How to Start a Community Garden

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Category: Locals | Neighborhoods
How to Start a Community Garden

What happens when a master gardener’s dream home doesn’t include space for a dream garden? That’s the problem C.L. Fornari and her husband faced when they moved to Cape Cod. As a master gardener with more than 25 years’ worth of experience working her own garden and training others in growing vegetables, Fornari couldn’t imagine not growing her own food. But alas, the property they loved simply wasn’t conducive to gardening. “There just isn’t enough sunlight or enough space, so we sought out the next-best thing,” she said. That, of course, was a community garden, which allows her to grow the fruit and vegetables she wants despite her own diminutive yard.

What is a community garden?

So, what is a community garden exactly? Simply put, it’s a shared gardening space that’s accessible to anyone in the community, as long as they’re willing to follow a few basic rules and pay a nominal fee for things like water and soil upkeep. Often subdivided into a bunch of community garden plots similar to raised beds, most community gardens allow members to grow just about anything as long as it’s legal. “Some people come in and just want to grow flowers, while others are very serious about growing enough food to feed their whole family, and both are usually just fine,” said Fornari.

Benefits of community gardens

The benefits of a community garden go far beyond simply providing a space for those without large yards to have gardens. This is even more the case in urban areas, where low-income families struggle to put fresh, healthy food on the table. A study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition points out the following benefits of community gardens:

  • Improved access to fresh produce, leading to better nutrition. Many inner-city areas have become known as “food deserts,” a term used to describe the lack of available, affordable fresh produce and other healthy food options in low-income urban areas. Community gardens are a great way to infuse fresh foods into these communities in an affordable manner.
  • Beautification of urban areas that have otherwise fallen into ruin. Community gardens provide city dwellers with green space that helps them escape the daily grind. Furthermore, studies indicate that community gardens have a positive impact on real estate values of homes in the immediate surrounding area.
  • Engage youth and provide them with constructive activities. Gardening helps kids learn lifelong healthy eating habits by exposing them to fresh foods they may not have tried or had access to previously. But it can also be used to teach concepts like measuring, evaluating, the scientific method and how to follow directions.

How do community gardens work?

According to Fornari, who has been certified as a master gardener since 1994, each community garden is a bit different. But for the most part, rules are minimal and simple to follow. Often, she said, people grow a lot of food but aren’t able to keep up with the intense late-summer harvest requirements, so they end up sharing with others in their community’s garden. And sadly, pilfering does sometimes happen—it is difficult to resist a ripe, juicy tomato after all—though it’s pretty minimal in Fornari’s experience.

The good news is, when you’re part of a community garden, food isn’t the only thing that’s shared.

“Community gardens are ideal for providing a space where gardeners can learn from one another,” Fornari said. “Beginners can see how other people grow things and get their feet wet in terms of raising their own food.”

Those concepts would take much more time and effort to learn in an individual setting. Fornari added that community gardens are also great for showing people there isn’t any one right way to grow plants.

Tips for starting a community garden

Maybe you’ve tried to start your own garden but don’t have enough sunlight, or perhaps you live in a high-rise in the middle of a city. Or maybe you’ve simply realized, “Hey, there’s no community garden near me.” In any case, there’s no reason why you can’t start one. Churches often play host to community gardens, so if you’re not sure where to start, church grounds may be a good place to consider, as long as there’s ample sunlight and a water source.

Beyond that, Fornari recommends getting in touch with your town’s agricultural division or a city planner. These people can help you find potential spots for your garden to call home and give you a sense of how the previous occupants used the space. Are there any outstanding liens on the property? Were unsafe chemicals or pesticides ever used? How long can you have access to the land? When it comes to starting a community garden, finding a great spot is definitely a large part of the process. You’ll also want to consider the following.

  • Determine what kind of community garden it will be and who it will serve. Will your community garden be exclusively for serious gardeners growing food, a flower-only garden to help stimulate local bee and butterfly populations, or will it be open to whatever people want to grow? Will it serve the entire community or not?
  • Plan and draw out the space. Sketching your community garden on paper will give you a sense of exactly what you need in order to get started. This will be essential when looking for donations of materials and time. For example: Will you have a compost bin? A central seating area for your hard-working gardeners? How much lumber will you need in order to set up your community garden plots? Will there be a children’s area?
  • Seek sponsorship. Because it’s easy to recognize the benefits of a community garden, local companies or organizations will often agree to act as sponsors for a garden, donating supplies, money and other valuable resources.
  • Have a build day. It’s time to actually set up your community garden. This will be a busy day—but lots of fun, too. On this day, everyone with a garden plot should gather together and help set it up. And don’t leave without setting up a sturdy fence around the perimeter; otherwise, all your hard work may eventually be lost to four-legged vandals.
  • Set up a schedule. Create a schedule that works for everyone. You can choose to share watering and harvesting duties, both of which tend to be very labor-intensive during the peak growing weeks. If you choose to let everyone handle their own watering and harvesting, determine how you will handle the community garden plots that fall behind.

As your garden grows, both literally and figuratively, you may need to consider more advanced resources such as budgeting and insurance, and you may even need to institute a decision-making board. But the above tips should help you get started. And no matter what, make your community garden a fun, positive experience for everyone involved.

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Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.

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