Starting a Community Garden: A Step-By-Step Guide

Community gardening is an excellent idea for city dwellers. It allows communities to grow fresh foods for themselves and their families. It’s also a great way to connect with the community and bring together people within the same neighborhood.

Above all, collaborative gardening minimizes feelings of isolation within the community, increases a sense of ownership, and fosters a community identity.

For the above reasons, many urban communities now partake in community gardening. Typically, individuals join existing gardening communities. However, one can also start a community gardening project and recruit members. Below, we discuss how to start a community garden.

What’s a Community Garden?

A community garden is an area used for growing animals or plants, created and maintained collaboratively by several members of the public.

Community gardens can take place on public or private land and typically involves a broad cross-section of the public. However, it can also involve selected general population sectors, such as a school garden run by students, teachers, and parents.

Starting a community garden: a step-by-step guide
Starting a community garden: a step-by-step guide

Why Start a Community Garden?

Different communities start community gardens for different reasons. However, the most common reason a group of people would start a community garden is the desire to grow fresh farm produce.

Many families living in the city would like to grow their own vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Some want to do this to easily access fresh food, while others are attracted to the possibility of saving money on daily bills. Others, especially the environment-conscious, also do it for the environment, while some simply find gardening relaxing and a way to exercise while spending time outdoors.

Above all, people from certain cultures may want to grow items that aren’t readily available in local supermarkets. Community gardening can help solve most of these challenges.

Benefits of Community Gardening 

The benefits of community gardening are endless. From providing members with a source of fresh produce to providing a way to connect with the environment, a community garden can transform the lives of urban dwellers. However, standout benefits often include the following;

  • Enhances self-reliance among members
  • Serves as a source of nutritious foods
  • Can reduce family food budgets
  • Improves quality of life of members
  • Can catalyze community development
  • Stimulates social interaction
  • Gardening conserves resources and green spaces
  • It’s a source of exercise, recreation, and therapy
  • Can create income opportunities for members
  • Promotes social integration and cohesion

How to Start a Community Garden 

Now that you know the meaning of a community garden and its potential benefits to members and the community, in general, it’s time to start your community garden. You can do so in 11 steps as follows.

1. Get the Neighbors Involved

The first step is to discuss your noble idea with your neighbors to see if anyone shares your aspirations and vision.

From experience, you need at least ten interested families to start a community garden. Survey the residents in the neighborhood to see if you can raise the desired number. You can even distribute community garden flyers inviting interested parties to get involved.

Get the Neighbors Involved
Get the Neighbors Involved

Existing groups, such as church groups, school communities, and neighboring communities, are usually good resources. Join the groups or ask to speak to the members at a scheduled meeting and share your vision.

You’re only ready for the next step when you have complete buy-in from at least ten families. Otherwise, you may have to give up or continue seeking support.

2. Form a Gardening Group 

Once you get the requisite community buy-in, the next step is to form a gardening group. A gardening group is considered the first step in formalizing your community gardening plans. The group will help you make decisions and divide work effectively. Working as a focused group also ensures that every member has a vested interest in the garden and is committed to contributing to its design, development, and maintenance.

The typical community gardening group has at least two officers – a president and a treasurer. Of course, you can have more if you wish. Besides chairing group meetings and spearheading fundraisings, the officials have a duty to maintain a contact list and ensure transparent and meaningful communication among group members. Contacts may include phone numbers, email addresses, etc. Make sure to schedule elections at least once a year.

The first responsibility of the community gardening group is to brainstorm what to plant, possible properties, potential partners, and recruitment plans. All these must be discussed in the first meeting. The first meeting should also involve assigning duties to each member. Don’t forget to schedule a date for the second meeting.

One of the most effective tips to help you begin on the right foot is to start with a discussion on the “community garden vision.” To ensure that no one feels left out, go round the group asking each member to share their thoughts and input. Then note each member’s contribution on a large pad for everyone to see. This vision will guide the rest of the community gardening process.

3. Finding Land for the Community Garden 

You’re progressing well. With the community gardening group in place, the next step is to find land for the project. This can be one of the most important steps in the entire project because the availability, size, and quality of the land impact the project’s success.

Begin by looking around the neighborhood for a vacant lot that gets plenty of sunshine. The best lot for gardening receives at least six hours of sunshine daily. The site should also be relatively flat, though slight slopes are tolerable. Some plots may have rubble and debris. Only consider such plots if the debris is removable.

