The concept of a community garden, while currently a trend, is not new.
For thousands of years, humans have worked together to grow and hunt for the foods they required for survival. The concept remains simple from the Indigenous tribes who stretched across the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, to villages that pooled land resources in feudal Europe and Asia, to the Indigenous people of Australia and African tribes who hunted big game together.
When we work together to grow our food, we can accomplish more.
In fact, I would argue that it is Biblical.
As a Christian woman, my firm belief is that Jesus told us that his heavenly father commanded us to love Him and to love each other.
What God Says About Loving Your Neighbors
The Book of Matthew 22:34-40 explains it best:
But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
In these passages, Jesus reminds us that all of God’s Commandments, as given to Moses, share the basis of love. If you love God, you will keep the Sabbath and keep His name holy. Additionally, if you love your neighbors as yourself, you will not steal from them, murder them, or covet their spouse.
What does that have to do with starting a community garden?
Everything. You will not become ultra-rich and famous or receive accolades and glory. But you will serve a vital role in your neighborhood. You will meet people who want to gain food independence, provides equitable access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and forge relationships. Your gardening efforts will bring hope.
As the United States sees population explosions across its cities and declining rural communities, we see an ever-widening chasm that creates “food deserts,” large areas that don’t have access to supermarkets. Without a doubt, this makes unequal access to fresh, healthy foods in the cities.
However, the crisis also occurs in rural areas. Corporate interests and large grocery retailers buy up fresh fruits and vegetables from our dwindling number of farmers, sometimes leaving rural residents with limited access to grocery stores–often many miles away.
Instead, residents of our rural areas and their city-dwelling cousins are forced to purchase processed foods, canned and high in sodium, from dollar store chains that dot these communities. These awful nutritional offerings lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and myriad other issues.
You can help solve this problem.
So you see, all of God’s Commandments come from having a servant’s heart filled with His love. By starting a community garden movement in your neighborhood, you will embody God’s Commandments, as reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew.
The Seeds of an Idea
Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” -Ecclesiastes 11:6 NIV.
For some reason, you decided to explore the idea of starting a community garden. You might enjoy gardening and want to share your knowledge. Or perhaps you are a novice at this hobby, but you see food insecurity and seek to fix it. You might even see it as a way to start a local ministry. Or you are an entrepreneur who wants to fill a vacant lot in a socially ethical manner.
Your reason for arriving at the point of considering a community garden does not matter at this point in the game. You are seeking answers to questions. You’re intrigued by the notion but unsure how to move forward–of if you want to press on at all.
This chapter will answer basic facts and statistics about your community gardening questions. Once you understand the idea in greater detail, you will decide whether you want to continue on this journey.
So let’s dig in for answers to some of your basic questions.
What is a community garden?
A community garden is a piece of land on which a group of people can grow fruits or vegetables. Some urban gardens charge rent to local residents for a small plot to thrive. However, other gardens share all the workload and harvest for the benefit of all who participate.
What is the point of a community garden?
The purpose of a community garden can vary, depending on the circumstances.
Some community gardens are small businesses. These are for-profit, private ventures, enabling city dwellers to grow their own food. Even people who live in apartments can benefit. You often see these in high-density, relatively affluent neighborhoods with otherwise limited access to gardening.
On the other hand, non-profit agencies, grassroots movements, or municipal community gardens serve a humanitarian mission. Some exist for low-income or middle-income residents to regain control over their food access. On the other hand, some non-profits strive to educate about nutrition through this community effort. Yet other nono-profits use gardens as a tool to teach responsibility and accountability as they rehabilitate people.
There is no right or wrong answer or judgment here. Knowing your reason for starting a community garden will play into your planning.
What are the different types of community gardens?
Other than the model that we explained and most communities adopt, several specialty gardens also enjoy widespread popularity. Some of these include the following:
- School community gardens: Students of all ages benefit from a community garden. They learn the science of planting, personal responsibility for plant care, and observing weather patterns. While some schools reap the harvest to donate to a local food bank, others set up a “school store,” where children can learn to sell merchandise, answer questions to customers, and count money.
- Church community gardens: Churches with large properties might have members who gather for fellowship and gardening. They typically sell the produce they grow as a “fall festival fundraiser.” On the other hand, they may take it to the sick, infirm, elderly, or shut-ins from their membership rolls.
