Our recent post on The Greenbelt Overhaul Alliance of Levittown’s (G.O.A.L.) land remediation projects generated a lot of interest in community gardens. After years of over-industrialization and economic hardship, many inner city communities are undergoing a Renaissance of sorts. Urban dwellers are reclaiming their neighborhoods, supporting local businesses and courting responsible development. Part of this movement is the inclusion of community gardens. Increasing urban green space not only infuses the community with natural beauty, but it can reverse ecological damage, improve property values, and impart a sense of community and connectedness.
The following is a quick 10 step guide to starting your own community garden using ecologically sound methods.
- No Man is an Island – Organize a Community Garden Group
A group as small as 3 can start a community garden, but – in general – the more individuals you involve, the more the community will support the project. With permission, post notices in local coffee shops and business windows. Invite neighbors, local tenants, business owners and the like. Utilize existing organizations and civic groups. Some great volunteer resources include neighborhood centers, youth groups, schools, seniors groups, congregations, homeless shelters and even rehabilitation / treatment centers. Look for folks invested in the community and looking to make a difference.
- Get Organized – Determine the Project’s Leadership and Scope
Determine who will lead / plan the initiative. This should be a group of 3 to 5 people who have the organization skills, time and enthusiasm to make the project a success. They will be responsible for fund-raising, scheduling, delegation, construction planning and overall communication, so they should be up to the task at hand. The leaders should also organize collective meetings where the project scope is hammered out.
- Define Who You Are – What Kind of Community Garden Will You Create?
Determine the type of garden the community requires. Should it be a vegetable or flower garden? Perhaps a combination of both? What purpose does the garden serve? Is it purely a beautification project? Or should it be a place to teach children about sustainable agriculture? Will it be organic? If it produces foodstuff, who should benefit from the harvests? Next, brainstorm ideas for fund-raising and set rules for the garden’s use and participation.
- Take Root – Choose a Garden Site
Contact your local municipal planners about possible sites. Visit each site and determine the best location. Some things to consider when you visit a site include sunshine exposure, water access, and soil quality. I recommend testing the soil for prohibitive levels of pollution. Once you decide on a location, find out who owns the land. Will they allow your community garden team to lease for at least three years? (Often they will for virtually nothing… especially if the prospective garden space is adjacent to an income-generating building – as a garden almost always enhances the building’s attractiveness.) Lastly, find out if public liability insurance will be necessary.
- Find Your Strength – Identify What Resources the Neighborhood Has At Your Disposal
Contact local horticultural societies and see if they can provide information on the best plants for the region and garden conditions. Call local landscaping and gardening companies and see if any are interested in providing pro-bono horticultural expertise. These types of organizations / business are often the best partners a community garden can have.
- Get Funded – Find a Sponsor or Develop an Alternative Funding Model
There are a number of creative ways to fund a community garden initiative, including regular fund raisers and long-term sponsorships. Do a sweep of all the local businesses and explain the project and its objective. They may be able to offer their support in one way or another. If one or several businesses offer to sponsor the project, your garden might feature an official plaque in their honor. Some community gardens self-fund with small monthly dues or occasional fund-raising projects.
- Prepare for Success – Prepare the Garden Space
This is the labor intensive part. Chances are, your space will require considerable preparation. Organize a team (or teams) to clean the space and clear away debris. In most cases, the soil will be very low quality so it is important to prep and churn the soil with an organic soil amendment that will bolster the overall nutrient level. Because of the plot’s general isolation from the natural world, you should treat the ground with a quality microbial inoculant product that will reintroduce all the beneficial soil organisms necessary for a healthy ecology. This will result in soil that is hospitable to plant life and resistant to both drought and water erosion.
- Plants Need Neighborhoods Too – Organize the Garden
Decide how the garden will be organized and map out the plot arrangement. A common method for marking different flower bed zones is to use string and stakes to create visual lines or boundaries. Be sure to section off an area for a shed where you can store and lock away equipment. Also keep an area where you can collect food wastes from the members and compost them or make worm castings. It is nice to include pathways between plots and to surround the garden with beautiful flowers and shrubs. Try to find ones that have bright colors and are scented to attract beneficial insects and people. It goes without saying, but it is important to make the area look pleasing so that it becomes a beloved feature of the community. Once the garden is properly planned, assign areas to different subgroups and begin planting.
- You are a Community – So Be Sure to Communicate
The community garden will require consistent attention and seasonal updates so it’s important to keep the community in contact. A monthly email newsletter is an easy method for staying in touch. Some community groups create websites for updates and forums. Consider monthly meetings as well to establish schedules and bolster the sense of community. You may even identify new community projects to undertake as a group in the future.
- Look to the Future – Seek Out Other Ways to Improve Your Neighborhood
During your monthly meeting, brainstorm other possible garden locations or projects that may contribute to the development of your neighborhood.