On abandoned lots and at schools, office parks, retirement centers, and churches in more than 10,000 diverse locations across North America, gardeners without land of their own and those who want to beautify their neighborhoods come together to create community gardens. Some are strictly ornamental, but many produce fruits and vegetables for the members themselves and needy people in the community. All bring a variety of benefits to the participants and to the surrounding area. The benefits include:
Many European cities offer residents "allotments"—small plots in the surrounding area where gardeners can enjoy the experience of sowing and growing. But in the United States and Canada, community gardens are typically organized and led by local volunteers. Often, members have individual plots where they grow food for themselves, but in some gardens the group shares all the labor and the harvest.
In most North American cities, municipal parks departments and/or nonprofit organizations provide support and resources to community garden groups. If you want to start a community garden where you live, get in touch with the American Community Gardening Association, a national organization of gardening and open space volunteers and professionals. It offers programs and support for community garden volunteers.
Forming a group
The first step is to form a planning committee. The group will begin by:
Getting organized: Once a committee has addressed the initial issues, involve all participants in setting rules, electing officers, and determining dues and their uses. New gardening groups need structure, especially the first year, to make sure work is divided equally and responsibilities are clear.
Topics covered by garden rules may include conditions of membership, assignment of plots, maintenance of common areas, and ways of enforcing the rules. Leave room for rules to grow along with membership.
Finding a Site
Look for a site that is well suited for gardening—lots of sun (with nearby shade for weary gardeners), safe soil (not polluted by former uses), and a water source are all vital. In many locations, security is essential, too, especially during the early stages before the garden has generated neighborhood support. Parking and easy access for the gardeners will help increase participation. Nearby restrooms are also often needed.
Municipal agencies, such as parks commissions and public housing and community development offices, may grant access to garden space. State departments of transportation, agriculture, or housing may also have land to offer. Schools, churches, railroads, nature centers, community colleges, utility companies, senior centers, and community centers are other potential garden space providers.
Vacant lots are very inviting to new community garden groups. The challenge often is ownership of the land. In more than a few instances, community garden groups have devoted their time and resources to cleaning up and improving abandoned properties, only to have long-absent owners reassert their control of the plot after it has been revitalized.
Acquiring the Land & Making a Plan
Get permission and a written lease to use any space. If your garden plan includes physical improvements such as fencing, creating raised beds, or adding soil, try to obtain at least a 3-year lease. Your group needs to be able to use the site long enough to justify its investments.
Making a plan: Before the soil is turned for the first time, develop a clear plan, including plot sizes, common area maintenance, and group activities. Evaluate your group's resources—what do you have? What do you need? Assign members to gather missing elements before gardening begins.
A few final tasks will improve garden relations during the growing season. Plan a work day for site cleaning and plot assignments. Keep records of plot locations and users; mark plots clearly with gardeners' names. Identify and prepare paths and common areas, then open for planting. Use a rainproof bulletin board to hold announcements and a garden map.
If your group needs horticultural information or other gardening support, contact the Cooperative Extension Service (there's an office in every county), garden clubs, or garden centers. To learn more about managing a community garden, check the Web site of the American Community Gardening Association.