What if there’s a community before there’s a garden?
There’s an interest in organic vegetable gardening like never before. But many people have yards that are too small or shady to support a vegetable garden. Some of these people will be able to join an existing community garden, but what about those who don’t have that option?
Twenty years ago in my neighborhood there wasn’t a single community garden anywhere in the city. Our neighborhood was near downtown where lots were small and often had 50-100 year old shade trees blocking the sunlight. We created a thriving community garden on a vacant lot that lasted several years before the owner decided to build a house on the site. We moved to another vacant lot around the corner and were able to incorporate some lessons from our first effort. I was a leader in both projects and although I no longer live in that neighborhood I still stay connected by donating materials and teaching free garden classes.
These are a few of the key elements that help a new community garden get off the ground and grow like a weed!
a) Structure. Raised beds built of wood stone brick or whatever is handy are not only visually appealing but provide the boundaries that an informal volunteer effort needs.
b) Water. At our first site, we ran a long hose from a neighbors house and reimbursed them for the water bill from dues that everyone paid. By the time we moved to our second site the city council had adopted a policy of covering the cost (about $1500) of installing a water meter and hookup at sites being developed as public gardens. Be sure to check with your municipality to see if they offer this. If they don’t—ask them to.
c) Money. There are always costs, even for a money saving venture like growing your own food. We had dues on a sliding scale for those with less money, and we often found grants to support some of our needs, such as the local university that wanted to support neighborhoods on their boundaries. They gave us $500 to pay for the lumber and topsoil for a dozen 4’x12’ raised beds.
d) Room to relax. A community gardening non-profit in town provided us with a couple of picnic tables so we had a central spot for eating and socializing after a workday.
e) Good relations with the neighbors. Nobody wants to go to a community garden where they feel the neighbors aren’t welcoming. And no neighbor will be fond of community gardeners who aren’t open and friendly. Our community garden’s neighbors use the picnic tables and open space for their cookouts and gatherings. They also keep the lawn mowed for us.
f) Permanance. We were only paying $1 a year to rent our first site before we lost it. We secured a more or less permanent site by working with the local land trust to get a lot that was dedicated to being a community garden with help from an agency giving grants to secure open spaces.
g) Flexibility. This last item is perhaps the most important one. Just like the seasons, the interests and energy levels of gardeners will change. Most years we’ve had each gardener responsible for their individual bed. Some years it made more sense to operate the garden as a communal venture to reduce duplication of crops and to optimize our time. Dogmatic ideas about gardening and organizing can be the downfall of a community garden. Keep it fun, keep it practical. None of the people who started the first garden are still active—either their interests changed or they moved away. But even with all new blood the community garden witnesses a new generation of gardeners getting started and changing their lives.