How to Start a Community Garden

Author: Alecia Pirulis

South Beach community garden, Miami, Florida

South Beach community garden, Miami, Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Currently, there are over 10,000 community gardens in cities across the United States. This popular trend provides fresh produce, exercise, and a place to socialize with friends and neighbors. Community gardens are also attractive and inviting spaces that benefit the environment through composting and recycling. With Earth Day right around the corner, consider doing a little gardening – whether you have some basil and oregano growing in your kitchen window, tomatoes planted in a container on your patio, or if you decide to take it a step further and organize a community garden.

The first step to organizing a community garden is finding people who are interested in getting involved. Start by asking around and see what kind of response you get. If after this informal research you feel there is significant interest, organize a meeting. Be sure to invite fellow residents, your apartment manager or superintendent, a representative from a local horticulture group, business leaders in the area, etc. At the meeting have an agenda that covers topics such as: Are there any issues or reasons we can’t create a community garden? If we are given the green light, what type of community garden do we want – a vegetable garden, a flower garden, or both? Do we want a strictly organic garden? Who will be allowed to participate? Will we need liability insurance, and should everyone participating sign a liability waiver?

It is possible, especially in a suburban apartment complex, that you’ll be able to get approval to have the garden on the apartment community grounds. If not, look for alternatives: the roof of your urban high-rise, for example, or perhaps an empty lot located nearby – check with local government agencies to find out who owns the lot and see if you can get permission to rent the lot or perhaps even buy it. You want the garden within walking distance so people will stay involved. Also, be sure the location gets plenty of sunlight – about six hours a day.

If you think you have a good shot at getting the space for the garden approved (or rented), the next step is to form a planning committee. You’ll want people who are committed and reliable and who are willing to dedicate a good chunk of time to the project, especially in the beginning stages. The committee will be responsible for getting the garden set up – this includes a weather-proof bulletin board for schedules, events, and notices; a composting area; and if you are using an off-site lot and not a space on the apartment community property, a fence with a locking gate. You may also want to consider sponsors, such as local business leaders, nearby colleges, etc. You’ll need money for rent (if you are renting a lot), donations of tools and seeds, and funds for other expenses. If you don’t want to find sponsors, consider having membership dues (or consider a combination of both).

Before planting anything, the soil should be evaluated. Take a sample and have it tested for possible pollutants. Next, develop the garden. You’ll want to organize the garden into sections and put a sign with the gardener’s name in each section. Use the perimeter of the garden for rose bushes, blackberry bushes, shrubs, and trees that will act as both a deterrent for thieves or vandals and to make the garden attractive to those passing by. Be sure to have spaces for tool storage. Also, leave space for walkways between each garden plot.

You’ll need to keep track of who is planting where, so if they allow their garden to become a bed of dirt and weeds, you know who to contact. Set up some garden rules and post them to the community garden bulletin board. Be sure to include annual clean-up in the rules – everyone with a plot should participate. Also, everyone should have a time when they are responsible for weeding and maintaining the common areas and the perimeter of the garden.

Don’t forget to create common spaces within the garden for people to gather, even if it is just a couple of benches. One of the purposes of a community garden is to help bring people together, so consider holding fun events for garden participants, as well.

In addition to being good for the environment and providing fresh produce for healthier eating, gardening is great exercise and lowers stress. So go ahead and celebrate spring (and Earth Day) by playing in the dirt!