Feature Article - March 2012
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Gathering a Community

Planning Community Gardens and More

By Kelli Anderson

Ground Rules

Of course, no group can operate successfully for long without ground rules, and community gardens are no exception. "One of the biggest things is to have a very clear use agreement," said Beth Urban, executive director of the ACGA. "Park district managements, like the San Francisco Park District with its 10 different communities, follow several different models, so a use agreement has to be clear about the use of events in the gardens."

It is also important to establish a plan that will be acceptable to the neighboring community. Will grass be mowed? Will gardens be appropriately weeded and maintained? "Gardeners have different approaches to structures and the way they manage their plots," Bunke explained, "so rental or use agreements need to spell out specifically what will and won't be allowed, or else these spaces can frequently take on a shanty town appearance so we put in some guidelines."

Autonomy, too, is part of the equation in which many decisions can be left up to each garden community. In the case of GT in New York City, every one of the 500 gardens is allowed to govern itself, and has been able to do so successfully (each garden reflecting the amazing diversity of the metropolis), as long as each garden adheres to some simple rules: Everyone is allowed to join, free of charge; and each garden must be open 20 hours per week.

"It leads to some interesting democracies," Stone admitted. "Some are so different from each other! Within the same garden you may have people who don't speak the same language but somehow they decide the rules. Some gardens are all ornamental, some divided up into areas assigned to one person, and sometimes not. Ultimately, we are the de-facto judge of what's OK and not OK, and we do at least one inspection of the gardens each year."

Tools of the Trade

Another important consideration is deciding what will and won't be provided for the users, starting with the land. Choosing a site with at least six hours of full sun is a must, but poor soil can either be amended or side-stepped altogether with raised beds (a popular option with the added blessing of the ADA).

Next to providing land or soil, the most important logistical detail is providing a water source. In some cases, gardeners are required to bring their own water, while others may have water provided for them. "Water access is critical," Urban said. "A lot of people use rainwater harvesting—rain barrels—or some have access to a city water line. Others have access to fire hydrants, so community gardens are really varied."

Once water sources have been negotiated, equipment for the gardeners needs to be considered. In the case of the clay-laden soils in the Midwest, for example, in-ground annual garden plots, like those at Primrose Farm, require tilling. "We use larger tillers pulled behind tractors," Bunke said. "They are available in the spring and fall, and we have to move equipment across town to till and prep the soil for gardeners."

Then there is the issue of providing garden tools. No matter the region of the country, universal rules apply: Investing in good tools that last longer will be cheaper in the long run and should include items such as various shovels, hoes, hand forks, wheelbarrows, watering cans and trowels, to name a few gardening essentials.