How To Start A Community Garden
When starting a community garden it is important to start things off right to make sure it is successful. There are many people who don’t know how to even start and there are those who have a pretty good idea, following this plan will make sure you cover all your bases. Many people want to rush into building the garden, but it is the planning that need to take precedent, otherwise your garden is likely to fail.
If I could share with you the single greatest piece of advice it would be to remember that community gardening is about people, not necessarily gardening. When it comes to running the garden, the single hardest part about community gardening is the social aspects. Having a good core group of people who are committed for the long haul is really important and will make this much easier, but that must be coupled with good social skills, a friendly attitude and a willingness to work with others.
- Gather your core group, 3-5 individuals that are committed
- Outline your vision on a single page
- Write down your assets
- Select a site and get permission
- Plan out the garden on paper and what it will cost
- Secure funding for start up costs + 20%
- Gather the gardeners
- Work together to develop garden
- Start Gardening!
Your Core Group
The core group is a really important step in the process. A garden that starts with only a single person at the helm is likely to fail, it is a reality that many don’t want to admit, but it is true. A group of people leading the garden brings redundancy, lighter work loads, more experience and knowledge, support and a higher chance of success.
So how do you find and choose a core group? This is the first step of the process for a very good reason, it can be hard to achieve, but sets the stage for success or failure. Start by talking with those you know like gardening, those who are associated with the site you would like to have the garden at, post a listing online (Craigslist, Meetup.com, local forums, local gardening or foodie groups, etc), the point is to make it known your looking for others.
Once you get people showing interest it is important to vet their commitment, you want to be sure if you take the time to bring them on board, that they are really going to stick around. The best way to do this is gather together and spell out what the commitment is going to be. You can do this by composing your vision document together and also creating mini job descriptions for each member. When you make these job descriptions work to figure out the time commitments in hours per week because that helps people realize if it is possible to take this on.
At the end of the meeting share with the group that you would like them to think about the commitment and decide if it is right for them. I always am sure to mention “no is a good answer”. I explain that I know people are very busy these days and that if someone were to say yes, but really couldn’t commit fully, it could be harder for the group in the long run. Finally I close by saying I appreciate the honesty and if you decide to join us, does it work for everyone to email me within one week.
This allows us to avoid future problems, it also allows people to consider their calendars and if they are really committed. If they are not, to have them part of the core group would be counter productive and possibly toxic. Finally by doing the final decision over email, it allows people an easy way out. There are those who have a very hard time saying no and by responding via email it makes it easier.
Vision, Mission, and Values
The single more important document that you can create for a garden is your single page of vision, mission and values. Being that you are part of a group, there are multiple versions of what people are thinking. By formalizing these things on paper in a group setting it allows for discussion, friendly debate, and guides all future activities. This process bring consensus to the group and prevents issues in the future.
Things to consider for Mission
- What is the purpose of the garden?
- What are the key things that you want to define your garden by?
- Who will benefit from the garden? Is there a particular group?
- What needs are met by the garden?
Things to consider for vision
- How will you achieve each part of the mission?
- What actions will you take to achieve the mission?
- What needs are met by the garden?
Things to consider for Values
- What is important to your group?
- What common threads do you want to flow through all aspects of the garden?
- Why are you starting this garden?
- What needs are met by the garden?
In order to know where you are going we have developed our vision’s document, we now need to think about how we will do it all. By writing down all the assets (tangible and intangible) we begin to see a clearer picture on how we can connect dots. You will also be able to identify gaps that you need to fill in order to achieve your vision document. It will also allow you to sell yourself better when trying to convince someone that they should let you garden on a particular site, because you have an amazing group, a solid plan, and all these things at your disposal.
Things that should be documented as an asset:
To take this a step further you can outline how you leverage each of these to achieve your vision.
When you start to consider a site to garden on be sure that it meets the basics needs of a garden: 6 hours of light, easy access to water, and a long term agreement. Before you fall in love with a location consider it’s attributes, make sure to get a soil test. There are many things to consider about a garden, here are a few things:
For most plants, particularly fruits and vegetables, you will need a site where the majority of the area receives at least 6 hours of direct sun daily. Look at surrounding buildings and trees, which can significantly impact levels of sunlight.
Many plants cannot tolerate very wet soils for a prolonged amount of time. You should see no standing water after heavy rains.
