When people consider starting a community garden, the first thought is frequently something such as “What should we plant?” That should be one of the last questions to ask. Many things need to be considered for a community garden to be sustainable. Issues concerning structure, membership, dues, water, and policies and bylaws all need to be addressed before a seed is put in the ground.
Different individuals and groups define “community garden” differently. For some, it is a communal garden plot where everyone shares the tasks as well as the produce. For others, it means individual plots maintained by each person responsible for selecting, planting and harvesting their own produce. The group forming the garden needs to agree on the basic organizational structure before implementing any other plans, since it will influence how the garden is developed.
While a community garden might simply appear to be a good idea, it takes a shared vision and hard work. In the first place, the surrounding community must agree that it is needed. Even if a whole neighborhood will not be gardening, its buy-in is required to maintain good relations. When the adjacent community feels a sense of ownership, it is more likely to protect and support the garden.
The coordinating group needs to agree on the garden’s purpose, or purposes. It may be primarily a way for households to grow food, its focus might be neighborhood beautification and community-building, or it could be an educational site where students can learn in an outdoor environment. It could be a synthesis of these.
Likewise, the group will need to agree on the final outcome of the produce. Will surplus food be donated, or shared among the gardeners? Will the garden have a farm stand or a booth at a local farmers market?
Obtaining the land for a garden, whether it is purchased, leased, on the grounds of a religious institution or part of a municipal park, can be challenging. A vacant lot may look like an eyesore waiting to be improved by a garden, but the property owners could have other plans. City ordinances may limit the use of its grounds. Institutional properties’ concerns about potential litigation can prevent outside groups from using their land. If the garden will be in a property with a homeowners’ association, HOA approval is essential. Any construction (fencing, structures, etc.) must meet local codes.
The location will influence membership. A garden among wealthy residences will probably not attract low-income gardeners. A garden in a high crime area might ultimately improve the area, but organizers will first have to confront people’s fears of going out alone or after dark.
Growing vegetables and flowers depends on the amount of sunlight the site receives. Leafy vegetables need a minimum of six hours of sunlight, while plants such as tomatoes or melons need at least eight hours. If the only available land is in a shady area, a garden will not succeed. Artificial light is not an option for an outdoor garden.
Restrooms are important. Will facilities be available and accessible to gardeners?
A garden needs a critical mass of participants in order to succeed. While the original coordinators will probably make up the first gardening cohort, no doubt there will be additional members. When reaching out to potential garden members, remember that more people will probably think it is a good idea than will actually become gardeners. One member might act as a local liaison, to answer inquiries about the garden from the public. Members should make some kind of commitment, preferably for a year. Will the garden attempt to attract specific groups, such as families with children, senior citizens or nonprofit groups? If a commercial entity wished to become involved, would it be permitted?
The recruitment style will influence the membership. For instance, flyers to religious groups will probably attract members of that religious group. Social media will attract those who are comfortable using them.
Newspapers frequently look for stories with local interest, as will some magazines that reach out to particular groups.
Community gardens should meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The pavement and width of pathways should be navigable by wheelchairs or walkers.
There are up-front costs associated with establishing a garden that cannot be ignored. These can be covered by members, donors, grants or other sources. Community gardens usually require payment of annual dues; the amount varies with the costs associated with development and maintenance. Scholarships might be made available to gardeners who otherwise could not afford to participate. Local ordinances may be more stringent than federal ones. Details of ADA requirements are readily available on the Internet or through city and county agencies that issue building permits.
The garden can be an informal assembly of plots, or there may be the desire to have a formal arrangement of raised beds and common areas.
In this case, who will do the design? Is there a member with the skills? Will a professional donate a design, or will there be a charge for that service?
If raised beds are desired, who will build them? This may be done by groups of volunteers, or by paid staff. Each gardener might be expected to build or purchase his or her own. If so, how will this happen? Will the materials be bought, found, re-purposed or donated? If materials are not new, they must be checked for insects, rots and toxins. Will beds be ready and available to participants when they start?
Electricity should be included in garden planning, since it is rarely free. Pumps and irrigation clocks run on supplied power, unless they are solar- or battery-powered.
Water is a major issue, whether or not an area gets regular rainfall. Is there ready access to water, or will plumbing be installed, and by whom? Will there be a charge for water? Water use could be measured by means of meters, but purchasing and installing them can be expensive. There could simply be a flat water use fee for all gardeners, but that might not be fair to those using water-thrifty irrigation methods.
Will gardeners be responsible for their own irrigation materials? What kind of irrigation will be permitted? Drip is commonly used for vegetables, but this is not possible if one is only using a hose. Flooding a well-constructed bed is easy, but wastes water.
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O'Callaghan, A. M., Fagin, E., and Robinson, M. L., 2013, Creating a Community Garden, Extension University of Nevada Reno, SP-13-07
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