There’s nothing quite as satisfying as growing your own fresh flowers and vegetables in a home garden. Especially if you spend most of your day sitting behind a desk, it’s a welcome change of pace to spend some time outdoors, working with your hands and feeling physically connected to the Earth. And although a garden can be a lot of work, it more than pays for itself in tender lettuce and juicy, homegrown tomatoes that taste far superior to anything you can buy at the supermarket.
Unfortunately, many city dwellers don’t have a yard to plant a garden in, or even a sunny balcony for a container garden. And yet at the same time, many cities are dotted with vacant lots – perfectly good land sitting unused and filling up with ugly debris. Turning that land into urban gardening space that residents could share would be a win-win for everyone.
That’s exactly the idea behind community gardens. They’re shared plots of land where people gather together to grow fresh veggies and flowers. In cities all over America, community gardens are turning ugly, unused spaces into green, productive vegetable plots – as well as giving apartment dwellers a chance to enjoy the pleasures of gardening.
Benefits of Community Gardens
Community gardens are part of the sharing economy. They make it possible for many people to enjoy a resource – in this case, land for gardening – that they couldn’t afford on their own. However, it’s not just the gardeners themselves who gain from community gardens – the benefits extend to the rest of the neighborhood and even to society as a whole.
Here are a number of the benefits of community gardens:
- Beautifying Cities. Many community gardens sit on what were once vacant lots filled with rubbish. When urban gardeners take over, they clear away the debris and replace it with lush greenery. Community gardening turns urban eyesores into vibrant green space, which improves the quality of life for everyone in the neighborhood – not just the people who actually tend the garden. There’s even some evidence that having a community garden increases property values in the surrounding area.
- Fresh Produce. Many urban neighborhoods are “food deserts” – places where it’s nearly impossible to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Community gardens provide fresh, nutritious produce for many families who couldn’t otherwise afford it, improving their diet and their overall health. They also relieve hunger by donating their excess produce to food pantries.
- Healthy Lifestyles. Urban gardening gives city dwellers a chance to enjoy fresh air and healthy outdoor exercise. They also provide a peaceful retreat from the noise and bustle of an urban neighborhood, easing stress for residents.
- A Cleaner Environment. The plants in a community garden add oxygen to the air and help reduce air pollution. They also absorb rainwater, reducing the amount of runoff that runs through the streets and carries pollutants into rivers and lakes. Many community gardens also take part in composting, recycling plant waste such as leaves and tree trimmings into useful fertilizer.
- Stronger Communities. Sharing a community garden gives people a chance to connect with their neighbors. Gardeners also feel more personally invested in the places where they live, gaining sense of ownership and community spirit. And because they get people out of their apartments where they can keep an eye on the street, community gardens can help reduce crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
- Educational Opportunities. Working in a community garden is a good way for kids to learn about where food comes from and gain a basic introduction to environmental issues, work skills, and business principles. It can be educational for adults as well. Community gardens give people a chance to meet and learn about neighbors who come from different backgrounds, including people of different ages, races, cultures, and social classes.
Inside a Community Garden
In the heart of the New York City neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen nestles a patch of green called the Clinton Community Garden. This 15,000-square-foot lot contains 110 individual garden plots, as well as a public area with a lawn and beds of flowers and herbs.
It’s also home to a colony of bees, tended by the residents, and a haven for at least 60 species of birds. Through the garden wind paths of salvaged brick, flanked by benches made from concrete blocks and slabs of reclaimed slate.
History of Clinton Community Garden
In 1978, the spot where the Clinton Community Garden now sits was a vacant lot, owned by the city and abandoned for 28 years. It was strewn with trash, debris from two demolished buildings, and rusted-out cars, and nothing flourished there except crime. However, a few residents spotted some wild tomato plants growing out of the rubble and had the idea that this trash heap could become a garden. A year later, they leased the lot from the city and began planting flowers, herbs, vegetables, and fruits.
In 1981, the garden was thriving, but so was the city’s real estate market, and developers saw the 15,000-square-foot lot as a prime building site. The city was preparing to sell it, so the residents went into action, starting a “Square-Inch Campaign” to raise funds and buy the property. Mayor Ed Koch joined the fight, making the first $5 pledge to save one square inch of the garden space. Eventually, the residents won out, and in 1984 the Clinton Community Garden became the first community garden in the city to receive permanent parkland status.
How Clinton Community Garden Operates
The Clinton Community Garden is a 501(c)(3) – a type of nonprofit organization that’s exempt from taxes. It’s run by a steering committee elected by all the gardeners at their annual membership meeting. The organization has a detailed set of bylaws explaining who can be a member, how the officers are elected, and what their powers and responsibilities are.
