Community Gardening Toolkit
MU Extension Associate
Healthy Lifestyle Initiative
What is a community garden?
A community garden means many things to many people. For some, a community garden is a place to grow food, flowers and herbs in the company of friends and neighbors. For others, it's a place to reconnect with nature or get physical exercise. Some use community gardens because they lack adequate space at their house or apartment to have a garden. Others take part in community gardening to build or revitalize a sense of community among neighbors.
Community gardens also take many shapes and forms. From a 50-by-50-foot church garden that supplies a local food pantry with fresh produce to a vacant city lot divided into plots and gardened by neighbors, community gardens reflect the needs and the desires of people directly involved in their management and upkeep. As such, there are many, many ways to organize and manage a community garden.
Regardless of why people choose to take part in a community garden or how a garden is organized, the activity of gardening with others can be both rewarding and challenging. Our hope is that this guide will help you manage the challenges that come your way and experience the rewards of community gardening. This guide is intended to be a resource for gardeners, garden organizers, extension staff and other agency professionals who want to start a new community garden, enhance an existing garden or assist community members with starting and managing their own community garden.
Characteristics of neighborhood community gardens
This guide provides a framework for organizing and managing different types of community gardens with a primary focus on neighborhood community gardens, which typically share the following characteristics.
First, neighborhood community gardens are typically located on land that is divided into different plots for individual and family use. The land may be borrowed, rented or owned by the gardeners, and gardeners generally prepare, plant, maintain and harvest from their own plots. Gardeners and their family, friends and neighbors usually consume produce from the gardens rather than selling it. Gardeners often share tools, water and compost, along with seeds and plants.
Second, neighborhood community gardens are often organized and managed by the gardeners themselves, have one or more identified leaders responsible for managing the day-to-day activities of the garden and have some type of a garden committee to share in the work. Because community gardens come with a host of responsibilities that range from making plot assignments and keeping the grass mowed to resolving conflicts and enforcing the rules, things tend to run more smoothly when one or more people are in charge and gardeners themselves take an active role keeping the garden in shape.
Finally, in addition to occupying vacant neighborhood lots, neighborhood community gardens are sometimes found at churches, social service agencies and other nonprofit organizations, including food pantries and food banks. These gardens may involve both neighbors from the surrounding area and the members or clients of a particular agency or institution. They sometimes incorporate educational, job-training and entrepreneurial programming.
Other types of community gardens
In addition to the typical neighborhood community garden where plots are subdivided and cared for by individuals or families, community gardens exist in a variety of other forms to serve a number of functions. The examples below represent different types of community gardens that are distinguished in part by their purpose and participants.
- Youth/school gardens expose young people to gardening and nature, give them the opportunity to do some of their own gardening and/or educate them in a variety of subject areas. These gardens are typically associated with a formal or semi-formal program that incorporates classroom lessons with hands-on gardening activities. Gardens may be located on school grounds, at a community center, in neighborhoods or on other parcels of land.
- Entrepreneurial/job training market gardens are typically established by nonprofit organizations or other agencies to teach business or job skills to youth or other groups. They grow and sell the produce they raise. Proceeds from the sale of garden products are used to pay the participants for their work. Programs typically rely on outside sources of funding to offset costs.
- Communal gardens are typically organized and gardened by a group of people who share in the work and rewards. Plots are not subdivided for individual or family use. Produce is distributed among group members. Sometimes produce is donated to a local food pantry.
- Food pantry gardens may be established at a food pantry, food bank or other location. Produce is grown by volunteers, food pantry clients, or both and donated to the food pantry.
- Therapy gardens provide horticultural therapy to hospital patients and others. A trained horticulture therapist often leads programs and classes. Gardens may be located at hospitals, senior centers, prisons or other places. Demonstration gardens show different types of gardening methods, plant varieties, composting techniques and more.
- Demonstration gardens located at working community gardens are often open to the general public for display and classes. They may be managed and maintained by garden members or a participating gardening group such as extension Master Gardeners, community members who receive training in home horticulture and then serve as volunteers to educate the public about gardening.
Other gardens are distinguished more by their location and less by their purpose. These gardens may combine elements of a neighborhood community garden with other community garden models. Examples include, but are not limited to: public agency gardens, community center gardens, senior gardens, church gardens, apartment complex/public housing gardens and prison gardens.
Rural community gardens
Although community gardens are often associated with urban areas, they exist in many rural areas as well. However, because of the unique characteristics of rural places, they often take on different forms and serve different functions. Research conducted by Ashley F. Sullivan (1999) from the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University identified a number of ways in which rural community gardens differ from their urban counterparts. Her research uncovered different types of rural community gardens along with obstacles to community gardening in rural areas.
Sullivan identified seven different types of rural community gardens in her study. They included the following:
- Traditional neighborhood-type gardens with individual and family plots;
- Gardens that provide demonstration and education to gardeners at neighborhood gardens and home gardens;
- Communal gardens tended collectively with the produce going to a local food pantry;
- Educational gardens that offer classes to the public;
- School gardens that incorporate gardening and nutrition education;
- Community-assisted home gardens where an experienced gardener mentors novice gardeners in their home gardening efforts;
- Gardens affiliated with an existing agency, apartment complex or church.