- Neighborhood gardens: Informal groups of neighbors may choose a convenient yard and collaborate on what to plant and help look after the garden. This option is best for personal or family consumption.
- Foodbank gardens: Soup kitchens or food banks sometimes grow fresh fruits or vegetables to give away to their clients or add to their menus. Their volunteers take care of the plant care tasks.
What are the benefits of community gardens?
Here are a few of the top benefits of undertaking such a project in your area:
- You may help improve air quality
- You’ll create biodiversity, which is especially necessary for an urban garden
- Your community garden increases access to fresh foods
- You’ll cut down on the miles from farm to table
- You decrease food insecurity
- People who participate learn firsthand about healthy eating and good nutrition.
- Gardening is a fun, relaxing hobby
- Participants will enjoy physical activity
- Gardeners add extra vegetables and fruits to their diets
- Opportunities for positive social interactions
Can you make money from a community garden?
Yes! As mentioned earlier, some proprietors charge a rental fee for participants who want to grow their own produce.
Besides lot rent, you could monetize by selling logo t-shirts, screen-printed reusable water bottles, or other merchandise to the community at large. In addition, you can sell excess harvest at your local farmers’ market.
Whether you are an entrepreneur who would keep the profits, a grassroots effort, or a non-profit agency, selling merchandise and excess food is a great way to reinvest into your community garden.
How many community gardens are there in the United States?
The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) allows local gardens to drop pins on a United States map to showcase their efforts. As of this writing, their map displays 4,945 community gardens. Bear in mind, joining the ACGA is voluntary, so probably even more than these exist.
How do I find my local community garden?
Before you take on this endeavor, it makes sense to visit a community garden near you. Use the ACGA map mentioned earlier. Or, run a quick internet search, using the term “community garden near me.” Some gardens also maintain community pages on Facebook or Instagram.
What challenges would you face in starting a community garden?
Community garden organizers may face several initial roadblocks, especially when starting their project.
Challenge #1: Seeking local approval
First, and often the most challenging hurdle you’ll face, is dealing with red-tape and bureaucrats. While it would seem natural that city or county council members would love the idea of a community garden that would benefit residents, they can also be apathetic. They will nod their heads and smile, and talk about their plans to help residents. But they turn to jelly when presented with a solution they perceive as outside of the box.
Before you apply for zoning variances, permits, or any other red tape, they will send your way, develop an action plan, addressing any concerns you can anticipate. Once you can assure them that you will abide by the laws and add value to the community, you should convince them.
Challenge #2: Finding volunteers and activists
A community garden is an enormous undertaking. While you might be able to “go it alone” for a short time, that will become unrealistic and unsustainable. You will need to find creative ways to spark interest and motivate people to help you create momentum.
We will dig deeper into this topic later.
Challenge #3 – Fundraising
Unless you have the private funding in hand, or you own the land and have equity (monetary, not the sweat kind!) in place, you will need to raise funds.
Seek dollars, seeds and materials, equipment, or even land donations. Your municipality might have a vacant lot that they consider “blight” or “flood zone” that they’d like to see put to use. The local seed store might be willing to donate a few packets of seeds. Every bit adds up.
Consider putting together a “sponsorship package,” including small perks–like their name displayed on a community t-shirt or a shout-out on your newsletter or social media.
Leasing the land, purchasing essential equipment, insurance costs, zoning fees, and securing the property all incur expenses later in the process, especially if you are a non-profit or a grassroots garden.
Cultivating Community Relationships
“It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” -Luke 13:19
You are but one person taking on a job of well, Biblical proportions. The support of a team is exactly what you need to bolster your chances of successfully implementing your idea.
To rally these people to your cause takes introspection and being honest with yourself. We will address some questions you must consider as part of that soul-searching process.
Why are you starting a community garden?
Create an exciting mission statement, simply stating your garden’s name, where you plan to operate (generally speaking, if you have not secured space), and what neighborhood needs you to address.
This becomes the root of your branding and marketing. But before your garden takes hold, you’ll need to pitch the idea to a crew of supporters. So the mission statement is fundamental to your success.
Here’s an example of a fictitious community garden’s mission statement:
Dee’s Garden is a 501c3 non-profit agency that helps address food insecurity in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
See how this short sentence becomes a succinct, compelling elevator pitch? It will also work into a formal proposal or business plan, discussed later.
What problems do community gardens solve?
