Start a Community Garden for Fun, Food, Beauty, Belonging

It's newly popular in the U.S. to start a community garden, although of course it's just normal in tribal cultures. Local food has become something of a trend because:

  1. Urban dwellers want to be green and reconnect with nature.
  2. Many people want to grow some food to save money.
  3. Folks would like to grow organically, that is, grow food without the use of pesticides.
  4. Everything from chemical scares to worries about terrorism have people thinking that they should learn something about growing food "just in case" something bad happens.
  5. People interested in sustainability realize that locally grown food reduces the carbon footprint of their diet. Otherwise produce is imported from Chile or Mexico, if you live in the U.S., or vice versa.
  6. Locally grown food can serve as landscaping or make vacant land in areas of low demand for real estate seem productive again.
  7. Neighbors actually socialize and get to know one another when they start a community garden.


Gardening itself is an enormously popular hobby in the United States. The idea of cooperating with others to do something you could not or would not do by yourself promotes community.

The idea of urban agriculture or urban farming is just edgy and novel enough to appeal to urban trend-setters too.

Gardening Together In the Suburbs

Often in suburbs, the construction process has compacted the soil so much that the soil in backyards isn't particularly suitable for gardening.

The land might require quite a bit of augmentation and probably some new topsoil.

So the simple availability of suitable and already prepared land may be a factor in the decision to start a community garden as well. If suitably prepared soils aren't available, you may just be looking for a large backyard or a vacant lot someone will allow you to use.


When You Start a Community Garden In the Urban Core

In the urban core, before you start a community garden, you often must  educate neighbors and the youth and children about nutritious foods and their preparation. The children don't know how a carrot grows (below the ground, although the tops above-ground are good-looking).

They might not even know what a really fresh carrot tastes like. Honey buns are much more available at the corner convenience store.

Many urban adults have no experience with any exotic vegetables at all. If it isn't yams, potatoes, green beans, or sweet corn, forget it.

The African-American community likes greens, but it's interesting to me that many of the folks don't know how they grow, even if they can prepare really wonderful concoctions when they have access to raw greens.

So you have to teach people what to do if they have a zucchini or cantaloupe given to them. Not to mention teaching them how and when to plant them (hint: zucchini and cucumber take some room).

In an urban or suburban setting, find or start an organization to provide the basic level of information about what is likely to be successful in an urban setting, what should be planted when, what plants like to be wet, which ones tolerate drought and heat, how far apart the rows should be, what pests are likely to attack you and when, and so forth.

Try to have your soil tested for contaminants, especially lead. If you live around a major highway or industry, it's likely your soil has elevated lead levels or maybe other heavy metals.

What's too much? Talk to your urban extension agent, who likely is the gatekeeper for free or very inexpensive tests (probably less than $25). The results also will give you some clues about how to amend the soil, if you decided to go that direction.

If you can't afford testing, another option might be to use all raised beds made with clean soil. Cut down on the cost of that by using compost you make yourself.

If you want to scale up, then think about an urban farm with community-supported agriculture or subscription farms, as they may be called in various places. The initials CSA also are used to describe this system.

The idea is that households that don't want to garden subscribe in advance to pay a certain amount for a basketful of whatever produce is ready for delivery in a particular week. Usually there is a common pick-up point, but sometimes home delivery is included.


Small Town Community Gardening

In a small town, it is quite likely that the lore of how to garden with vegetables and flowers is not totally lost.



Ask around; you might be surprised who knows what. These long-lost lessons from childhood can be recovered, and chances are, it will actually be fun for the people who have this knowledge to share it. They likely will help to start a community garden, even if they thought they would never do that much hard work to grow food again.

The veteran gardeners who haven't planted anything for a while will be amazed at the new hybrids, wider diversity of seeds, something called heirloom tomatoes, and the possibility of growing herbs.

Small towns also offer a number of opportunities for multiple problem-solving when you start a community garden.  If you have an old concrete or asphalt pad from a parking lot or a demolished building, this is a good time to rip it out and to reclaim the land for future uses.

In addition, the removal of impervious surfaces (surfaces that water cannot penetrate) would help reduce the stormwater runoff burden and possibility of flash flooding.

Community gardens also are a convenient replacement for vacant land or for an eyesore. They may even grace a public park if your park doesn’t seem to have a real use now.

I myself never want to snap another green bean, shell another pea, or seed another cherry, but I've come to understand that I'm actually an exception. I do crave a real-tasting tomato and strawberry, and probably so do many of you.


Organizing for Minimal Conflict When You Start a Community Garden

These are the questions to ask:

• Shall we plant food-bearing plants, or is the garden for producing flowers, or both?

• How will we decide what to plant?

• How are planting expenses divided up?

• Are people "members" of the community garden, or is everyone in the neighborhood automatically entitled to be involved as much or as little as they would like?

• Must people work in the garden to harvest from the garden?

• What are the rules about harvesting food, flowers, and herbs that were planted by others?

• Who's checking your progress on a daily basis, so that the weeds and pests don’t take over? And who's watering? Using what water source?

• Who can advise us if we're having difficulty with plant selection, soils, watering systems, and so forth?

• Will there be any effort to sell the surplus produce, plants, or flowers? If so, what would be the best outlet, and who will be responsible for making the decision about what is excess?

Also of Interest:
tree planting by a stream
Green Communities

graphic of people joining hands
Start a Neighborhood Association

And if you need a little help to get started, check for a local group or the Community Gardens as Appleseeds Foundation. And for an all-inclusive approach to a wonderful neighborhoods, we recommend the book The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking. Your garden can really make an area distinctive, and represent a tangible neighborhood accomplishment.


> > Start a Community Garden


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