The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Planning your community garden

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Healthy food, fresh food, local food, or a need to stretch the family budget. The reasons vary but more and more people are interested in vegetable gardening; however, many people do not have a place to garden. Over the last few years community gardens have resurfaced as the solution.

The rewards from community gardens are vast. They can beautify neighborhoods, reduce food budgets, provide nutritious fresh produce and cultivate opportunities for exercise and interaction. Shared gardens can transform a group of people into a community; however, shared gardens need a strong foundation to remain a positive experience.

Gardeners know the cycle. Our enthusiasm bubbles over in spring, but when summer rolls around with its accompanying weed and water worries some gardeners are ready to throw in the trowel. It's bad enough in our own backyards, but when it is a declining community garden it flavors the whole community.

Autumn is the perfect time to start the development of a community garden. One of the first steps to a successful community garden is to organize early, well before the gardening season. First, talk to existing community garden groups to learn about their successes and challenges.

Collect names of interested people in your community such as neighbors, tenants or area community organizations. Conduct an initial meeting. Serve snacks or solicit friends to bring a dessert or appetizer. As one person told me "the promise of brownies" always works for her to get people to a neighborhood meeting.

In the initial meeting discuss the vision for the garden. Community gardens can be organized in a myriad of ways such as a garden with individually "owned" plots, a shared garden for community use, communal garden for food pantries, or a school/children's garden. A community garden might also be a place to demonstrate gardening techniques. Hopefully a consensus can be reached as to the garden's mission.

From this initial meeting (or meetings) form a planning committee. Aim for at least 10 committed people or families for your committee. Many duties and responsibilities need to be ironed out before a seed goes into the ground. Divide and conquer duties by forming sub-committees which could include: funding/acquisitions and partners; work day organization; construction; communication and publicity; education; and policy, rules and guidelines.

Most of the time people already have a site in mind for their community garden. However a few items should be considered before deciding on a site. Be sure the site matches your vision of the garden. For example vegetable gardens need at least 6 hours of sun daily and 8 hours or more is best. Gardeners will need easy access to water. Also gardeners should have easy and safe access to the gardens. The most successful gardens are the ones nearest to the community of gardeners.

Often potential garden sites once supported buildings; therefore, conduct investigation at to the site's history. Soil contaminants may be an issue and remediation may be needed before it can be used as a garden. The soil may be predominantly clay or littered with demolition debris.

Once a site is selected obtain any appropriate use agreements or lease agreements in writing. Be sure to address insurance and liability issues as well as any costs associated with using the site such as who pays the water bill. Also determine who will pay for any necessary improvements such as grading or debris removal.

With proper initial planning, community gardens can enhance our health, expand our budgets and grow our communities.

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