Steep slopes can be difficult to work garden because bare soil will be washed off after heavy rains. You should look for land that is as level as possible, and watch for any low spots that may puddle during rainstorms. If you have to build on a slope, build beds or terraces that run across the slope.
- Surrounding vegetation
You should look for a site that does not have a lot of trees. They can create shade and compete with crops for water and nutrients. Also, look out for plants that may prove problematic when clearing the site, such as poison ivy, poison oak, or stinging nettles.
Ideally, you will want a site that is protected from high winds, which can rob soil moisture, erode topsoil, and damage delicate plants. Good air circulation, however, helps prevent disease. In cooler regions, you may want to avoid low-lying frost pockets.
Ideally, you will want to be located close to a water source. You’ll need plenty of water, and it’s too heavy to haul! Adding an underground pipeline to carry water from a distant source is possible, but also impractical and expensive.
It can be beneficial to have a site that is protected from wildlife. If deer or other large animals are present, fencing may be necessary, which can be costly to install.
If the plot of land you are considering to garden is not owned by you or your gardening team, you will have to find out who owns the site. If it is a vacant city lot, it may be owned by the city or an individual. Either way, it will be worth checking with the owner to see if you can rent or buy the land.
This can be a difficult step in the process for some. However many people start to think about starting a garden because they already have a site in mind or available to them. When it comes to convincing someone to let you use the land there are a few things that can increase your chances of success. First of be organized, approaching them in a manner that is logical, practical and well thought out will go a really long way. You should have your plan and know it well, be prepared to answer a lot of questions. When it comes time for you to pitch them the idea, remember that you are essentially a sales person now, trying to sell them on the idea, just like you would try to sell something. We also want to make this pitch easy to understand quickly.
A land owner typically wants to know a few things:
- What do you want to do?
- For how long?
- What will it cost me?
- What would I have to do?
- How will it benefit me?
- Does this open me up to legal issues?
Many people don’t think like this when they approach people about using the land and it usually doesn’t work out for them.
Here is an example of an opening:
I wanted to talk to you about the possibility of us coming to an agreement to start a community garden on your property. A community garden is a piece of land that is garden on by a group of people from the community. Would you be open discussing the possibility of something like that.
What we have done here is really quickly told them what we’d like to speak to them about, we made it clear what a community garden is (most never heard of them!) and the most important part is we ask them if they’d be open to the idea, but make it clear there is any commitment at this point. If they say they want to know more, I’d ask if they have time now or should we schedule some time to discuss it.
Assuming they say yes, here is how I would proceed:
Great! We have a basic plan that you can review and a basic diagram of what it would look like for you to take a look at later, but let me tell you about it. We would like to have ten – 10′x10′ plots that people would garden for their families. The garden would be funded by the dues we collect, so there wouldn’t be any expense to you, in fact the land could be used as a tax write off. If we were to start at this location we’d like to garden here for the foreseeable future, but we can work with you if things change…….
Here we made sure to set the expectations of how big this would be, how long it would be and demonstrate the benefits for the person. We want to stay positive and also don’t want to press for commitments here, we want to open up the conversation to possibilities.
You get the idea at this point. From there work with the person to try to have then agree to a time period, possible even a $1-a-year lease for the next 5 years. There is a lot of good information on securing land for the long term from gardens in New York City see this resource for more info:
- Leases, agreements and other way to secure land in a city
- Tips on Getting land
- The Role Of Governments In Securing Land For Community Gardens
Plan The Garden
When it comes to planning a garden layout there are many things to consider.
- What size and shape will it be?
- Will it be a single field that everyone works together or will it be individual plots?
- Where is the water and where does the sun hit the land the best?
- Will be it be in the ground, raised walled beds or just raised (mounded) beds?
- If we need to expand where will go to? How much could we expand?
- Where will you store your tools?
- Where is the water located?
- Where will the compost bin be?
- Will there be a sitting area?
- Is there going to be a shade structure?
- Will there be a bulletin board?
When you have answered some of these basic questions start just sketching on paper. Once you have finalized at size, form, and location with your group, produce a final version that looks very presentable. A good way to do this is use the free program: “Google SketchUp” or carefully draw it with a ruler and pen.