Turn local activists into your allies by creating a buzz about the problems that community gardens can solve. Your movement can be part of solving numerous issues, including the following:
- Cleaning up unused lots
- Adding social value to your community
- Help fight obesity by providing opportunities for fresh air and exercise
- Creating more equitable access to fresh foods
- Teaching others about good nutrition
- Providing volunteer opportunities that can transition into employment skills
- Giving people hope and a chance to learn new skills
Of course, these will vary, depending on your garden’s mission.
How do I get people involved in my community garden?
Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. This effort is worthy of attention, and you might be surprised at how much support you’ll actually receive. Get neighbors involved in your community garden early, and ask them to recruit additional volunteers and help you find gardeners.
Many community garden guides will suggest a partnership with the local schools. While I don’t discount them altogether, teachers are swamped with responsibilities and requests. Besides that, the school’s out during your peak season.
So if you go that route, start by seeking assistance from local science teachers; they might have students interested in agri-science.
Here’s why involving the local school can be sticky–getting consent to participate in off-campus activities can be fraught with legal pitfalls.
Here is a better resource–your local senior citizens center. You will find retirees with time on their hands, the desire to get out and feel connected to society. Additionally, you might even find an experienced gardener or two to help you activate your movement if you’re super-lucky.
Some of these seniors might be spry and able to help you in every phase. On the other hand, some will be better suited to help you raise awareness and funds.
Other sources for excellent volunteers:
You can also check in with your local scouting troops, YMCA, the local food bank or soup kitchen, church leaders, and agricultural extension offices (almost every county has one, even urban counties).
Creating a buzz must also include shaking hands with elected officials and getting a nod of approval. Their support can move mountains, should the need arise.
Talk to your local town or city council, the county board of commissioners, state and US congressional reps, and senators. Ask your local economic development department about grants or other funds. If you elected them or your tax dollars pay their salary, they need to hear about your call to serve the community.
As you get out and create interest, recruit, recruit, recruit–both volunteers and donors.
Form committees based on the interests and skills of the volunteers. You might be surprised at how much you can accomplish once you get talented activists working alongside you.
How to organize community garden volunteers:
Here are some committees and volunteer groups to consider. Include a mix of people with different points of view, experiences, and backgrounds–we innovate by learning from others. You might need some of these components at the outset, but you can add others to the list as you grow.
This volunteer coordinates a partnership that builds bridges between local youth groups, schools, and the community garden. They must work with schools to offer workshops, field trips, and other hands-on STEM activities.
If you plan to start seeds in a greenhouse, you need a couple of volunteers to maintain the greenhouse and tend the plants. These can be community members who actively garden or others cheering for you to succeed.
Compost, mulch, and organic fertilizers require care and maintenance. Someone experienced in gardening would be super-helpful to help you with this effort.
Security and safety committee:
Having one or two volunteers with an eye on the overall safety of your community garden is a must. Without protection and security, people will not want to participate in this project.
Outreach and donations committee:
You need a fundraising and sales guru or two to help talk up your program. Please find someone who will focus on monetizing and fundraising.
Special events committee:
You might want to plan events to celebrate Earth Day, Arbor Day, or host a fall festival fundraiser as you grow. Some folks who can pull together these critical dates and details must.
Website/social media committee:
“If you build it, they will come,” the famous line says in a movie. But without a solid social media and website presence, they might not know your community garden exists.
Insurance, zoning, and liabilities, oh my! If you have a volunteer who can help you navigate through the often-murky waters of local politics and legal considerations, that’s a massive win for you.
A man reaps what he sows.” -Galatians 6:7
Although the Bible says “a man,” we understand this to mean all humankind will benefit if they act in love and faith. So perhaps reaping the harvest from a community garden allows people to see the fullness of God’s love in a more literal sense.
People will begin to see hope from the first mention of a new way to access garden-fresh fruits and vegetables.
They see visions of plump, fresh beans, perhaps taking them back to their grandma’s front porch and long afternoons rocking in a chair as they snapped beans and sipped sweet tea together. Or perhaps they can almost taste that vine-ripe, ruby red tomato, pulled fresh off of a vine, juice dribbling down their chin as they take a bite.
Fresh, nutritious, healthful food is such a basic need. Yet many of us take it for granted, not thinking of those who often go without this access. Before you can begin to fully roll out your program and enjoy that bountiful harvest, you must first sow the seeds and start from the ground up.
Therefore, you will learn the groundwork you must perform before launching your initiative.
