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A Community Garden is any piece of land gardened by a group of people. It can be urban, suburban, or rural. It can grow flowers or vegetables. It can be on church grounds, at a community center or an unused, reclaimed lot.
Starting a community garden includes assembling a leadership team, selecting a site, designing the garden, and determining how funding and/or in-kind resources will be developed to build the and sustain the garden. All four components are dependent upon each other and will evolve between the initial idea stage and project completion. You should be prepared to work on all components simultaneously.
Build a Team
No matter how much energy, enthusiasm or experience a person has for a community garden its success really depends on building a core team. The team should consist of a variety of stakeholders. Try to include potential gardeners, leadership from the site location (church, neighborhood business, etc.) community garden experts, and any others who can represent differed interests and view points and diverse skills. One or two people may be identified to serve as the project’s lead and should be committed to carrying the torch for the project.
The University of Missouri Extension has an exhaustive list of items to cover at early planning meetings. Having the group decide some of the important elements around the purpose of the garden early on will help get everyone on the same page and moving forward with similar expectations.
Select a Site
The following conditions should be considered for siting a community garden:
Regular access to sufficient water (several gallons per square foot each week).
Sun exposure for at least eight hours a day. (Six hours of sun is suitable for a few crops.)
Relatively level ground or the ability to level it.
Good soil on site or the ability to bring it in.
A secure location to avoid loss of produce.
Regular, frequent irrigation is a must for any vegetable garden, so you’ll want to think about access to water early in planning the location of your garden. A garden hose is an acceptable method of getting water from the source to your garden.
In order to grow the healthiest plants possible, it is important to start with good soil. Test existing soil you are considering using in the garden, for its make up, pH, organic matter and for toxicity. If the soil already on site it is not of a high quality, you will want to bring in garden soil from a nursery.
The WSU Extension Clark County Master Gardener answer clinic can provide a free soil test kit and assist with how to sample and interpret the results. (The actual soil testing includes fees starting at $15 for the basic nutrients with pH and organic matter, and up depending on which tests you have done.) The Answer Clinic office is located at 1919 NE 78th Street, Vancouver, Washington. The clinic is open to walk-in clients Tuesday and Wednesday 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM and Thursday and Friday from 11:30 AM to 3:00 PM.
Find a Location
In many cases, people get the idea to build a community garden after discovering they have a possible site to do so, such as a church congregation considering how to utilize vacant space. If you have already identified a space, consider yourself lucky. Other times people come together wanting to establish a community garden but not having an idea of where to do so. While this does add some challenge to the project, many a garden has been sited on space identified after the desire to build a garden was developed.
You may start the process of finding a site by putting the word out and asking local churches, community agencies, or local businesses that have vacant space, if they will support a neighborhood garden. Also check with municipalities including city or county government to see if a park or other public space might be considered.
While less frequently used for public gardens, privately owned property such as a neighbor’s yard may make a great site for your garden. While some may have concerns about a public garden on private property, exercising appropriate precautions can go a long way toward making this a good solution.
ChangeLab Solutions legal toolkit was designed to help overcome the legal and practical barriers to establishing community gardens on land that is not municipally owned. It provides several model agreements and other documents that can easily be tailored, simplifying the process of building an agreement that benefits both landowners and the community.
Contract with Property Owner
If the site is owned by a private entity, it may be appropriate to have something in writing to serve as a use agreement. This is often called a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). If the site is on public lands, there may be a process in place for implementing a garden, such as a Neighborhood Food Garden program in the City of Vancouver. Note: not all public lands may be appropriate garden site locations given future improvement considerations.
Sample MOA — (PDF) American Community Gardening Association
Sample Garden Agreement — (PDF) Clark County Neighborhood
Design the Garden
As with most new endeavors, starting small is a smart idea. You will learn a lot throughout the process of starting your school garden and you’ll want the chance to make mistakes and learn lessons on a small scale. Installing one or two 4 x 8 raised beds in a site located very convenient to its users will give you a chance to test what will work. You’ll discover how much work it takes to prepare, seed, and care for a small garden and can later decide to add more as you build the capacity to do more.
Make a Plan Drawing
Getting your garden concept on paper is an important step. It tells everyone involved that you are serious and thoughtful about the project. It need not be professional, or fancy, but it should be to-scale, indicating where existing infrastructure is and where new items will go. It should include areas defined for paths, garden beds, storage structures, sitting areas, compost piles (or worm bins) entry and exit points, and irrigation.
Plans Can Change!
The plans you start out with may very well not be the ones you end up with. Expect that the input you get from the rest of the planning team may bring up challenges or ideas you did not think of. Use grid paper and a pencil for early versions of the plans.
Raised Beds or In-Ground Gardens?
There are both pros and cons to each type. The University of Georgia, College of Ag and Environmental Sciences has a publication outining the differences between each.
The garden should be built with the appropriate safety measures and accessibility standards in place. Clark County guidelines indicate the following with regard to path width and material make up, bed height, and other requirements.
The cost of installing and operating a community garden can vary widely depending on the size and complexity of the garden. Most gardens develop through a combination of donations and purchases.
