When it comes to how to start a community garden, there are a few main requirements: time availability, interest from the community, and a space to grow. Notice how we didn’t mention having gardening skills? With an abundance of gardening websites, all you need to know (and more) is available at your fingertips.
It is important, however, to be committed enough to the project enough to see it through at least one season. All too often, hot temperatures, competing priorities, and lack of time or resources turn garden aspirations into a neglected, weedy, and minimally-producing garden plot.
To help you get an idea of what will be required to get a community garden up and running, we’ve come up with 6 steps to help you begin the brainstorming process.
How to Start a Community Garden in 6 Steps
It’s impossible that this list will cover all of the steps required in establishing a community garden. Each community, site, and gardener’s needs are different, and there will also be some additional steps that come with trial and error.
That said, we turned to resources like the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), the Plant a Seed & See What Grows Foundation, and the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources for just enough steps to get you started.
1. Be Clear on Your Why
Before you plant your first seed or spend time looking for an ideal site, be sure that you’re clear on why you’re considering a community garden, how it will benefit the specific community, and how you can play an essential role in establishing it.
- Is there demonstrated food insecurity that you hope to address?
- Do you want to take advantage of vacant blighted lots?
- Do you want to provide a space for community members?
- Is there interest in learning more about how to grow?
- Is there a need to grow traditional foods (that aren’t available at the grocery store) or individuals from different cultures?
- Are you hoping to clean up a space so that it provides a safe, recreational area?
- Does your community recognize the environmental benefits of green spaces and they’ll support your community garden?
- Is there a lack of green spaces limiting individuals’ capacity for producing some of their own food?
As can be seen, there are several different reasons for starting a community garden! It’s better to have just one or a few main goals before you get started, because it will help provide some direction for the following steps.
2. Round Up the Right Team
As you work on determining why a community garden is necessary and the purpose(s) it will serve, it’s crucial to also find community for the community garden!
Not only does this mean finding people who will help with the day-to-day maintenance of the garden or who are interested in their own plot, but you’ll also want to get input from anyone close by. This is especially important if you’re using the community garden to benefit a certain group of people, or establishing something in an area you’re unfamiliar with. You won’t want to deal with disgruntled neighbors or the viewpoint that you’re an outsider coming into an area you’re not welcome in.
Once you have a team of people ready and willing to be involved, consider the following:
- Will you have plots available for anyone to rent? Or will it all be shared and gardened during pre-established times?
- Will you have a board or a garden coordinator? How will that person get chosen?
- Will you make use of committees (funding, education, communication, etc.) to accomplish tasks?
- Will anyone be paid for their efforts?
- Will there be an official membership structure (dues, rules, meetings, etc.)?
- Will you host working bees where new volunteers can help?
3. Select a Site
If you’re itching to get your hands dirty, you’re almost there! Once you know what you want and have an idea of how much human support you’ll have, you can determine a suitable site based on location, size, conditions, access, features, and more.
Here are just a few legal things you’ll want to consider when choosing a site:
- Are there vacant, underutilized plots that you might be able to access for free?
- Are you prepared to sign a lease agreement and/or obtain insurance?
- Are there zoning laws to consider?
- Do any local schools or churches have land available?
- Will you be incorporating any type of structure?
Then, consider some other features that are typically sought out for a community garden site:
- Does the space have access to water?
- Will the site receive at least six to eight hours of sunlight everyday?
- Is the site easily accessible (parking, in close proximity to volunteers, have a driveway that would allow soil or heavy infrastructure to be easily delivered)?
- Are there any environmental toxins to be aware of (current pollution or previous land use)?
- Is the site convenient for pedestrian traffic? Will it welcome new people?
- Is the space large enough for those who’ve expressed interest in participating? According to the ACGA, a 4 x 16-foot raised bed can provide a family with around $200 to $600 in produce.
Then comes the fun part, choosing a name!
4. Conduct a Soil Test
Depending on what resources you have available, you might want to do a soil test prior to signing a lease or officially obtaining land.
Many soil types can be worked with, but if there’s a presence of heavy metals, an inadequate pH for growth, or heavy depletion or compaction, it will either require a significant addition of amendments like manure or compost, or it will require you to build up.
Establishing several raised beds and obtaining clean, healthy soil to fill them can get pricey.
5. Secure the Right Resources
When it comes to resources, here are a few helpful tips:
- Check out the American Public Gardens Association for funding resources.
- Check with Extension Master Gardener or your local Cooperative Extension office for location-specific tips and funding opportunities.
- Consider crowdfunding to meet the needs of your garden.
What exactly will you need for a community garden? This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few commonly required items:
- Seeds or plant starts
- Water (hoses, watering cans, sprinkler, irrigation system)
- Infrastructure (outdoor sink, shade, refrigerator)
- Garden soil (especially if building raised beds)
- Compost (or manure)
- A compost bin or vermicompost bin
- Tools (secateurs, hoes, hand forks, shovels, trowels, rototillers, gloves, etc.)
- A storage container/shed
Try to get creative with sourcing some of these. Some local lumber yards might have free wood or mulch they can donate; garden centers might be able to provide discounted plants; local farms likely have manure that could be used; and neighbors might be able to provide un-used tools, newspaper for weed suppression, or seeds saved from previous years.
There are several options for sourcing items for free or cheap. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is a great source for construction materials and Freecycle commonly lists things like pallets, jute bags, and other items that might be of value. Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist are always good to check, too!
6. Establish a Budget and Design the Garden
Before you get into the exact design of the garden, you’ll want to have a good idea of what budget you’ll be working with.
Then, instead of getting carried away with attempting to grow everything, you can hone in on some easy-to-grow staples that will be enjoyed by the community.
Here are just a few common choices for a community garden:
- Winter squash (butternut is a great choice—just make sure you have enough space!)
How to Start a Community Garden: Get Growing!
One of the best tips for how to start a community garden is to simply get started! If you can avoid it, try not to get too bogged down by details, and just make something happen! That said however, it’s also recommended to start small and avoid biting off more than you can chew.