In May 2007, I started gardening on an 8 x 10 foot patch of backyard that I converted to a vegetable garden. Within a few weeks, I was convinced gardening was the therapy that would cure us all, that everybody ought to be a gardener. I also developed a deep sympathy for people in my community living in apartments or condos without a place to garden. Around the same time, I met Jessica, a gardener and blogger who lives in my neighborhood. As I was reading through the archives of her garden blog, she mentioned she'd like to start a community garden someday. The rest of the story is surprisingly simple. She was as geeked about gardening as I was and we both had this burning desire to provide gardening space for people in our community.
By the summer of 2009, we'd raised enough money to build 12 raised cedar beds. Today, three years later, we have formed a nonprofit tax-exempt organization and expanded our garden to over 50 raised beds, installed over 2,000 square feet of native gardens and a beautiful stone "giving garden" in the shape of a flower, which is planted with edibles and maintained by volunteers. We have worked hard to establish ourselves as a well-respected and important organization in the community.
Here are four factors I feel are important to a starting a successful community garden:
1. Ambitious, productive leaders: Having a few people who are very motivated and can make good decisions quickly helped us build momentum and we were surprisingly productive. This seemed to give our community leaders and residents the sense that we were knowledgeable and dependable, and I feel that made them more willing to support us.
2. Relationship with the landlord: The plot of land the community garden was to be built on was owned by the state, but managed by our park district. From the beginning, we worked very closely with them, keeping them abreast of all our progress, asking permission about any ideas that would impact the property, but making sure they didn't feel overly burdened by us. As a result, they became some of our biggest advocates in the community.
3. Money: Even though we incorporated as a nonprofit very early in the process, not having a 501(c)(3) tax exemption made it more difficult for us to get donations from businesses. All our fundraising was done the old-fashioned way - plant sales and bake sales. These events are a lot of work, but in addition to being a good way to raise money, they are also great exposure for a new community garden. The more people you can talk to about your project, the better.
4. Volunteers: It's important to recruit a few good volunteers who are excited about being a part of building a new garden. When it comes time to actually build beds and haul dirt, these are the people who will be there sweating alongside you. We held a community meeting at our local ice cream parlor as soon as we got the thumbs-up from our village. We did a short presentation on community gardens, explained our vision for the garden, then answered questions. Some of the people at that meeting are core volunteers/members of the garden to this day.
It felt good to help provide a sunny space for people to grow food, but I was caught off-guard by the good friends I made during the process and how the garden connected me to my community.
I have always been the type to slip in the door after work before the neighbors saw me because I'd rather not be forced into small talk. But now that I've become involved with the community garden, it has afforded me - forced me, really - to get to know the folks in my community. It sounds lame but I feel part of something - a big family. I feel protective of our neighborhoods and parks and the families who live here. The feeling is foreign, but comforting. It's like I've got the whole village on my side. It's made me a better citizen and a better gardener. A better gardener in the sense that I've got access to the massive knowledge base of our gardeners; a better citizen in the sense that now I care deeply about what happens to my community.
If you live near a community garden, consider getting involved. I guarantee you they need your help. And if you don't have a community garden, think about what type your community could benefit from and start one!