Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How to Create a Community Garden

We couldn't resist including this wonderful last piece in our community gardening series. Thanks to all who sent in entries and to all those who work on gardens across the country.

By Bob Halstead
Founder, Bridgeport Urban Gardens

Photo courtesy of The Housing Development Fund, Inc. (HDF)
I've had 30 years of experience building community gardens and I can tell you they always start from the heart.  The first step is to assess if the commitment is there from the neighborhood.  The rule of thumb is that there need to be five people solidly invested at the start.  The number of participants will grow later.

If there is not a community garden organization in your area, you can probably find one to partner with.  Here in Connecticut we have the Connecticut Community Gardening Association.  Working with an established organization can give you technical assistance on how to go about the nuts and bolts of creating a community garden and may also provide access to resources and connections supportive of community gardening.

As in any development project, there are several critical ingredients needed to create a community garden.  Interest and commitment are an important first piece, and the next crucial piece is a site, which must have good sun and water.

Photo courtesy of HDF
To secure a site, you either need an agreement with the owner, or you have to buy it yourself.  The ideal site is one that is in close proximity to where the interested community lives.  Having a site that is walkable for those who are involved makes it easier to maintain and check-in when walking by.  Increasing pedestrian traffic also improves the community.

After locating a desirable parcel, the owner must be contacted and a contract must be formed.  Municipalities, religious institutions, schools, housing complexes (public or private), and community centers are common partners for land agreements to establish community gardens.  Private landowners are also common site owners for gardens, and contracts can be tailored to suit all of these groups.  Tracking down the owner of a specific piece of property will be easiest for someone with knowledge of real estate, and may involve going to town or city hall to research land records.  If the owner is already known, you simply need to approach them with a proposal for what you have in mind.

Working with a private owner often has benefits compared to dealing with municipalities or institutions, which can be a time-consuming and complicated process.  A private landowner may welcome a community garden, especially during difficult economic times as it may free them from maintenance issues until such time as the market will support a development.  Private landowners often can avoid some cumbersome taxes by deeding a property to a nonprofit as a tax deduction, and this may be one reason to investigate either partnering with a nonprofit or registering your garden as a 501(c)3.   Insurance is also a big issue, and can be another reason to consider working with an established nonprofit corporation who might offer to include you under their policy and be the fiduciary for your gardening group and the contract holder.

Photo courtesy of HDF
Working with municipalities who own vacant lots or park land often requires working closely with your governmental representative or the city planner for your town.  Use of municipal land will eventually require the approval of the governmental body and chief elected official. To gain approvals, it is best to mobilize the community and bring out supporters to public hearings either in person or with letters to representatives and the local media.  Positive press can encourage elected officials to participate and be seen in a good light politically.  It is worth noting that some municipalities may offer dedicated staff people to coordinate your program and provide public works machinery.

There are basic templates are available on land agreements and can be found through a local community gardening association or on the Internet.  It is desirable to have a commitment for five years with three years the minimum, given the amount of work and investment that has to be made on a garden.

The next step is to create a budget, which should include such items as water systems, fencing, lumber for raised beds, tools, sheds, plants and topsoil.  Start-up costs for a community garden can range anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. If your local community gardening agency has staff or volunteers to assist you with budgeting and/or locating resources, you should absolutely engage them.  If you are eager to get started quickly and cannot yet secure, for example, water service to the site, seek agreements to use what is available.  Neighbors might allow use of their water line, or there may be existing soil available (some communities have a town compost program). 

Always work with an eye toward bigger improvements down the road.  Having the garden up and running (along with property control) can play a huge part in helping you secure grants, participation and donations to continue developing your site.  Hosting a fundraiser on site once you’ve begun to get the garden in place can be a dynamic way to excite donors and the community.

Early on you need someone to ask as a captain who assigns plots after doing canvassing in an area.  Once all the basics are taken care of, a garden is a sustainable operation.  People then appreciate what they have and will work to keep it.  They usually know how to garden or are willing to teach those who don’t and they really appreciate it socially. 

Partnerships are invaluable to the success of a community garden project, especially in depressed urban areas.  If the core supporters of the garden are willing to ask, you can uncover a tremendous outpouring of altruistic activity from corporate institutions, organizations such as United Way, churches and schools.  Volunteer groups can show up for all or part of a day and quickly supply you with the needed ‘whack’ to construct your raised beds in a matter of a few days. 

HDF partnered with Bridgeport Urban Gardens to bring a volunteer day to the
Clinton Avenue Community Garden in Bridgeport, CT.
Photo courtesy of HDF
Success breeds success...and funding.  Once your garden has started to take shape, getting some exposure as a community garden will make it is easier to get funding.  Available funding sources include: HUD Community Development Block Grants (through a municipality), state Departments of Environmental Protection, community foundations, philanthropists, state or local Health Departments, educational programs, corporations and national foundations, and local businesses (who might donate in-kind with supplies or services).  The Keep America Beautiful Foundation, for example, offers grants in partnership with Lowes that can be used for community garden projects. This year, for NeighborWorks Week, the Housing Development Fund, Inc.co-hosted a volunteer day with Bridgeport Urban Gardens which received one such grant. It was used to provide the garden with a host of supplies and materials that we used on site – mulch, plants, a new shed, organic soil mix, etc. The one-day effort resulted in a wide-reaching refurbishment of this beloved community space, including mulching of pathways, construction of a supply shed, tilling and planting of garden beds and the involvement of members of a special-needs class from the high school that sits across the street from the garden site.

Happy gardening!