Gardening and maintenance tasks are done entirely by volunteers. Individual gardeners are required to work their own plots – planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting – at least once a week during the growing season, and they must also spend at least 10 hours a year to helping maintain the rest of the garden. They are required to keep the paths next to their garden beds weed-free and take proper care of the garden tools and hoses. At the end of the year, they must explain how they fulfilled their volunteer requirements before they can renew the plot for another year.
Strict as these rules are, it’s very rare for anyone who holds one of the garden plots to give it up. The waiting list for garden beds has nearly 100 people on it, with applications stretching back over six years. Only residents of the immediate neighborhood – between 34th and 57th Streets, from the west side of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River – are eligible to claim a plot.
Visiting the Garden
Clinton Community Garden is open to the public 20 hours each week, on weekends and sometimes early on Wednesday mornings. Like the gardeners themselves, visitors to the garden have to follow a strict set of rules. Pets, bicycles, smoking, littering, amplified music, horseplay of any kind, and picking flowers or plants – except for herbs from the community herb bed – are not allowed. Groups of 10 or more people can’t visit the garden without permission from the steering committee.
To make sure that visitors follow the rules, the committee tries to have one of the gardeners present as a “host” whenever the garden is open. They can do a bit of work in their plots during this time, but they have to keep most of their attention on the front garden area and the people in it.
When it’s not open to the public, the garden gate is kept locked. However, for a $10 fee, members can get a key and let themselves in at any time between dawn and dusk. They can also bring guests into their individual garden areas, as long as they follow all garden rules.
Finding or Starting a Community Garden
The best way to find a community garden in your area is through the website of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), an organization that promotes community gardening throughout the United States and Canada. The ACGA site has a list of community gardens that you can search by address, city, or ZIP code to find gardens within a radius of 5, 10, 25, 50, or 100 miles.
If there is no community garden in your area, the ACGA offers information on how to start your own. Here’s a basic outline of the steps you need to follow to put together a community garden in your neighborhood.
1. Talk to Your Neighbors
Talk to people in your neighborhood to find out whether they are interested in a community garden. Include both people and local organizations – such as community groups, gardening societies, and homeowners’ and tenants’ associations – in the conversation.
Discuss what kind of garden would best serve the needs of your community. For instance, talk about what would be most useful to grow in the garden: vegetables, flowers, or both. Discuss whether people would prefer a single space that everyone manages together, or separate plots for individual people to tend. Also, find out whether people would prefer to make the garden organic.
If there seems to be enough support for the idea of a community garden, form a group to take charge of the project. Invite the people who are most interested, and who have the time to invest, to be part of this committee. Once you form your group, get together to talk about your ideas for the project and develop a plan. If necessary, assign specific people to particular jobs, such as funding, publicity, and preparing the garden site.
2. Identify Resources
Figure out what resources your town has that could help you with your community garden project. Possible resources include:
- Local municipal planners, who can help you find possible sites for your garden
- Gardening clubs and societies, as well as individuals with experience in gardening and landscaping
- Your state’s Master Gardener program, if there is one, which can help you deal with gardening challenges
You can also find useful resources online. The Community Garden Resource Guide on the website of Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity, includes links to a variety of sources on community gardens, gardening in general, urban agriculture, and how to find funding.
3. Find a Site
This is the most crucial step in planning a community garden. Look around your neighborhood for a lot that has the following traits:
- Is not being used for anything else.
- Gets plenty of sunshine – at least six hours a day, if you are planning to grow vegetables.
- Is relatively flat.
- Has a source of water available. If you are not sure, contact your local water utility to ask whether the property has a water meter.
- Does not contain any large, heavy pieces of debris that would be difficult to remove.
- Is close to you and the other neighbors who want to take part in the community garden – ideally within walking distance.
Try to find at least three different sites that could work for your garden so you have backups in case your first choice doesn’t work out. Write down the address of each site; if you can’t find its address, write down the addresses of the properties on either side.
Contact the owner of the site you like best to ask whether you can use the land. If you don’t know who owns the lot, you can find out by going to the county tax assessor’s office. Write the owner a letter describing how your community garden project will work and its benefits to the community, and ask whether you can lease the land for a nominal fee, such as $1 per year.
If the owner agrees, the next step is to negotiate a lease. Try to lease the land for at least three years. Include a waiver that protects the owner from liability if anyone is injured while working in the garden. Look into the possibility of buying liability insurance to protect yourself in the same case.
Before you sign your lease, have the soil at the site tested for possible pollutants, such as heavy metals. If any are present, this site probably isn’t a good choice for your garden. A soil test can also tell you about the soil’s fertility and pH, which is useful information to have when you’re preparing the site.
4. Plan Your Garden
Decide what you want your community garden to include. Measure the site and draw out a simple scale map that you can use to plan out the location of different components, such as garden beds and paths. Then meet with your garden group to discuss how you want to lay out your garden.
