8 Great Tips to Start a Community Garden

Looking to bring your local neighborhood closer together through growing greens? Here’s what you need to know

Nena Farrell
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A green beginning

There are tons of benefits to having a community garden: stronger sense of community, promoting healthy eating, learning what it really takes to grow your food. It’s also a great way to make gardening a possibility for those living in urban homes with less yard room, and to create a healthy town center for citizens of all ages.

But where should you start if you’d like a community garden of your own? We chatted with Rodney Spencer, the executive director of City Slicker Farms, which provides community gardens for West Oakland residents, to hear his top tips on how to get started.

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Get a leader

The most important thing you need to start your garden? Someone knowledgeable to lead the way. “Find an org that’s already doing something similar, like City Slicker Farms,” recommends Spencer. “[Or] people who are already in the business of farming so they have the resources and model to go on.”

Spencer recommends networking within your community to find out potential leaders, and if there’s any urban farming already going on in your area. You’ll need someone who’s already familiar with farming techniques and growing produce in locally to make sure your community garden is truly successful.

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Find your space

Once you have a designated leader who’s familiar with farming, it’s time to find a space for the growing to begin. You might’ve noticed a few vacant lots in your area that look perfect for a community garden, but you’ll need to do your research to see who owns them and if there are already plans for them—they could be owned by local groups, business associations, or the government.

Spencer recommends talking to developers, neighbors, and local businesses in areas where there are vacant lots to see if they know of any that could be a fit for a community garden. Another option is partnering with a city entity from which you can borrow land. City Slicker Farms, for example, has a farm whose property is owned by the City of Oakland, but is leased to them for community garden use.

Schools are another great option. Reach out to your local schools that don’t have gardens to see if they have any space that they’d want to turn into a community garden. Churches also often own a lot of land and frequently have an interest in community gardening.

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Check your soil

Once you’ve found a space and have been cleared to start using it as a community garden, you’ll need to test the soil if you’re planning to plant straight into the ground. Spencer recommends the University of Massachusetts’ Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Lab as an affordable place to send your soil samples for testing. You can also look into doing it locally, but that’s usually more expensive.

If you’ve got contaminated soil, the easiest option is to do raised beds with a barrier between the soil in the beds and the soil in the ground. Soil remediation is expensive, complicated, and time-intensive, Spencer explained, while building a decent sized box costs only about $100 per box.

You’re able to grow the same things in raised beds as you would in the ground, and it’s also a great option if the space you have available is, say, an extra parking lot at a elementary school or an unused paved area.

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Get the neighbors involved

Once you know where you’ll be gardening and whether you’ll be building beds or planting straight into the ground, start getting the community involved immediately.

“Make sure you don’t get that excitement started after the garden is ready,” says Spencer. “Get people involved in the really early stages so they have an investment in the project from day one.”

This also related back to the first step of finding that great leader or group to make the garden a reality. “Having a leader or someone sponsoring the garden is really exciting,” says Spencer.

Start reaching out to the surrounding community right away about the plan to start a community garden, so they can help plan how you’ll use the area, develop spaces and infrastructure like raised beds, and discuss what they’d like to grow.

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Start planning

There’s a lot to consider with your community once you start planning how you’ll use the space.

First, there are the people who will be gardening. If you have a big senior population, Spencer recommends building raised beds that 24” to 30” tall so they won’t have to bend as far. A regular family can use a 16” box, but if your community has a lot of younger kids, you might want to build smaller boxes at their height level. Spice gardens and peppers work perfectly in the shorter garden beds.

Second, what kind of food does your community eat? Part of what you’ll grow depends on the season you’re planting in, but you should also discuss with your community what kind of preferences they have. What do they already eat a lot of or what can they easily use in recipes? What are they regularly buying in stores that you could grow instead? Figure out a top list of produce like kale, chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. that your community members will be excited to use.

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Make space for the community

The best community gardens aren’t just gardens, but also act as place where neighbors can relax, hang out with their kids, enjoy the gardens, maybe even host small community events.

“Have a place for people to sit when they’re not gardening,” says Spencer. “Put some character in your garden to make it fun like artwork to make it colorful, and very welcoming place.” City Slicker Farms has areas with shaded benches, a play structure for kids, grassy areas for picnicking, and a covered space for workshops and classes.

Determining rules is also an important step to ensure the community is enjoying the space in a respectful way towards everyone sharing it. Creating those rules as a group is the best way to go, so everyone can agree on acceptable and unacceptable activities in the garden, and when and how the garden is used.

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Figure out the important details

Remember that knowledgeable leader? You’ll want to consult them about the nitty-gritty details of your community garden, like water sourcing and pest control.

Water comes with a lot of responsibilities. With your garden leader and community, you’ll need to figure out the best ways to irrigate the garden without overusing water or running over and damaging surrounding property. Especially if you’re in a drought, overusing water can become a big issue.

Composting is a great way to not only keep waste low, but also bring nutrients back to the soil. Replenishing the land is important to keep the garden thriving.

Pests will always be there when you’re gardening, Spencer recommends focusing on how to manage them organically. Your designated leader should be familiar with organic gardening and the best ways to keep them out without pesticides. They should provide advice like plants or easy tricks that can act as repellents to pests.

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Educate your community

Utilize your leader and local farming groups to come by your community garden and educate the participants about urban farming. The more they can teach everyone about irrigation methods, composting, pest control, when to plant what, how to harvest and new things to grow, the more self-sufficient your garden will become. It’s also a great way to keep the community close through classes and workshop events—and to use that welcoming, non-gardening space.