Develop a Budget
Just as with the development of the garden itself, the budget for the garden can expect to change over time. As new ideas come about and old ones are discarded, funding needs expand and shrink and other means for getting resources are developed. For example, the plan may start with purchasing new wood to build three 10 x 3 beds, but as a new partner is found, who can donate cinder blocks, that financial need may disappear. And that change may precipitate the need for something different in another area, such as needing to get re-bar to stake the blocks – something that was not in the original construction plan or budget.
Develop literature, a sales pitch, and compelling story about the garden. In order to apply for grants, in-kind support, or donations, you will need to be able to share your vision about the project. Consider developing attractive informational flyers that outline the project – its mission and goals and include your contact information. That way you can leave something with people who may want to think about participating as a donor or volunteer.
[PDF sample flyer. Pending.]
There are a number of small and large local, statewide, and national grant opportunities available for community gardens each year. Smaller, local grants can be easier to get and are often much easier to apply for than larger, national ones. So consider spending more of your time looking for these rather than competing for the ones that attract schools from far and wide.
Look for businesses in the area around the garden which may have the types of supplies you’ll need to build and support your garden. These include hardware stores, garden stores, nurseries, etc. Local, independently owned businesses have a bit more freedom to offer in-kind donations, financial support, or volunteer work than do the larger chain stores. However, don’t rule them out altogether because their staff may be able to contribute. Some of these large chains also have their own garden grant programs.
Sustaining Your Garden
Sustaining your garden includes all the things that make a garden operate smoothly; like garden maintenance, rules, resources, communication and building community.
Rules for the Community Garden
Making sure that new gardeners (and returning ones, too) have a good idea of what is considered acceptable in your garden and what is not – will go a long way towards harmony and will lead toward a successful community garden experience for all. For example: is it permissible to use synthetic pesticides in your garden? Is winter gardening allowed? What should be done with a plot that appears to have been abandoned? How will common areas be cared for? These are all questions frequently encountered in community gardens which should be decided upon early rather than before gardeners with differing ideas are pitted against each other on an issue. Make sure to post the rules and have gardeners sign off on their acceptance of the rules at the time of their application.
There are many examples of garden rules available upon which to base yours. See below for links to a few.
Sample Garden Application — (PDF) University of Missouri Extension. Getting your first gardeners to sign up for their plots will be a very exciting phase in your garden project! Have the gardeners complete an application so you have their basic information on file.
Communication with Gardeners
A kiosk placed near a shed or other gathering place in the garden can serve as a communication center for placement of rules, notices about garden meetings, or invitations to a harvest potluck.
Keeping a contact list, with email addresses and phone numbers will come in handy should the need arise to get important messages to gardeners you don’t see on-site.
Maintenance of common areas can be difficult, especially during the height of the growing season, when gardeners are busy with the tending of their own garden plots. However, it is important for reasons of safety, appearance, accessibility, and sense of pride to do some regular upkeep of walkways and common areas around and throughout the garden.
Garden leaders might consider holding special work days once in a while, perhaps in combination with a potluck, educational speaker, or seed giveaway, to entice gardeners to show up for regular work parties. Local service groups, such as students needing community service hours, scouts, or businesses may be able to help with one-time events. Our community has a wealth of volunteers willing to help. Check with local volunteer coordinators if you need assistance identifying and/or advertising for volunteers.
Angry neighbors and bad gardeners pose problems for a community garden. Often the two are related. Neighbors may complain about unkempt gardens, equipment and supplies piling up on site, or increased noise and activity at the garden. Community gardens may be jeopardized by developing a reputation as a bad neighbor. Therefore, choose your garden rules carefully so you have procedures to follow when problems arise. A well-organized garden with strong leadership and committed members can overcome almost any obstacle.
Vandalism in community gardens does happen. Community outreach and engaging nearby neighbors in the garden will go a long way in generating a desire to help protect the space. And these people can serve as watchful eyes. If your garden is the target of vandalism, the best action you can take is to replant immediately. Often, this will send a signal to vandals that their attempts to derail you will not work. Attempts to fence the garden as a means to keep people out will likely not work. However, planting sharp or spiked shrubs along the perimeter just might.
It may be helpful to schedule work parties at key times, such as summer evenings and weekends, to let others know of the importance of the garden and to keep a presence in the area.
Volunteers can play innumerable roles in your community garden. They can help teach gardening skills, design flyers, make phone calls, organize potlucks, help raise money or in-kind donations for tools, a tool shed, or other needed items, and so much more. Volunteers can be generated from within the garden community or from outside of it. Boy Scout groups can be brought in to help install raised beds, volunteers from churches or other places of worship may want to help weed or harvest if some of the vegetables are raised for donation to food pantries.
Fast Fact: Save families money and generate supplemental income. Studies have estimated that a community garden can yield around $500 to $2,000 worth of produce per family a year, and that every $1 invested in a community garden plot yields around $6 worth of produce. Community gardeners can supply all or some of their family’s produce needs, saving money. Community gardeners sometimes sell their surplus produce as well, generating a small income.
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