Other considerations when selecting a plot for community gardening are as follows;

  • Security: The best lot for community gardening has a fence and gate for security. The gate should be wide enough for vehicles to pass through.
  • Accessibility: The site must be within walking distance or no more than a short drive from the local community.
  • The shape of the garden: Although this isn’t a very strict requirement, regular-shaped gardens are easier to work when using power tillers.

We recommend identifying at least three lots and selecting the best of them. Note down the address of the lot and nearest cross street. If you can’t locate the address of the lot, note down the addresses of the adjacent lots.

Starting a community garden: a step-by-step guide
Starting a community garden: a step-by-step guide

4. Find out the availability of the land

You cannot plan for a piece of land that’s not available for leasing. Fortunately, reaching out to find out the owner of a piece of land is a straightforward process.

Take the information you collected in step #3 above to your county’s tax assessor’s office. They’ll help you find out the owner of the identified lots. They’ll also tell you if the land is available for leasing. If it’s a public lot, ask the city’s engineering division if you can lease the piece. You may need to repeat processes #3 and #4 a few times to find vacant and available land.

Method and Time of Travel to Garden

The data in Table 1 indicates that for the most part, participants either live or work very close to the location of their community gardens. Over half the respondents walk to their plots, for example. Approximately two-thirds require less than 10 minutes of travel time to get to their plots regardless of travel method. Only 10% need 20 minutes or more.

Table 1.
Method and Time of Travel to Garden
Method of Travel to Garden Respondents (%)
Walk 53
Car 41
Bike 4
Public Transportation 2
Travel Time to Garden (minutes) Respondents (%)
Less Than 5 41
5 to 9 25
10 to 14 16
15-19 8
20 and more 10

5. Check for Water Availability 

You can ask about water availability when asking about the availability of the lot. Alternatively, you may ask the neighbors to allow you to use their water. Whichever the option, remember that water is critical for any form of gardening.

Depending on the size of the garden, you may need a ½ to a one-inch water meter. Getting the meter is relatively easy if the lot was previously served. However, it takes longer and costs a little more if the lot has never been served.

6. Contact the Land Owner 

Now you’re ready to get permission from the landowner. Begin by calling the landowner to see if they’re open to the idea of starting a community garden on their lot. If so, write a formal letter seeking permission to use the property for a community garden.

If everything goes well, establish a term of use of the site and prepare a lease. When drafting the lease agreement, a few things to keep in mind include price, duration, and who takes responsibility for any injuries on the lot. You should try to get the lot for at least three years at the best rate possible. You should also accept responsibility for any harm on the lot for the duration of the contract. A “hold harmless” waiver is therefore needed. Additionally, you need to purchase liability insurance.

  • Signing a “hold harmless” waiver: The “hold harmless” waiver typically states that in case one of the gardeners is injured on the lot, the landowner is held “harmless” and will not be sued. Each gardener must be made aware of the agreement and should sign the waiver.
  • Obtaining liability insurance: The easiest way for community gardeners to obtain liability insurance is to contact the neighborhood organization, nonprofit, or an existing business that holds property in the area to put a rider on their liability insurance. However, you can also purchase your liability insurance independently, though it’s more expensive.

7. Get a Soil Test

Once you’ve signed the lease, get the soil tested to determine its pH and nutrient composition. You’ll need this information down the line.

8. Plan the Garden 

Community members must collaborate to plan, design, and set up the land for the gardening project. The most important steps here are as follows;

  • Measure the land and make a simple to-scale site map.
  • Schedule two or three garden design meetings. Invite everyone interested.
  • Generate ideas and visualize the design with simple drawings and photos.
  • Record group discussions and decisions in official minutes.

So, what exactly are some of the issues and items you need to discuss in your garden planning and design meetings?

Individual plots 

Although you’re forming a community garden, you need to divide it into individual plots to encourage individual commitment. Without individual plots, it’s very difficult to achieve community involvement. Individual plots shouldn’t be too big. Ideally, each person should get a 4 x 8-12-foot plot (if you’re working on raised beds) and a 10 x 10 to 20 x 20-foot piece if working on in-ground plots. Make sure to leave 3-4-foot paths pathways between plots.

