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How to Start a Community Garden

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A community garden can provide solutions to a diverse range of unmet needs for communities focused on sustainable agriculture, at-risk youth, mental health and food insecurities. Community gardens can be found in neighborhoods, parks, workplaces and many other locations. We get a lot of questions about the process of building a community garden. If you manage a community garden or are thinking of starting one, take a look at the resources available through the American Community Garden Association (ACGA) at communitygarden.org. ACGA developed the following steps for starting a community garden. We've added our own recommendations below.

1. Organize a meeting of interested people.

Organize a group meeting and invite anyone you think might be interested. These individuals may be business owners, school officials or community leaders. In this first meeting, gauge interest and determine the group's focus. Do you need organic or conventional? Do you want to include flowers or just grow food crops such as vegetables, herbs and other edible plants? What about fruit trees? Do you need plots or raised beds, or what about a communal garden? Once you have a list of interested parties and a list of needs, the next step is to form a committee.

2. Form a planning committee.

A committee can organize the needs and develop a plan. Will one garden support the needs? If enough interest is shown, you may need to develop more than one garden. For example, one garden might use organic production methods and the other garden will use conventional methods. Depending on interest at this point, you might also include members of your local municipality and government groups such as the health department and cooperative extension agents. Hopefully these groups have been involved since the first step. If not, try and involve them at this point. Once plans are made, the committee can form action committees to accomplish specific goals.

3. Identify your resources.

Compile a list of resources you have, what you need and who might be able to help. You will need a site for the garden and someone with horticulture or basic agriculture knowledge. Does the municipality have public land to use, or will you need to find private land? Land use agreements may be needed if the garden site is not owned by your group (see a sample land use agreement at communitygarden.org/resources/sample-land-use-agreement). You might also identify groups such as Boy Scout troops, 4-H clubs or FFA chapters that could use the garden as a project. Some resource needs will not be known until a final plan is approved, but you should start thinking about options now. If you build beds, you will need building material. If you do plots, you will need access to a tiller or tractor.

4. Approach a sponsor.

Next, think about a sponsor or group of sponsors. Depending on your interested party, a sponsor may be easy to find. Committee members may have connections who could provide complete funding for your project. Employer-sponsored community gardens are becoming an additional benefit provided by employers. However, a company-sponsored community garden at the company is almost always exclusive to its staff. It may be possible that a community garden on a neutral site could get a company sponsor and allow outside participants. Sponsorship does not have to be limited to one sponsor. For example, a local fencing company could sponsor fencing supplies and your local lumberyard could sponsor the material needed for raised beds. Is there a nearby landscape company that could donate labor or equipment for ground work? An offer of signage placement may be all it takes to get that needed donation. You also have the option of charging participants for the plot they use or any service provided from the garden. This will generate revenue that can be used for project maintenance and upkeep.

5. Choose a site.

Your site should receive at least six hours of sunlight each day. The site should be near an available water source and have adequate routes of access. Good soil drainage is also important. Take soil samples from possible sites and have them analyzed. Even if the site looks perfect, you can't know the soil composition without a test.

6. Prepare and develop the site.

Once a site has been picked, work on clearing the area, garden design and construction. Will the garden be fenced? A fence can provide security as well as providing a barrier for wildlife that may be more excited about your bountiful harvest than you. If you have plots, they can be bigger and easily maintained with a small tractor if designed correctly. Raised beds can be easier to maintain weed-free spaces in between beds and provide easier access during harvest.

7. Plan for children.

If the garden will be used by families, consider child-friendly play areas and educational signage. A garden is a great place for education. Gardens developed in or near parks provide a great balance because child-friendly areas may already exist.

8. Organize the garden.

How many plots will you have? How will plots be assigned? What is your layout, do you have areas for compost, and will a tool shed be available? Consider what crops will be used. If you plan on working the plots each year with a tiller or tractor, you might want to provide a secondary location for biennial or perennial plants. Will the committee do everything together or will you appoint a garden superintendent? Now is the time to finalize these plans.

9. Determine rules and put them in writing.

Set boundaries for participants. Make participants aware of what can and can't be done. Will you collect dues? When and how? This is the place for that information. Will you require anything from the participants such as required hours of donated labor for general maintenance? Put it in writing, provide copies for participants, and keep signed copies for the garden. You can even post this information somewhere in the garden (see sample garden rules at communitygarden.org/resources/sample-garden-rules). You may also need liability waivers to protect your group. Getting legal advice is a good idea before allowing individuals on the property.

10. Communicate with participants.

Do you have meetings, phone lists, email groups or newsletters? Not being able to communicate can be a big source of frustration within groups. Community gardens provide a venue for being outside and growing your own food, but one of the most overlooked goals of a community garden is to build community. Maintain communication with all participants.

As more and more groups develop community gardens, the benefits of these projects are being realized. These projects can be successful when organization, communication and dedication are at the forefront of the initiative. If you have any questions about developing a community garden, please feel free to contact us.

Will Chaney serves as a pecan management systems senior research associate and has been with the Noble Research Institute since 2008. He received his bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Leadership and his master’s degree in Horticulture from Oklahoma State University. He grew up on his family’s land in south central Oklahoma. His areas of interest are centered around integrating agricultural animal production and tree crop production into a silvopasture system.