How to write a community garden proposal (non-profit) or business plan (private sector business)
As you begin to work on all the moving parts of this new adventure, you will be having many conversations with people who are potential donors and investors.
For your most polished and professional look, you must approach them with a community garden proposal, your business plan in hand.
Yes, this is challenging work. However, you can reach out to your local economic development or small business center for resources and expert guidance.
Here is a brief overview of what you should include the following:
- Mission: Include the mission statement you crafted in the last chapter.
- Goals: Explain what you hope to achieve with your venture.
- Benefits: How will the project benefit your local neighborhood? Make a comprehensive list of the top benefits of a community garden.
- Funding: What funds do you already have, and what money you must still raise?
- Budget: How much will your annual operating costs be?
- The site and physical planning: What’s the layout for the plantings?
- Proposed sites: Where will you operate? If you don’t have a specific site secured, provide the desired location.
What are the rules of your community garden?
Each community garden must craft a set of rules and guidelines for the gardeners who participate. This will vary, depending on whether you are a for-profit or non-profit, or grassroots effort.
I’m not a lawyer, so the below are hypothetical examples. Please retain legal representation to make sure that you cover all the bases. Rules must be clear and fair to you and your gardeners. Make clear all the expectations before you break ground.
Here are some community garden rules to set upfront:
- Site security: Will you provide fences? Will you light the space in the evenings?
- Amenities offered: Gardeners will expect access to water and for you to till the land. But what else will you offer–shed rental space? Hand tools? What is the process for them to borrow these items?
- Hours and months you plan to operate.
- Will you be an organic garden? What chemicals can gardeners apply, if any?
- Do you permit pets on the grounds?
- What happens if a lot is neglected?
- Who is responsible for weed control?
- Will you offer a compost area and mulch? Is it free? What’s the price?
- Do you plan to provide trash bins, or do gardeners carry their waste out when they leave?
- Will you make seeds or seedlings available for on-site purchase?
- What happens if someone breaks the rules?
Having these discussions with your volunteers and committees can help you cover a lot of ground. Then, you can present all of it to the gardeners who join your effort and explain it so that everyone can enjoy the experience.
What plants should you grow in a community garden?
Before you begin, consider the best plants for a community vegetable garden in your USDA growing zone. What grows well in the arid southwestern states might not thrive in the cooler temperatures of New England.
You want plants that empower people to succeed. So finicky species are less desirable than, say, cucumbers that will grow almost anywhere.
Your available space is also a consideration. For instance, you might advise gardeners against cultivating watermelons that will sprawl eight feet out and into a neighboring plot if you have limited land. However, if you are in a rural area with plenty of space, you might not mind this.
Finally, you want delightful, tasty, and nutritious offerings, especially in an urban or rural food desert. Consider cultural offerings that reflect the local residents if they grow well in your local climate. Be open to new ideas–some of them might be downright innovative!
Here are the ten best plants for a community garden:
It’s good to plant kale in the earlier and later (cooler) parts of the year. Packed with nutrition, it is an unfussy plant.
Tomato plants enjoy enormous popularity among gardeners and grow in most full-sun locations, provided you keep them watered sufficiently.
This bushy plant is a “set it and forget it” species. Even those new to gardening will enjoy a harvest as long as they keep it free of weeds and provide water.
This is one of the most popular kitchen herbs in the world. It grows very quickly. Besides that, it’s a “must” if you are also planting tomatoes–a classic pairing.
Green or red leaf lettuce has a bright, appealing look and will be an early or late season vegetable. Including this extends the growing season–a must for anyone who is an anti-hunger advocacy group.
Packed with healthy nutrition, bell peppers are staples of any summertime garden. They grow quickly, and almost everyone enjoys them.
Cukes are technically a fruit, not a vegetable. Whatever you call them, they are sweet and delicious. Gardeners can enjoy them fresh or pickle them for long-term storage. Ove caveat: Their vines can spread out pretty far. To save space in your community garden, encourage gardeners to grow them vertically on a tomato cage.
Not only are they delicious, but strawberries can be a space-saver. Your gardeners can plant them in vertical stacking planters. However, they don’t bear much fruit for the first year, so the gardener should be committed for the long haul.
Green onions can add explosive flavor to any vegetables a gardener decides to cultivate. They grow with ease and minimal care.