Watering system

You need a hose bib or faucet for every four plots. This allows for easy and affordable hand watering. Drip and soaker irrigation are also practical, though slightly more expensive. Moreover, the latter two watering systems work best for deep-rooted ornamentals and fruit trees. You can design the irrigation system yourselves or hire a professional contractor for the same.

A shed

You’ll need a shed where members can store gardening tools, supplies, and materials. The location, size, and design of the shed are up to you.

Seating

Besides the shed, a community garden also needs a bench or picnic table where gardeners can sit and relax. Ideally, you want to position the seating area under a shady tree. However, you can also construct one from wood or pipe and plant fruits such as grapes, kiwis, and squash around it.

Composting 

Finally, your community garden will also need shared composting. These can be easily made using wood pellets.

Other items to discuss when planning and designing your garden are; a garden sign, community bulletin board, fruit tree orchard, water fountain, perimeter landscaping, children’s area, and meeting area.

9. Budgeting 

Using the planning and design minutes, you can now begin budgeting for the project. You may need to call local stores to find out the prices of the items you need. Unfortunately, community gardens aren’t very cheap to start. Even a basic garden can cost over $5,000 to start. If you can’t raise the amount upfront, feel free to set aside some plans for “phase two” of the project.

10. Sourcing Capital  

Different community garden groups raise capital in different ways. The most common way is to split the cost among members. For instance, if a 20-member group needs $5,000, you can split it such that each member contributes $250. However, there are a couple of other ways to raise capital.

First, you can obtain donations from interested members of the community. Many local businesses are thrilled to provide materials from fencing posts to plants to help community garden projects. All you need is a letter describing your project and asking for support. Consider attaching your “wish list” so that interested persons know what they can donate.

Another way to raise money for community gardening is through fundraisers. For example, a car wash, crafts, rummage sale, or pancake breakfast can help raise good money. Finally, you can also apply for a grant from a tax-exempt source such as a church or nonprofit corporation. Just beware that grant applications can take six months or longer to pay off.

11. Grow and Develop the Garden 

After getting the capital, you can now start actual gardening, i.e., growing crops and rearing animals in line with your goals and objectives.

At this point, you only need to make sure everything works as planned and be prepared to handle any challenges along the way.

Review your prior group agreement to ensure each member knows the garden rules. If possible, make sure each member has a copy of the agreement. Also, ensure you have;

  • A garden bank account
  • Volunteer job descriptions
  • Schedule for meetings
  • Garden fee structure

Beyond that, plan for the following;

Communication

Meaningful communication is the glue that keeps groups together. If communication dies, the group dies, and the project follows. So, make sure to create clear communication paths to ensure that group members are on the same page at all times. Regular meetings, voting, and having translators to overcome language barriers are a few ways to enhance communication within the team.

Compost/trash recycling 

Nearly all community gardeners recycle compost to generate manure for their farms. Heaps of waste can also become an eyesore, create a fire hazard, and hurt your relationship with the landowner and the local community. So, it’s crucial to have a trash recycling and waste pickup program.

Replacing dropouts

A few members will inevitably drop out along the way – it happens to all groups. You need a strategy to replace the dropouts. First, you need a clause in your member agreement that states a member forfeits their place in the group and right to their plot if they don’t plant within one month or maintain the plot. The group can then scout new members to replace the dropouts.

Starting a community garden: a step-by-step guide
NRPA Park Pulse. Source: https://www.nrpa.org/publications-research/park-pulse/lessons-in-the-community-garden/

Gardening Methods 

Let’s round up by looking at the different gardening methods to consider for your community garden. The most common methods are;

  • Organic gardening
  • Square foot gardening
  • Companion planting
  • Mulching
  • Composting
  • Rain gardens
  • Container gardening
  • Accessible gardening
  • Gardening with native plants

We won’t go into the details of all the different farming methods. Instead, we want to focus on the approach nearly all community gardeners adopt, i.e., organic farming.

Organic Gardening Basics

Essentially, organic farming means farming without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Instead, organic farmers think of plants as whole systems within nature and work in harmony within the natural systems.

Thus, this approach advocates for minimizing and continually replenishing any resources the plant consumes using organic matter (compost) rather than using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Getting Healthy Soil

The most important step in organic farming is identifying suitable soil for the gardening project. The easiest way to do so is to conduct a soil test before the project commences. Ideally, gardening soil is dark-colored, smells sweet, and compresses into a loose lump in your hand. The presence of earthworms also characterizes fertile gardening soil.

