Why Starting a Community Garden is Worth It
And a step by step guide on how to start one
Have you ever been walking in a neighborhood and seen a beautiful community garden growing lots of vegetables, fresh herbs, and brightly colored flowers? Are you jealous that your neighborhood doesn't have a garden like that? Luckily for you, we have created a guide on how to start a community garden in your own neighborhood! There can be some tricky aspects to building a community garden like knowing how to get permits or what kind of fencing or soil to use, but with the right team, determination, and this step by step guide, you can make it happen!
What is a community garden?
Community gardens come in a variety of forms and choosing which type of community garden you will be starting is the first step. The different types of community gardens are plot gardens, cooperative gardens, youth gardens, entrepreneurial gardens, and therapeutic gardens. Plot gardens subdivide different plots within the garden and rent the plots out to families who may not have the space in their own yard. Cooperative gardens are where the entire garden is managed as one large garden by many community members. Often these gardens donate their food to local shelters or food banks, but they can also provide food for the community members running the garden. Youth gardens, often used by schools, are where kids get to learn all about the environment and nutrition through the process of growing and sometimes cooking their own food (8). Entrepreneurial gardens are where the gardeners, young or old, learn business principles and gardening, by growing and selling the produce to farmers markets and restaurants. Lastly, therapeutic gardens use gardening and the plants to improve the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of the gardeners (9).
Any group or organization can start and run a community garden. Many schools, churches, non-profits, local governments, and even individual people have started community gardens for different reasons, meaning you have the ability to develop one too!
What are the benefits of a community garden?
Community gardens have been implemented all around the world for the different benefits they provide. They are famous for improving the health of communities, improving mental health, regenerating land, educating individuals on the environment, and bringing communities closer together.
Health Benefits- The lack of access to fresh produce can lead to numerous illnesses and chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer (10). In order to combat these health concerns, many communities have implemented community gardens to increase the availability of nutritious fresh produce as well as offer it to the community at a more affordable price. Many studies have shown that community gardens have the ability to increase fruit and vegetable intake as well as reduce an individual's BMI (11).
Many studies have also highlighted the beneficial mental health effects of green spaces and gardening with others. Working in a garden for a period of a few weeks has been shown to drastically reduce individuals perceived stress levels as well as an actual reduction in their stress hormone levels (13). Using nature and gardening as therapy allowed for patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and stress to recuperate and improve their mental health and wellbeing (12). We all know that getting outside makes you feel better, but it's actually been scientifically proven!
Community Benefits- Don't worry the benefits don't stop there! Community gardens are a great way to improve health, but they are also great for bringing people and the community together. People can meet their neighbors, make friends, and learn how to garden together, allowing the community to bond over growing food or bettering their neighborhood. These gardens can give people a social outlet outside of their home and work that so many people desire, letting them connect over nature, food, and their neighborhood (13). Developing and working in a community garden can also increase people's sense of pride for their community and neighborhood and it can push them to get more involved with other aspects and institutions in the community making a positive impact (14).
Benefits for the environment
Other than the tremendous benefits community gardens provide to people, they also have a positive effect on the environment. First off, gardening is a great way to teach people more about the environment and what it takes to have healthy plants and soil. For individuals with limited gardening experience and nature access, participating in a community garden could give them a new perspective on the food growing process (13). Plus it's also a great outdoor activity for kids to teach them all about growing their own food! When more people learn about the environment, the more people there are to protect it.
The other benefit to the environment is land regeneration. A lot of urban land is heavily polluted with chemicals and heavy metals from car exhaust, construction debris, trash, and air pollution. These chemicals reduce the fertility of the soil rendering it useless and toxic to organisms, wasting soil that is a precious finite resource. Instead of just letting the land degrade further or allowing more harmful development, community gardens can be placed on that land and add nature back into it. By adding native plants you don't plan to eat in the soil you are improving the soil quality, but also increasing the amount of carbon dioxide the soil can capture, reducing the amount in our atmosphere (15). So instead of just waiting for another chain store or unhealthy restaurant to be built on that empty plot, use that space for your garden, adding nature and ecosystem services to your neighborhood (1).
Steps to starting your garden
1. Build a team
Building a team is one of the most important steps in starting a community garden because you are going to need people to help you advocate for the project as well as design and build the garden. You want to assemble a diverse group of people that have an array of talents that can assist you through all of the steps. Gardeners, landscapers, construction workers, doctors, and really anyone in your community that wants to join will be of service. Use apps like Facebook or Nextdoor, along with flyers and letters to help spread the word about your project and that you are looking for people to help.
