this below, in the section on ‘What We Didn’t Do Well’.
Soil tests are essential.
We didn’t do a soil test since we were bringing in fresh soil to fill out raised beds. However, the soil/compost mix we used turned out to be too alkaline (high pH). This stunted the growth of some plants, while others were fine.
Involve your community from the start.
What do people want? How much space do they want to grow in? Does anyone have experience as part of a community garden elsewhere? Who has ideas for funding sources? This can also identify people who can help you: our experience was that keeping the ownership and direction of the project with a small startup team was best, but engaging others on well-defined tasks was a big help. One partner did mapping for the site, someone else researched materials for raised beds, and a third person made flyers and posted them.
There are two main types of community gardens.
Some gardens are communal and others ‘allotment’ style, where each gardener has their own bed to plant and tend as they see fit. Communal gardens are more work to organize but generally also more productive and efficient, and they facilitate crop rotations and soil improvement, as well as season extension. (Imagine two people planting a whole bed of carrots instead of 15 people planting and tending their own short rows, each using 1/20th of a packet of seed) A shared process of planning, planting, tending and harvesting is a great community builder, more so than simply working on your own bed in proximity to others. But not all communities want a communal garden; this is a discussion to have early in the process.
What We Did Well
Believed in Ourselves
We knew this was a good idea, despite some naysayers and a weak response to initial efforts to gauge community interest. We pushed on, creating a vision and telling everyone we knew.
Found the Right Land
This project had been floated years before, but without the right piece of land it was not feasible. Good sites have water access, are near public facilities (playing field, library, playground, bathroom), and are within walking distance for many people, including seniors.
Almost a year before we opened the garden, we had a professional-looking poster that showed our vision, which we displayed at a town event to raise awareness of the project and gauge local interest. We recorded the names of people to stay in touch with. We held a public information session in mid-winter; and we found multiple opportunities to get into the paper, social media, and face to face with people. Our early work demonstrated our level of commitment and organization, and was essential for getting grants as well as private funding. We found that many people don’t know what a community garden is.
Relied on Partners
Two all-volunteer nonprofits worked together to make this happen. Early on we partnered with a landscape architect to make a beautiful map and an official-looking poster, which helped make this project seem a bit more tangible to the public. This also helped with grant applications, as it showed we were serious and organized. Later in the process we made a new site map, which gave specific measurements and laid out important locations such as fence posts, gates, pathways, beds, and water spigots. We took a long-term view and planned for growth, installing a fence and water around areas that won’t be used for several years.
Soil / Compost Mix
Our compost was being donated, and there was some pressure to fill the beds with 100% beautiful compost. Unfortunately, I’d made that mistake in my home garden the year before, and had terrible germination. So I knew to I insist that we use a mix of at least one-third compost.
Building a community garden can be cheap or quite expensive. Some places use granite raised beds, which will last forever but are hugely expensive; others eschew both raised beds and fences, dividing an area into plots and letting gardeners fend for themselves. We got an early donor who offered to pay for raised beds, and the results have been excellent. We approached several local and regional foundations for grants, with good success; and we solicited local businesses for sponsorship, rewarding them with recognition on a sign at the garden site.
Worked as a Team
One partner and I were working on this project almost daily for months, keeping all the balls in the air. Our near-equal levels of commitment and attention to detail were key for our successful working relationship.
The first year was a big push for a few individuals who spent countless hours. Once the garden was started and people were engaged, we recruited a group of talented individuals to serve on a committee. This helped spread the workload and also served to build community and generate great new ideas.
Dedicated part of our garden to the local Food Pantry
Volunteers plant and tend one corner of the garden site, with all the food going to the food pantry. While we get donations and lots of volunteers to help make this happen, it is still important to have someone in charge of that project.
Did our research
There are thousands of community gardens, and vast resources online about how to start up and manage a new garden. One particularly useful guide was put out by Denver Urban Gardens.
“I joined for the community aspect. It turns out the garden itself is a beautiful place to be and I enjoy going down to tend my garden and see everyone else’s.”
– Jen W.
What We Didn’t Do Well
Our plan was to install raised beds with new soil, and to mix that soil/compost mix into the top 6” of the existing soil on-site. That soil turned out to be almost unbreakable, and we resorted to pick-axes to break the top few inches. While our 8” high raised beds were filled with excellent soil, they were not deep enough for many crops. In hindsight, we should have taken an extra year and used the time for cover cropping to improve the soil, including breaking up compacted soil (radishes) and adding organic matter and nutrients.
Negotiated with landowner
Whether you are working with a school, a senior center, the town, a nonprofit, or another entity, you need to be super clear with the landowner and other users of the site about expectations. Think ahead to potential needs as you grow: will they agree to a fence high enough to keep out deer? Are they okay with site access early in the morning? Who pays for the water used on site? Is there truck access for woodchips, compost?
Added Silver to the Garden
While our gardeners span a range of ages, we’ve yet to attract many older people to the garden. We built an extra-tall raised bed in our second year, with the strategy of “if we build it they will come”. Ideally we would have had a stronger connection to the local senior center. One downside of using social media to spread the word about your garden is that many seniors are not using those online sites.
Planned for growth
We initially requested the use of a very small piece of land, and the result would have been a frustrating and expensive process of expansion over time. We ended up with a bigger site, and built a fence around what we see as the maximum size of the garden, with the realization that it may take years to get there.
Built our own fence
We saved several thousand dollars by installing our own fence, but regretted the decision. While the final product is good, the time and labor involved were considerable. Next time I’d approach several local fence companies asking them for a discounted fence in return for a tax deductible donation and some great PR.
Mapped the water lines
An irrigation company installed underground water lines for us. While we provided a drawing, they installed it differently from our plan; as a result we punctured the line during other work in the garden, sending a geyser shooting out from the ground. It was their fault, and they repaired it for free (and gave us a map of the lines), but it was just another hassle that we didn’t need to deal with.
Working on this project has been challenging, time-consuming and very rewarding. I hope that you can learn from the benefit of our experience and be inspired to create or participate in community gardening in your neighborhood.
“I have always been interested in growing my own food and have had a few half-hearted attempts in the past. Joining the community garden and having the support of other gardeners around me has been wonderful and encouraged me to ‘go for it’ with great results.”
– Tasha M.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Greg Horner and his family grow their own garden produce and raise a small flock of chickens in suburban eastern Massachusetts.
Read his related article: “How to Grow a Row for Those in Need“.