A great resource for more information is here
Budgets are one of those things that many people don’t like doing, but it is a reality of many gardens. The real need for a budget comes out of the fact that gardens cost money to start and to keep going. A successful garden will develop ways of raising money to cover more than what their expenditures are. It is important to remember that if you need something for the garden, your first impulse should be to see if you can get it donated or at least purchased at a reduced cost.
While grants are a great way to start a garden and launch new programs at your garden, a garden should not rely year after year on grants. This means we need to develop income streams and manage our money well. For a more mature garden it is wise to have some cash reserves on hand in addition to your operating expenses, I suggest at least 20% of your annual expenditures to be held as liquid cash at all times.
The other important thing to remember when dealing with money is to have a paper trail at all times and never rely on a single person to handle the money, oversight is important if there ever are questions of how money is or was being handled. For many groups a bank account will be more cost than it is worth, but being a line item by a sponsoring organization is very realistic. Speak with the property owner if they are business or organization to see where you might be able to leverage some of their assets.
I mentioned that many people don’t like to deal with accounting, but there are those who really don’t mind or even like these types of tasks, leverage them as volunteers to help handle the money.
Here is an example budget: click here
Grants & Fundraising
As mentioned before, grants are a great way to get seed money to build out a new garden, it is also great to expand gardens and their programs. However a garden should work hard to develop revenue streams so that they do not rely on grants. This is the ultimate goal, to be financially self sufficient. The way to do this is through dues, long term partnerships and fund raisers.
The biggest beginner mistakes that occur when it comes to grants is not being sure you meet the requirements, not creating a compelling argument why your need should be funded, and poor writing. People often have a very strong emotional attachment to their garden/program and to them it seems really important. The reality of the matter is you need to show why it is important, with data. Data being hard facts and figures, statistics, from reputable sources, grantors don’t give money on feel-good-ability of a project.
Once you are sure you meet the requirements, consider the group, the call for proposals and other information to see what that grantor is specifically interested in. This can require some reading between the lines, but you want to be sure that your proposal is going to show how your program is going to resonate with what they are seeking and what is important to them. You want to show that you are good fit with them.
In order to make a compelling argument why you should be selected you want to be sure you clearly state the need and demonstrate with data why it is important. From there you want to state what your would like to do, but don’t stop there, you must show how what you want to do DIRECTLY addresses the stated need. This is a really common mistake, not showing a direct and causal relationship between what you want to do and the need. This relationship needs to be backed up with data from reputable sources.
Here is a great basic guide to the formatting and other key aspects of a grant: click here
Here is a great resource on where to find grants: click here
For those who would like a more advanced method to develop this direct relationship read this article on creating logic models: click here
Gathering The Gardeners
The first meeting with all the people interested in gardening is a very exciting one, but it is important to have a plan to be sure you cover you bases and don’t waste people’s time. You want this to be information, useful and still maintain an element of fun to ensure your group keeps up its excitement. Make sure to communicate the meeting details (time, date, location, purpose) several weeks in advance, it is important to give people enough to change their schedules if needed.
Be sure to cast a wide net of places that you get the word out in. Remember that not everyone has computers, so the announcement should be done online and offline. Online places would be local web forums, event postings, local blogs, slow food/foodie venues, Craigslist, city data forum, etc. Offline would be anywhere people congregate: coffee shops, grocery stores, library, bus stops, apartment mail boxes, churches, gyms, etc.
Start out by making introductions, name tags are a good idea, take the time to get to know people, who they are, and why they are interested. Share briefly what you would like to achieve i that meeting and then start. Now at this point some gardens already have an idea of how things will be setup and run, but others want to have the group decide. In some cases you may want to construct or revise the vision document you created. Again getting it down on paper is important to make sure people are thinking the same thing, surprises lead to needless conflicts.
Some key things every first meeting should talk about
- Vision and mission
- How do we select who gets to garden and what does that process look like?
- Will we collect dues and how will we fund things?
- What rules do we want agree to?
- How will we communicate?
- What happens when rules are broken?
- What happens when a plot is abandoned or neglected?
- How will we handle disagreements?
- How is the garden to be managed?
Some other things to consider adding to your agenda:
- Who will the garden serve or what need does it fill?
- Are there conditions for membership (residence, dues, agreement with rules)?
- How will plots be assigned?
- How large should plots be ?
- How should plots be laid out?
- If the group charges dues, how will the money be used? What services, if any, will be provided to gardeners in return?
- Will the group do certain things cooperatively (such as turning in soil in the spring, planting cover crops, or composting)?