Community gardens commonly include:
- Individual garden plots
- Paths between beds
- Compost bins
- A shed or other structure for storing tools
- Spots to hook up hoses for watering
- A common area for gathering, which could include benches or picnic tables and a source of shade
- A fence around the outside to protect your garden from vandalism and theft
Some other nice elements to include are flower beds, fruit trees, and a community bulletin board. Another possible feature is a special garden area just for kids, who are usually more interested in the process of digging and planting than in the size of the harvest.
5. Develop a Budget
Once you know what you want your garden to include, you can figure out what it’s all going to cost. Even if all the labor is provided by volunteers, you still need to pay to lease the land and to buy seeds, tools, fertilizer, compost, and other garden needs. The Community Garden Start-Up Guide developed by the University of California Co-Operative Extension, Los Angeles County, says that starting a basic community garden typically costs between $2,500 and $5,000.
There are several ways to fund your community garden:
- Charge Membership Dues. Under this system, each member pays an annual fee to support the garden. You can raise enough this way to pay your ongoing costs from year to year, but it isn’t an ideal way to raise your start-up costs. Raising several thousand dollars at once would make the dues so high that many members would no longer be interested.
- Find Sponsors. Possible sponsors for a community garden include churches, local businesses, and your town’s department of parks and recreation. If you can’t find one sponsor to cover the whole cost of starting the garden, you can try asking for smaller contributions from many sponsors. Local businesses can also help with donations of seeds, plants, tools, or other materials.
- Seek Grants. Various grants are available for funding community projects. However, applying for them is a long and complex process that can take six months or more. Also, you need to have a sponsor or agent that is that is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, such as a church or a charity, to administer your funding.
- Hold Fundraisers. You can raise money from the community through a variety of fundraising activities. Possibilities include car washes, rummage sales, and bake sales.
If you can’t raise enough money to fund all your dreams for the garden at once, you can try scaling back your plans. Start out with just a basic garden design, and save some of your other ideas to be added in future years.
While you’re working on budgeting, talk to an accountant or a lawyer to find out whether there are any tax issues that could affect your community garden. According to UrbanAgLaw.org, a website devoted to legal issues surrounding urban gardening, most community gardens operate as either 501(c)(3) organizations or 501(c)(7) organizations, which are informal clubs formed strictly for social purposes. These groups do not have to pay taxes as long as they earn no money from their activities.
6. Prepare the Site
Even before you’ve worked out all the details for your design or raised all the money you need to build the garden, you can get started preparing the site for planting. Organize teams of volunteers to do the following:
- Clear the site of debris
- Set up the irrigation system, digging trenches and laying pipes if necessary
- Mark the locations of beds and paths
- Put up a fence
- Dig the beds and add compost
- Plant shade and fruit trees, if they are a part of your garden
- Cover paths with mulch or gravel
7. Establish Rules
Before you can actually start gardening, you need to set some rules. This ensures that all gardeners know exactly what’s expected of them. Get the rest of the gardeners involved in this process, since people are more likely to follow rules they have helped to create.
Your rules should cover such topics as:
- Funding. Decide whether gardeners should pay any annual dues, and if so, who collects them. Also, figure out who gets to decide how to use the money raised for the garden. Set up a bank account specifically for the community garden funds.
- Membership. Decide what people have to do to join the garden and how plots are assigned. Figure out whether you want all the gardeners to meet on a regular basis, and if so, how often. Also, decide what hours the garden should be open and, if your gate has a lock, who should have keys.
- Maintenance. Determine whether gardeners should share tools or bring their own. Also, decide who is responsible for caring for the shared areas of the garden, such as weeding paths and mowing lawns. Contact the city council for help setting up city services, such as trash pickup.
8. Start Gardening
Now that you have your funds in hand, your site prepared, and your rules laid out, your community garden is ready to open for business. Let all the gardeners in to start planting their individual beds, and work together to plant common areas such as flower beds.
Once your garden is up and running, spread the word to let the rest of the community know about it. Invite visitors to tour the garden, and share updates through town bulletin boards or social media networks. You can even throw a party to celebrate the “grand opening” of your garden and recognize all the people who helped make it happen.
Don’t forget to keep lines of communication open among members, as well. Ways to do this include a telephone tree, an e-mail list, or a rainproof bulletin board in the garden itself. Make sure all gardeners know about small problems early on, before they turn into big problems. Continue to meet regularly to review your garden plan and make any changes as needed, based on what you have learned or on feedback from the neighbors.
A community garden is a big project, and definitely not one you should undertake lightly. It can take months of hard work and planning before your garden project finally bears fruit – or vegetables, as the case may be. But for many people, the benefits of community gardening – fresh air and exercise, green space in cities, the chance to build community, and the taste of a ripe tomato you grew – make the effort well worth it.
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