2. Pick a location
Picking the right location for your garden can be tricky but it's very important! You want to pick a spot that gets at least 6 hours of full sunlight, doesn't have too much traffic nearby, has good drainage, and has an available water source you can use for watering and washing your plants. Another thing to consider is how the land was used prior to your garden because it may indicate if there are any heavy metals or other contaminants in the soil. Consider buying a soil test at your local hardware store and checking for soil contaminants like lead, arsenic, and mercury. If you find that your soil is contaminated, you will have to bring in fresh soil in raised beds so your fruits and vegetables don't become contaminated as well. Once you have found a spot, you want to track down the owner and see if they will lease it to you, but don't forget to check the zoning laws prior to leasing! If you are having trouble finding the owner or getting in contact with them, call your local government and see if they can help. Your local government can also help you find a specific location to use if you are having trouble and they may even be willing to partner with you and donate the land or provide some maintenance.
3. Getting funding
Starting a community garden is very rewarding, but it is not without expenses. Some of the costs include leasing the land, getting materials like garden beds, fencing, gardening tools, irrigation, soil, compost, and seeds, and then there are costs for insurance, and maintenance. There are a lot of estimates out there on how much starting a community garden can cost with the lower estimate being at about $2,000 and the higher estimate at around $10,000 (6,7). The overall cost really depends on how much of the work you and your team do by yourselves versus hiring outside contractors and gardeners, which will drastically increase the cost.
The best ways to obtain initial funding is through sponsors, donations, and grants. Churches, schools, citizens groups, private businesses, local parks and recreation departments are all great potential sponsors and donors! Another great option is being funded by foundation grants. The American Public Gardens Association has a great resource page of the different grant programs that are available. And if you end up having trouble obtaining funding from sponsors or grants, you could try different fundraising events in your community or ask for donations from your planning team to help you get started.
During this stage you should also determine if you are going to charge fees to use and work in the garden. For most community garden types fees are definitely not necessary but if you are worried about finances and maintenance later on it may be something to consider.
4. Prep and develop the site
Once your lease starts, first things first, you need to clean your site of any litter or debris from the previous uses. Once it is all clean and you have a blank canvas, work with your team to design a layout for the garden, keeping in mind sun and shade patterns for optimal growing. In your design make sure to include where you are getting your water from and how it will reach all of the different areas. You also want to set aside a few sections for a composting area, a storage area for tools, and if you have the space maybe a few tables for people to sit at and take breaks. After the layout is set, it's time to start building! If you need extra volunteers at the beginning stages of the building and developing phase check with local schools, universities, churches, and youth organizations to see if anyone is willing to help out!
5. Create community garden guidelines
Creating community guidelines allows you to make sure everyone who works in the garden is on the same page about how to run the garden, take care of the plants, and general do's and don'ts. This is also a great time to decide whether or not the garden will be organic. It's important to make this known to every volunteer so no one sprays any of the plants or uses any materials that do not qualify as organic.
Some guidelines could include: putting all of the tools and materials away before leaving, being respectful to everyone working, don't take food without permission, don't plant personal plants without permission, a list of things to not add to the compost, and anything else you want to add to make your garden a successful and welcoming environment. Check out this link for some more examples!
6. Final steps
The bulk of the planning is done and now all that's left is to start planting and recruit more members to the garden. To really kick off the opening of the garden, have a celebration like a barbeque or potluck to highlight all of the hard work you and your team have put in and show off your beautiful garden!
Starting and organizing a community garden is going to be a lot of hard work, but it will also be very rewarding and allow you to connect with your community on a deeper level. You have the opportunity to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into your community, teach others how to garden, and create a beautiful space for others to admire and use. Instead of letting another chain store come into your community, take that space back and use it for good!
- Ver Ploeg, M., Breneman, V., Farrigan, T., Hamrick, K., Hopkins, D., Kaufman, P., Lin, B.-H., Nord, M., Smith, T. A., Williams, R., Kinnison, K., Olander, C., Singh, A., & Tuckermanty, E. (2009). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences: Report to Congress (No. 2238-2019–2924). AgEcon Search. https://doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.292130.
- Kunpeuk, W., Spence, W., Phulkerd, S., Suphanchaimat, R., & Pitayarangsarit, S. (2020). The impact of gardening on nutrition and physical health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Promotion International, 35(2), 397–408. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/daz027.
- Vujcic, M., Tomicevic-Dubljevic, J., Grbic, M., Lecic-Tosevski, D., Vukovic, O., & Toskovic, O. (2017). Nature based solution for improving mental health and well-being in urban areas. Environmental Research, 158, 385–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2017.06.030
- Alaimo, K., Beavers, A., Crawford, C., Snyder, E., & Litt, J. (2016). Amplifying Health Through Community Gardens: A Framework for Advancing Multicomponent, Behaviorally Based Neighborhood Interventions. Current Environmental Health Reports, 3. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-016-0105-0
- Firth, C., Maye, D., & Pearson, D. (2011). Developing "community" in community gardens. Local Environment, 16(6), 555–568. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2011.586025
- Li, G., Sun, G.-X., Ren, Y., Luo, X.-S., & Zhu, Y.-G. (2018). Urban soil and human health: A review. European Journal of Soil Science, 69(1), 196–215. https://doi.org/10.1111/ejss.12518