Feature Article - March 2012
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Gathering a Community

Planning Community Gardens and More

By Kelli Anderson

Likewise, community gardens in New York City have encouraged the creation of farmers markets in low-income areas where local produce is traditionally hard to come by. Neighborhoods benefit twice from the much-needed added income and in the access to healthier food.

In some cases, park districts even partner with those wanting to create a local business by letting them use the land to grow specialty crops and then attracting citizens to other park-sponsored programs by allowing them to sell their produce on site. "Visitors who are drawn to our farm stand will take their kids down to visit Primrose Farm, and visa versa," said Kim Marsin, owner of Sweet Home Organics, who grow and sell their produce at the community garden site. "The Primrose Farmers are incredibly experienced and have shared their tools and expertise on many occasions. It's been such a gift to have this situation and their support."

Shovel-Ready Leadership

For those who are ready to dig in, there are plenty of do's and don'ts to ensure a successful start to a community gardening program. "People need to know they are going to be approached from all angles including people on a whim, so it's vital to do your homework," said Bill Maynard, vice president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) and a veteran community garden coordinator in Sacramento, Calif. "Always test the marketplace and hold meetings to test the interest before investing time and money."

Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, retired director of the Portland Community Garden Program begun in 1975, agrees and added that experienced leadership is key. "Be sure to work with an experienced person who has installed and run community gardens for more than five years. This will help avoid costly mistakes involving site selection, soils, neighborhood and parks involvement and to help create common-sense operating rules."

Pohl-Kosbau also cautioned about the temptation to allow one well-intentioned citizen's work to become the center of a whole project, preferring that a group of people and neighborhood advocates work with the parks on the project.

She suggested having at least one site manager, an individual elected by their peers to lead the garden, to perform such duties as checking plot conditions, coordinating work parties, problem solving on-site issues and maintaining social connections with the gardeners.

Having leaders supported by a team will also ensure that in the event that a leader steps down or leaves, the team will be well equipped to step in and take over. Ideally, beyond gardening know-how and green thumbs, leadership qualities within the team should include training in community organizations, fundraising and media relations to ensure that the gardening community will be supported for the long haul.

"One of our focuses is on building leadership among teams," Poser explained about the successful development of her garden programs. "So we've promoted monthly meetings where the coordinator gets people together to give them different positions of leadership like mowing the grass, composting and media promotion. I think leadership building is key to give them responsibilities so they feel they are part of making it happen."

In some cases, such as in Poser's projects, site managers are paid positions. However, the nation's largest urban community garden program, Green Thumb (GT) in New York City, boasting more than 500 community gardens, has only 16 paid positions. No surprise, then, it is enormously dependent on volunteer leaders. And still enormously successful.