Your gardeners can bring the heat if they opt for jalapeno peppers. These peppers grow in the hottest conditions with just water and weeding, making them a way to boost the confidence of beginner gardeners.
You can also poll your local community, ask them what they’d like to plant, then do a viability study. If you ask the people what they’d enjoy the most, you will spark more interest–and you won’t make people feel you are forcing your ideas on them.
So follow the tips I laid out here and watch the enthusiasm for your project grow!
The Possibility of Crop Failure
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? -Matthew 6:26 NIV
Despite your planning and best efforts, you will encounter challenges in this endeavor. God commands us to feed the poor and love each other. However, He does not guarantee how we will achieve that end–it’s all in His plan. Worry not, He will provide.
This chapter will address frequently asked questions about several reasons why community gardens sometimes fail. So are these challenges human interference or God’s hand? You decide.
Why do community gardens fail?
Fort Lewis College, located in Durango, Colorado, presented the pros and cons of urban gardening. They outlined the following pitfalls in an online presentation:
Community gardens can be cost-prohibitive
The start-up costs of land, insurance, tools, seeds, and development can cause a project to fail before it even begins. That appears to be especially true in urban areas where land comes with a premium price tag.
A lack of community interest
Remember earlier when I advised you to recruit a whole team of cheerleaders? Even in areas where the need is great, people might not be interested in gardening. Some people are up against the ropes and more concerned with seeking gainful employment than digging in a garden. That is just a harsh reality.
You know you need to set the ground rules and clear expectations. But you will never make everyone happy. Some would-be gardeners will drop out or become apathetic during the process.
Vandals targeting community vegetable gardens
The Fort Lewis College presentation shares a store of a middle school garden that suffered an enormous heartbreak when vandals broke into their greenhouse. Upon entry, the scoundrels smashed all the glass, and destroyed the roof.
Other limitations beyond your control
If you live in an area with a short growing season, water restrictions, rampant wildlife, or geographic barriers, you must plan around these challenges.
Do people steal from community gardens?
This issue is heartbreaking. People often garden to grow their own foods and reduce food insecurity, only to have someone steal the fruits of their labors.
Gardeners want to help others. However, they don’t want people to take advantage of their kindness. This news report from a Boston news station interviewed gardeners who say they’d gladly share and have compassion for those in need. However, they object to the theft.
Be aware also that theft does not always come from the outside. Some gardeners report that others within the movement pilfer their goodies. As with all business models, theft can put a community garden out of business. Nobody wants people to go hungry, so having a solution in mind could be very helpful.
Making Hay While Sun Shines
He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. -Proverbs 10:5
This passage from Proverbs is a cautionary tale about planning well and working wisely. The actions you take right now will benefit–or harm you–later.
As you finish all the start-up phases–planning, permitting, and gathering support, you will be ready to shift into a growing mode. By now, you have probably spent countless hours, sleepless nights, and maybe even a tear or two on this project.
So even as you launch into the exciting phase–growing season–you must also be looking ahead to next year.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the physical acts involved in tending a neighborhood garden:
How long does it take to create a community garden?
From concept to the first growing season, it can take a year to eighteen months to get the gardening project firmly rooted.
However, the act of physically gardening itself can take as few as thirty days, for the quickest growing vegetables, like radishes. The reward of that first harvest makes all the hard work and planning worth every moment.
How do you create a sustainable community garden?
Making an organic, sustainable community garden takes a lot of planning. Here are three of the top considerations for developing a self-sustaining urban garden:
- Collect materials for compost: Making compost takes a lot of work, but it is free, and you need not rely on chemical fertilizers.
- Use non-GMO seeds and plants: By using non-GMO, you can harvest the seeds from the foods you grow, dry them, and plant them the following growing season.
- Research which plants help improve the soil by adding nitrogen, like beans. Your local ag extension office can provide guidance. Once you learn to correct the earth without chemicals, you’ll become more resilient.
How do community gardens help offset food insecurity?
Planning for success this growing season and the next can help offset food insecurity. Neighborhood gardening empowers people. Participants can grow the foods they enjoy, honor their cultural food traditions, and break out of the rut of less-nutritious canned foods.
Food security is foremost for many who participate in these efforts. Of course, some people will join your garden to feed their families. However, you will also meet anti-hunger activists who garden but give away their entire harvest. Neither outcome is wrong or right.
Either way, your community garden effort allows you to do as God commands, love your neighbors.