Gathering a Community

Planning Community Gardens and More

By Kelli Anderson

Mary, Mary, quite contrary may have used silver bells and cockle shells to grow her garden program a few hundred years ago, but these days it takes a little more know-how to ensure that a community garden program, with all its potential programming offshoots, will be successful. Luckily, with gardening associations, passionate green thumbs and experienced park districts around the country to lend a hand, planting new community garden programs has never been easier.

And it couldn't come at a better time. Combine a limping economy, attention to healthy eating by the First Lady, studies touting the physical and mental benefits of all-things-nature, a local foods movement and an obesity epidemic clamoring for a solution, and it's no wonder community gardening programs are growing by leaps and bounds across the country.

"I've definitely noticed over the last two years that the movement is exploding," said Lisa Poser, extension associate with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and CYFAR Community Garden Project Coordinator in Greensboro, N.C. "With people's interest in healthy eating and concerns about one-third of people in our country being overweight, gardening is a great form of exercise and it can save you money by growing your own food. And a final thing driving people toward gardening is that it's very interactive and proven to connect kids with nature and to get them moving."

Poser, who was hired through a Department of Agriculture grant for the state of North Carolina (federal grants being a great financial resource for many community gardens, especially in low-income communities), is currently working on several community garden projects and knows of what she speaks. Whether it is to support a grass-roots interest in an urban university community, or to help improve the social and physical aspects of a struggling rural one, she is one of many around the country seeing the benefits of community gardening and all the creative programming opportunities that grow along with it.

While community gardening is nothing new, having begun in the 1890s, ebbing and flowing with the highs and lows of the economic times, many today are seeing a change that suggests that this movement is here to stay. The steady climb in community gardens since 2000 is certainly one indicator that the movement is strong.

"I think this trend is different," said Kirk Bunke, farm manager at the Primrose Farm with the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill. "It's more of a health and recreation concern for our residents, and not just about sustenance but about it being a quality-of-life activity."

From federal grants, seminars and conferences that now offer how-tos for park districts ready to break ground with gardens of their own, to uber-creative organizations like Garden Mosaics, an intergenerational educational urban program being used by 4-H and summer camps, gardening is being recognized for benefits and applications far beyond the simple need to grow a crop of fresh fruits and vegetables. They are shown to reduce crime, to increase property values, to improve environmental diversity, to attract much-needed pollinators, to create stronger community in a time of growing isolation, and even to create lifetime park district supporters.

Even more impressive, community gardens are a catalyst for many other community activities and programs such as classes for gardening, cooking, canning, living history, teen business management, various school programs, farmers markets and even hosting special events like weddings.

"We thought early about how we would use community gardens in our planning, and our LEED certified nature center, Hickory Knolls, has two north-facing rooms that look out onto the garden. They are great for events because they are used for classrooms and also rented for parties," said Pam Otto, the nature programs manager for the St. Charles Park District. "Whoever uses them, comments on the beautiful gardens where people tend to grow not just fruit and vegetables but bright annual flowers."

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.

Many well-intentioned, passionate volunteers climbing aboard the gardening train, however, are new to gardening. For them, training in both leadership and in sound gardening practices will ensure that programs start strong and stay that way. One way GT has managed to train so many with so few in charge is through their annual Grow Together Conference held each March that offers workshops on everything from blight prevention to beekeeping.

"The conference is one day with 61 workshops," said Edie Stone, director of the Green Thumb Program with New York City Parks and Recreation. "Last year 1,400 came. Our people teach for free (people with different specialties), and a lot of them are gardeners." GT also makes education part of the contract between the city and gardeners. "We distribute our supplies to the gardens," Stone explained, "so if someone wants soil or compost, they have to come to a class to learn how."

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.

Shedding Light on Infrastructure

Once soil and water issues have been resolved, the next consideration is infrastructure and determining how much is needed. However, in asking the simple question "How much?" the complicated answer is, "It depends."

For some, like the many low-income residential areas of New York City, less is more. "You don't need a lot of infrastructure. It doesn't take much: some clean soil, tools, dedicated gardeners and some water." Stone said. "But they will make it look beautiful, you can count on the gardeners if you turn them loose, they'll do it with very little financial input, and in some ways that's better because when done with their own hands, it's the ultimate buy-in because it's part of them. If you build it all before they get there, it's not the same."

Other communities, however, insist on more, wanting a beautifully built garden enclosure, complete with raised beds, a whimsical tool shed filled with tools, a kiosk for posting garden rules and social activities, shaded seating and even art to beautify the space.

"There is initial money needed to build some infrastructure but it really depends on whose idea it is to start the garden. You can go crazy with how much you do," Poser said, "but you can do fairly simple and not pay a lot, too. It's less expensive, actually, than other traditional structures like ball fields that take more to keep them green. They can even bring money into the parks, between user fees and grants. Community gardens are popular and bring more people into our parks because they want to see them, walk through them, and just like them more than a park with just grass. In the long term, they support parks."

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