Community Garden Start-Up Resources
Live Green Toronto’s video
Starting and Supporting a Community Garden
By Susan Berman, Coordinator Perth-Dupont Community Garden
So you’re interested in starting a community garden. Great! Having witnessed gardens flourishing gardens, and others having to be dug up because they weren’t created with community buy-in, we would like to share some useful information on how to start one successfully.
PART 1. Steps to Starting a Community Garden
a. The Community Group
Starting a community garden will take a bit of time. There may be one or two people that are inspired to start a community garden, but you need to have at least five or six people as the core of the community group to begin this journey. This group should have strong roots in the community already. They should be able to draw on this strength and they should be able to hear what the community folks are saying – what type of community garden is the best fit for their area.
It might also take up to a year for your group to get approval to start your garden, so take the time to build them up!
Public Meetings – getting the city councillor on board is very helpful, whether you plan to have it in a city park or on private land. As well, if your plan is for a city park, you will need to be in touch with the Park Supervisor for that ward. Now – you and your group will need to make presentations – to describe the plan of the garden, what you hope to achieve by placing it in the area you have picked out, and who will benefit from this garden. You basically need to “sell” the garden concept to the public meeting.
Nay-Sayers – Up until now, you have been speaking with like minded people about the garden and have had very good feedback. However, now comes one of the first challenges: the nay-sayers. You have to listen to people’s concerns about your proposed garden. They are a very important part of the process, and you must hear what they have to say. Hearing someone criticize your idea for what may seem to be unimportant reasons can often make you feel under attack. However, the focus should always be on building consensus. Ask for suggestions of how the idea could be adapted to suit their concerns rather than going on the defensive. If it is clear that the person critiquing your plan is not willing to be flexible, let them know that the garden committee will discuss their concerns and that you will agree upon a way to address them.
b. The Physical Garden
Location – Choosing a site is very important and the big question on everyone’s mind these days is whether the soil is safe. We will refer you to the newest resource from Toronto Public Health calledThe Guide for Soil Testing in Urban Gardens . If you have any questions, Josephine Archibold is the contact person. The point in this guide is for you to be equipped to make wise decisions for the future and health of the community garden. Typically urban soils have higher levels of soil contaminants than rural soils, which poses the question, where do urban soil contaminants come from?
- Industrial activities, past and present
- Ravine in-filling
- Dumping of waste (illegal and old landfills)
- Contaminants from our homes (old houses used lead paint)
- Transportation sources (from a home – car “oil change” or a old car that was sitting there for a long time)
- Some soil qualities and problems are city-specific and specific within the city, even the site
You can establish the level of concern by doing a site visit and a site history check – the guidebook has broken it down into three levels of concern. From there you are led to take one of three actions from – just good gardening practices, to doing soil samples or, building raised beds with new soil and compost.
Sunlight – To grow vegetables you need at least 6 – 8 hours of full sun. However, there is more to the land care – you still need to keep in mind the needs of your garden group. The accessibility needs, how much land you have and how many gardens and gardeners you would like to have. Depending on the leadership skills of your group and their needs, you may wish to divide the land up into individual plots or just have several large communal plots. In my experience – my community garden has several large 10′ x 20′ plots – great for families. Some 10′ x 10′ plots ideal for single people, and several communal plots including one for the folks on the waiting list, so that they can get involved with the garden group and be able to plant a few things.
PART 2. Keeping The Community Garden Alive
a. Financial Sustainability
One of the two critical factors to keeping the garden alive is money.
The Community – Getting grants to replace lost or broken tools is just not practical. However, for a special project, it is perfect. So, what other options are there? One option is to make friends with the local businesses. Not to ask for money, but for support. Many businesses will give the garden coordinator a community discount for various garden needs. Some will print up fliers for events. As well, gardeners themselves can do their own fund-raising.
Gardener Registration – Something else that can be considered is when the gardeners register each year. You can ask for a modest donation, between $10 – $20, to give gardeners a reason to maintain their plot throughout the season. You may also want to ask for one time fee of $5 for a key to the garden shed, which will be returned to them if they leave the garden and return the key.
Saving Seeds – If gardeners are encouraged to save seeds, then in January or Feb they can trade or sell their seeds. They are a great asset when you go to Seedy Saturday – trade your extra seeds for new ones from this event. They don’t need to be an official variety of seeds, just whatever they planted that went to seed. Our theory – spend good money on the seeds and plants you really want, and use the garden seeds as companions to support them.
As your community group gets established, they may wish to have a Fall Harvest Festival, or a Spring Seedling Sale or a workshop that invites the neighbourhood.
Getting the Gardeners involved to take on ownership of their garden is really important. Helping with things like fund-raising will lead to to this.
b. Organizational Sustainability
A Part – The Community Process:
One thing we find really useful is the process of consensus over majority vote. We also know how important it is to use words wisely, especially in a public community discussion.
Having a Garden Coordinator is key to a good community garden. The main requirement for this role remains commitment and time, whether there is a salary or not.
Organizing the Gardeners – Rather than creating a garden “committee” (people don’t like that word), we’ve found the most successful way to delegate tasks is to create a registration form and have each gardener be part of a team. Have a clear description of the tasks, and the team captain can make a schedule that suits their group. It helps the gardeners to take ownership of their community garden.
B Part – Building Up The Community Group:
The point of joining a community garden instead of going to an allotment garden is the sense community, and inclusion. Yes, some of the gardeners will have poor English skills, low education, have come from broken homes, and it may be difficult. However, you are creating a community space and environment where everyone should feel welcome, whatever their background, education, and language may be.
The Garden Coordinator is an important person in this garden; however, she/he should not the only one delegating the workload to the gardeners. And watch out for Garden Committees that are too exclusive or elitist. There seems to be a division between the committee and the gardeners, almost a disrespect. It seems as well, that this problem sometimes happens when there is a parent organization with a hired coordinator; they have not been part of the process of starting the community garden and don’t know the gardeners personally. Something that might help is if you suggest that one of the long time gardeners volunteer to become the co-coordinator.
Garden Meetings – You make the agenda and decide who will speak about what topics, and then you make an announcement to the gardeners about the meeting, asking them to look at the agenda and reply if they think anything else should be added or if they wish to speak about some garden issue. At the meeting, have one person take attendance and notes. The Chair Person will make sure that the meeting is kept on topic and on time.
As well, every year there should be a group Spring Garden Start Up and a Fall Clean Up Day – we know that leaving dead plants provides winter habitat for many native insects, however, there are usually some places in the garden that should get fixed up for the winter. And an inventory of the tools should be taken and examined to see if any need replacing. I have found that this is an opportunity for gardeners that usually don’t see each other, to meet.