Farmers are after that required to replenish the nutrients plants use by mixing compost manure into the soil as frequently as possible.

Controlling weeds without herbicides  

Organic farmers can implement various strategies to control weeds without herbicides. First off, traditional weeding with a specialized hoe allows farmers to slice off weeds below the soil surface without impacting the main plants.

Two other techniques are mulching and ensuring the weeds don’t grow to flower. Mulching with shredded leaves, straw, dry grass clippings, etc., blocks light from reaching the weeds, thus stopping down or stopping weed growth.

Managing pests without pesticides 

The first step to controlling pests in an organic farm is to assume that most plants can withstand a little nibbling and outgrow minor pest damage. By assuming so, farmers can overlook pests that don’t cause significant plant damage and only focus on those that may cause serious issues.

Beyond that, organic farmers can also monitor pests and destroy them before they begin to reproduce. So, how can they destroy the pests? There are several options, including horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps, and garlic. Hot pepper sprays also work well against many pests, as does a baking soda solution (baking soda plus water).

Encouraging natural predators of the identified pesticides to roam your farm is another way to manage pests. For instance, growing plants with tiny blossoms, such as sweet alyssum and dill, which attract predatory insects that feed on nectar, can help control pests. Other solutions may include;

  • Growing plants suited to the area
  • Diversifying the garden
  • Making successive sowings

Barriers such as row covers, netting, and plant collars can also help control pests. However, if you need a more aggressive solution, then consider Bacillus Thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacteria that disrupts and digestion of caterpillars and other leaf-eaters.

How to control diseases without fungicides 

Like pests and weeds, there are several ways to control plant diseases without fungicides in line with organic farming best practices.

First, choose plants suited for the location. The local agricultural office will help you identify plants that do well in your area with few if any diseases. More importantly, choose resistant varieties. Look on the tags at the garden center or read the catalog description for mention of disease resistance.

After getting the right plants, plant them in the right conditions. Make sure it has enough nutrients and water to fight any diseases keeping in mind that, like humans, a stressed-out plant is more susceptible to disease.

You can also control diseases by ensuring that plans have enough room to grow. If the plants are crowded, diseases spread more quickly. Moreover, air doesn’t circulate well among crowded plants, which can accelerate the spread of diseases or even cause a few new diseases. Above all, water your garden regularly and deeply and allow the top-level soil to dry out before watering again.

If a disease appears even after implementing all the above tips, remove the infected leaves (or entire plants) from your garden as soon as possible.

Summary

As you can see, community gardening can be incredibly beneficial for people living in urban centers. It offers a reliable source of fresh produce and even cuts food budgets. Moreover, it fosters a sense of community while providing an avenue for exercising and outdoor excursions.

However, starting a community garden isn’t as easy as many people think. Between finding suitable land and planting the first seeds, it takes significant effort. You even need to create a lease agreement and raise money to lease the lot and acquire tools, materials, and supplies.

Nevertheless, if you feel it’s what you need to transform your community, give it a go. The rewards are bountiful if you can carry on to the end.

Fun Home Vegetable Gardening Facts

  • 10% of gardeners are between the ages of 45-64
  • 33% of gardeners have a college degree
  • 47% of gardeners have full-time employment
  • 22% of gardeners are retired

Useful links and other sources

Urban Community Gardening: Moving toward a Sustainable Future [PDF]

This report identifies several best practices regarding effective engagement, self-governance and sustainability practices of community gardens.

University of Missouri. Extension Service.

A guide to planning, starting and sustaining a community gardening project. Identifies
questions to ask and things to consider when getting started.

This guide to community gardens covers organizing a garden, location and landowner considerations in site selection, garden design, decisions related to building the garden, and soil amendments.

ChangeLab Solutions.

Toolkit providing legal resources and information in plain language to support landowners, sponsoring organizations, and gardeners in “establishing community gardens on vacant or underutilized parcels of land.”
Includes model lease, gardener’s agreement, and garden rules, as well as discussion checklists.

USDA. Food and Nutrition Service.

Tips for every stage of the garden, from site selection and materials to harvesting and accepting donations.
Though designed with school gardens in mind, covers many issues also applicable to community gardens.

American Horticultural Society.

After an intensive training program, Master Gardeners volunteer in communities, providing advice to local gardeners and support for gardening efforts. Use the map to find Master Gardening programs in your state.

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