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Tuesday, Jan. 1st 2013

Build a Successful Community Garden

Gardeners know it’s not too early to plan for spring. The same is true if you’re interested in planning a community garden. Much of the work of creating a community garden is done well in advance of soil and lumber deliveries. The success of a community garden, in fact, is determined by the legwork done before any shovels hit the dirt.

The term “community garden” is used to refer to an area that is gardened by a group of people. In many cases, a common garden’s presence in a community has the magical ability to further unite the neighborhood where it is placed. To create that harmony, there are a few crucial steps to take and things to think about.

Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardens Association, says community gardens are 90 percent community and 10 percent gardens. From my personal experience and the experience of successful community garden organizers I’ve known, community is indeed the nutrient most important to thriving common gardens.

Community gardens arise from many different circumstances. Sometimes a group of neighbors decide they want to band together to utilize a space in their area. Businesses can decide to devote land near their operations to employees or neighbors for gardening space. Churches and schools seek to offer their community a chance to garden commonly.

Increasingly, there are groups who are community garden devotees and are dedicated to starting a series of gardens and spreading the gospel of growing your own food. A couple examples of groups like these would be the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Green Urban Initiative and Chicago, Illinois’-based Peterson Garden Project.

However the idea to create a garden arises, there are similar things to consider. Start by bearing in mind who would utilize the garden and loop in the community. Before getting deep into the process of finding a location, identify a group of people who will be helpful in running the garden. Next (but before working on a location or approaching donors for supplies), talk to leaders and neighbors in the general area you’re considering. Once support for a garden is established, the search for location can begin.

In Harrisburg Pa., Green Urban Initiative has successfully established four gardens in different regions of the city. Now that they have a demonstrated presence, communities approach them for support in starting their gardens. Over time, their approach has shifted a bit. They began by partnering with specific organizations and spending a lot of effort in reaching a consensus about the location of the garden. Since then, they have honed their efforts.

“We approached the second garden slightly differently from the first,” said Jason Zubler, head of Green Urban Initiatives (known as GUI), “for this garden, one of our board members suggested the lot. We then drafted fliers and went door-to-door on the blocks surrounding the lot. We also set out our sign saying ‘Community Garden Coming Soon’ along with our website and phone number. We received a few phone calls about plots, but on the day of construction, people were just coming out of the woodwork to help out and lease plots. I believe that by the time the garden was constructed — roughly 4 hours — all but maybe two or three plots were reserved.”

This past year, GUI opened a fifth garden. They approached community leaders and placed a sign, but they did not canvas the neighborhood as extensively as they had in the past. Through a series of events, and without notice to the gardeners, the City of Harrisburg bulldozed the newest garden last September. GUI feels their failure to actively talk to as many neighbors as possible was the primary reason the garden was destroyed.

“If you don’t involve the community,” says LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project in Chicago, “You can’t have a community garden.” While Joy’s group also distributes fliers in the neighborhoods and reaches out to local organizations, their highly successful approach to community gardens is novel.

The site of the first Peterson Garden Project community garden in Chicago had been a large Victory Garden during WWII. The Peterson Garden Project establishes pop-up Victory Gardens.

The Peterson Garden Project builds pop-up Victory Gardens. Based on the history of urban efforts to grow food during war time, but rooted in modern realities, the Peterson gardens are intended to be short-term gardens that educate gardeners about growing food while uniting the community. The purpose is to inspire and to demonstrate how much food can be grown in urban settings. The project had over 2,500 gardeners in 2012 and received the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award for their work using empty urban land.

The benefits of community gardens are important and varied. From reducing crime to building better understanding within communities, growing vegetables in a common space has been shown to be profoundly productive. If you’d like to establish a community garden this spring, start by establishing a small community to manage the gardens then focus on gaining support from the surrounding neighbors this winter, so by spring, you can focus on your soil and plants and have a rewarding experience in the garden.

by Laura Mathews – December 2012




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