How to Start a Community Garden

How to Start a Community Garden by The Self Sufficient HomeAcre

Build a Community Garden!

Do you want to start a community garden? If you live in an urban area you may not have space to plant a garden at home. The high cost of groceries or a lack of nutritious produce in your area may have you wondering how to provide healthy meals for your family. Starting a community garden with other like-minded people might be the answer you’re looking for!

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lettuce in a community garden

Benefits of Community Gardens

Community gardens are a great way to raise healthy food for your family. Other benefits may include:

  • Increase self-reliance
  • Learn gardening skills
  • Get to know your community
  • Beautify your neighborhood
  • Grow food for a local pantry
  • Get fresh air and exercise

Before you start a new community garden, read up on How to Join a Community Garden. Joining an existing community garden is much easier than starting a new one. If there isn’t one nearby, you may be able to join forces with other people to create a new one. Here are the steps to start and maintain a community garden in your neighborhood.

  • Connect with ‘would be’ community gardeners
  • Form a committee and organize plans
  • Scout out potential garden spaces
  • Start a website or newsletter to organize members, work days, etc
  • Break ground on the community garden
  • Keep the momentum going!
Connect with others who want to start a community garden
Connect with other people who want to start a community garden!

Make Connections With ‘Would Be’ Community Gardeners

Check with community centers, libraries, and city officials to see if there are other people in the community who are interested in starting a community garden. A local food group or Craigslist may be another source of potential members. Is there a local garden club or botanical garden where you might find like-minded people? Perhaps there is already a movement to start a garden in the area.

organize before you start a community garden
Meet at a park, cafe, or other public space to organize a committee.

Form a Community Garden Committee to Plan the Details

Once you have a group that is interested in starting a community garden, set up a meeting in a public place to discuss how to proceed. Do research ahead of time to be aware of the pros and cons and potential roadblocks to your project. Be prepared to lead the group.

Someone who attends may have a garden space you can use, or they may belong to a church or other organization that will allow a garden on their grounds. There may be people at the meeting who have experience as members of community gardens. Find out who will help with procuring a space, contacting members, and organizing the project.

Talk to members of local gardening or horticultural clubs, a representative from your Extension Office, or owners of garden centers and other businesses in the area. They will be a valuable source of information and may be willing to offer classes on work days.

Planning to start a community garden

Topics to Discuss

You’ll need to discuss potential expenses and membership dues and the purpose of the community garden. Is the garden intended to raise food for a local food pantry, clean up abandoned lots, will it be divided into individual plots? Choose leaders and several helpers to organize and follow through on plans. Get contact information and set up your next meeting before the meeting ends. If possible, arrange for monthly meetings in advance.

If the group intends to charge dues and pay for items, it will need a bank account. This can get tricky since at least one person or entity will need access to the funds and must be accountable.

Make sure that legal issues are addressed so no one is held liable for damage or injuries. You’ll also want each member sign an agreement to take care of their space. They should be aware that if their plot is abandoned it is forfeited for the season. Here are some documents that may be helpful in organizing your community garden group…

Illinois Department of Agriculture Community Garden Agreement is an example of the individual’s responsibilities and forfeiture of their plot if they don’t take care of it.

This Garden Application that may be helpful in designing one for your group.

In addition, this Community Garden Start-Up Guide gives a detailed list of steps to take in starting this project.

Abandoned lots may be transformed into community gardens.
Abandoned lots may be transformed into community gardens.

Look for Potential Community Garden Locations

Scout out potential spaces for a new garden. You’ll want a space that is close to home or going to care for your plot will become a burden. It needs to be large enough for multiple plots. There may be a great deal of work needed to prepare the space. Some potential garden sites include:

  • Church lawn
  • Schoolyard
  • City park
  • Abandoned city lot
  • Fairway between 2 streets
  • Parkway between sidewalk and street

Before you ask for permission to use a desirable space for your future garden, prepare for questions and concerns the potential hosts may have. Have your own list of questions to make sure the space will work for your group.

Questions to Ask Potential Hosts

Make sure to get answers in writing so there is no confusion. Here are some questions you may wish to ask:

  • What hours may people work in their plots
  • Is there a fee for using the property
  • Will they allow a fence, raised beds, compost bins or other ‘permanent’ features
  • Is there a source of water available
  • Will they mind having the turf removed for vegetable beds

Concerns That Hosts May Have About Allowing a Community Garden

Many administrators for churches, schools, or municipalities will have concerns with allowing a community garden on their property. For example, they may worry about the following issues:

  • Liability insurance in case anyone is injured on their property
  • Having debris left behind or unsightly plots that are abandoned mid-season
  • Damage to turf or property
  • A short-lived project that leaves an empty garden space

Start a Community Garden Website or Newsletter

Use a free website, facebook group, or blog to send messages, share work dates, and keep everyone organized and informed. This is much easier than getting phone numbers or trying to meet in person on a regular basis.

One or two people who are web savvy and diligent in sharing information should run the online community. Information to post online includes:

  • Rules and regulations
  • Hours the garden is open
  • Important dates – meetings, work days, picnics or potlucks
  • Reminders and updates

It helps to have the option to email people individually or post news in an online forum if they don’t make it to a meeting.

Break Ground on the New Community Garden

Beginning work and breaking ground is very exciting! Try to set up several work days when a County Extension official or horticultural expert is able to answer questions or give a short lesson on gardening. You’ll want to have several committee members on hand for work days. Be sure to mark out individual plots and assign them to members ahead of time to avoid confusion.

Have underground utilities marked well in advance before you dig!

Local garden nurseries may be willing to donate seeds, tools, or handbooks to your community garden. Be sure to thank them in your newsletter or website! You might even put an ad for their company on your website. This is great promotion for them and they may contribute again the following year.

Keep members involved so they don’t forget to care for their plots!

Keep the Momentum Going

During the dog days of summer, you may notice some plots getting overgrown. When members are on vacation or get busy with kids’ activities, they may forget about tending their plots. You may need to remind members of their responsibility to keep the plot tended.

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Organizing fun activities will help to retain more members and keep everyone interested in the community garden. Set up a potluck picnic, educational resources day, or member appreciation day regularly. Share garden lessons, recipes for the harvest, or short YouTube videos via the online newsletter to keep members interested.

It might be advisable to allow each member one plot the first year. If they care for it, you may allow an additional plot in the future if there is space available.

Additional Resources

American Community Garden Association

Create the Good: Start – Or Join – A Community Garden

USDA – Community Gardening

Have you ever been a part of a community garden or started one from scratch? Share your tips in the comments!

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