- When someone leaves a plot, how will the next tenant be chosen?
- How will the group deal with possible vandalism?
- Will the gardeners meet regularly? If so, how often and for what purposes?
- Will gardeners share tools, hoses, and other such items?
- How will minimum maintenance (especially weeding) be handled both inside plots and in common areas (such as along fences, in flower beds, and in sitting areas)?
- Will there be a set of written rules which gardeners are expected to uphold? If so, how will they be enforced?
Depending on you and your group you can choose what topics you think are the most important, but be sure to cover the basics. This can sometimes take more than one meeting, but it is worth the time. At the close of the meeting thank people for coming and decide on “next steps” which are to do items that you agree on to achieve by a certain time. Having action items coming out of a meeting is an important step to keep thing rolling.
Garden Rules / By Laws
Forming a community garden’s by laws is a key step towards being a successful garden. The fact is that as a group of individuals, there will be disagreement, while compromise is an important skill, there are situations that might need to be handled formally. A set of rules that allows you to cover how situations are to be handled is important when dealing with disagreements. Often they cover what many would consider “common sense” things, but it is important to not assume that everyone has the same values and opinions. For each garden the detail, depth and length of their rules will vary with their level of comfort, level of formality, dependent on their size, etc.
Having a discussion as a group is an important step to establishing what your by laws will be. Make sure you give gardeners ample time to make arrangements to be at the meeting and clearly communicate the gravity of the meeting: that you will be establishing the by laws which will govern your group.
It is often useful to first establish what is important to your group, from this list you can form rules which protect and support the group’s values. Typically these things focus on larger issues such as organic or not, value of diversity, core gardener responsibilities.
Next it is important to build in some administrative formalities to your by laws. Things that are typically included are the collection of dues, expectations of participation, start and end dates for planting season, planting/ maintenance/weeding of garden and how gardeners will be dealt with when violations or grievances occur.
From this point it is suggested that you take a look at other community garden’s bylaws by doing quick web searches to incorporate aspects that garden members feel are important. There are some key suggestions that are made for successful by laws:
- Membership and dues
- What times gardeners can be on the property
- When can gardeners plant, when gardeners must clean up at the end of the season
- A designated date where a plot must be planted by
- The process of notification when a plot is not kept up
- Require gardeners to keep up to date contact information on file
- Statements on smoking, drinking, drugs
- Statements on dogs, kids, and guests
- Statements on release of liability
- Organic considerations
- Process for violations and grievances
- What happens if someone is asked to leave?
- State a system for by laws to be changed
Developing The Garden
Once you have funding and a site plan it is time to get to work! This is one of most fun activities your garden can do because of the high excitement level. For the day of the build consider how many people you will need to help, it should go without saying that those who are going to be part of the garden should be there to help build it. You can also recruit friends, family and other volunteers to help out. In some cases there are certain tasks that you should complete before the big day, this can sometimes include gathering the tools, marking the area, or in some cases having the areas tilled ahead of time.
The day before go out to the site to mentally walk through how you want to organize things. Consider the tasks that need to be completed and what order they need to be done in. How many people will it take to complete them and how long will it take them? It is important to never have people standing around doing nothing, but also be sure to build in breaks. Your job as leader will be to orchestrate things, this often means getting one group going, then the next group, followed by setting the stage for the first group’s next task. If you have all the groups working on their tasks and things are ready for them to move to the next task, join in the work and have fun! It is a good idea to have water available and if you are going to be putting in a long day, consider what you want to do for meals.
If you aren’t sure how to do something in your garden, see if you can bring in people who do to help out. When in a bind, doing some research online can often lead to great resources and video on how to do particular things. For example: how to build a raised bed.
Make sure to take time to take breaks, drink water, chat and have fun!
Surprisingly you don’t have to know a lot about gardening to start a community garden, the most important part of community gardening is really the people skills. The strength of your garden is not how much you know about gardening, but how much as a group you know and how well you share it.
There are some really simple ways for you and your group to get the basics:
- Research on the internet – here is a great beginners guide
- Borrow books from the library
- Have a gardener you know come talk with your group
- Work along side more experienced gardeners
- Contact you local Cooperative Extension
- Invite a Master Gardener to come speak
- Trial and Error
- Take a class at a local community college or gardening organizations
- Connect with farmers or gardening clubs in your area