Sullivan identified obstacles to community gardening in rural areas as well. Obstacles include a high rate of gardener and volunteer turnover, animosity between "outsiders" and community members, lack of gardening skills and lack of transportation.
Sullivan also offers recommendations for overcoming some of these obstacles:
- Do not assume that the traditional neighborhood community garden model will work in rural areas.
- During the planning stages, identify obstacles to starting a community garden in a rural area.
- Identify solutions to the obstacles.
- Respect the values of the community and incorporate those values into the garden's design.
- Be flexible when deciding how to organize a garden; incorporate different models into a plan to see which one works best.
- Help gardeners cultivate a sense of ownership for the garden.
- Take time to look at all of the factors that might hinder participation.
- Involve local organizations and businesses.
See the history of community gardening
A discussion of starting and managing a community garden would be incomplete without a discussion of the challenges encountered by gardeners and garden organizers. Common challenges faced by most community garden groups include:
Community gardens are management intensive. They demand patience, time and the capacity to work with and organize people and projects. They also typically require systems to enforce rules and resolve conflicts.
Community gardens are maintenance intensive. Grass will need to be mowed, equipment will need to be repaired, and plant debris will need to be composted, among other things.
From year to year, gardeners and garden leaders come and go from community gardens for a variety of reasons. Because of this, it can be challenging to maintain a sense of community and consistency at gardens.
- Theft and vandalism
Theft and vandalism are commonplace at many community gardens. As a general rule, theft is the result of adult activity and vandalism is carried out by children.
- Gardening skills
Many new and some returning gardeners don't know a lot about gardening. Gardeners who lack gardening skills and have poor gardening experiences may be more likely to give up.
- Leadership skills
Many gardeners may not have the skills to take a leadership role at their respective garden.
- Services and supplies
Plowing, tilling and the delivery of compost and mulch can be challenging services for gardeners to arrange for themselves.
Most gardens need some way to irrigate fruits and vegetables during the summer. Finding a source of water can be challenging. Also, because most community gardens are located on borrowed land, installing a water hydrant may not be feasible or cost effective.
- Site permanency
Most community gardens are located on borrowed land. This limits the amount of infrastructure that can be added to a particular site. It may also create an atmosphere of instability among gardeners since the garden could be lost at any moment.
See stories from experience
See the benefits of community gardening
Starting a community garden
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of starting a community garden, it's helpful to lay a foundation for the work at hand.
From the outset, it is essential to understand that community gardening is about more than growing food, flowers and herbs. It's also about interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, planning and organizing, group decision-making and the associated rewards and challenges that come with working with people. In short, community gardening is as much about "community" as it is "gardening."
If community is so important to community gardening, then how do we orient ourselves to the task of starting or enhancing a community garden?
The authors of the Growing Communities Curriculum (Abi-Nader et al., 2001) offer a set of suggestions developed by community gardening experts from across the country. These suggestions, written in the form of "core beliefs," can be used to guide the development of your community garden and provide a strong foundation for growth.
Taken as a whole, these core beliefs emphasize the importance of being inclusive, making room for diverse ideas and utilizing local assets when starting a community garden. They also demonstrate the importance of using a bottom-up or grassroots approach when developing a garden. As the authors have learned over the years, most successful community gardens are initiated, established and managed by the gardeners themselves. When gardeners have the opportunity to take ownership in a project, they are more likely to invest their time and effort in making the garden a success.
Additionally, keeping these suggestions in mind may help you overcome some of the challenges that arise when moving forward with a community garden project. For example, the people involved in your project will likely come from different backgrounds and have different ways of relating to each other and the project. They will bring their unique personalities, perceptions, knowledge, skills and experience to a group situation. They will have different ideas about how to accomplish a project. Some group members may learn faster than others. Some will be more pessimistic. Others will be more optimistic. Regardless of these differences, the group should be committed to remaining open and patient with all group members and creating the time and space to facilitate dialogue about the best way to accomplish the tasks at hand.
Five core beliefs of working in groups
- Core belief 1
"There are many ways to start and manage a community garden." Although this may be a given, it helps to remember that community gardens can serve many purposes and take many forms.
- Core belief 2
"In order for a garden to be sustainable as a true community resource, it must grow from local conditions and reflect the strengths, needs and desires of the local community." Assistance from people or organizations outside of the community can be helpful. However, those who will be using the garden should make most of the decisions about how the garden is developed and managed.
- Core belief 3
"Diverse participation and leadership, at all phases of garden operation, enrich and strengthen a community garden." Gardens can be stronger when they are developed and led by people from different backgrounds.
- Core belief 4
"Each community member has something to contribute." Useful skills and good suggestions are often overlooked because of how people communicate. People should be given a chance to make their own unique contributions to the garden.
- Core belief 5
"Gardens are communities in themselves, as well as part of a larger community." This is a reminder to involve and be aware of the larger community when making decisions.
From idea to action — Ten steps to success
The Growing Communities Curriculum notes that community gardens generally start in one of the following two ways. Scenario one: One person or a small group of people has the idea to start a community garden. Scenario two: An outside group or local agency has the idea and land available to start a community garden.
Whether you are involved in a volunteer group or part of a local agency, the basic steps for moving from an idea to planting the first seed are the same. The following 10 steps can serve as your guide.
See role of an outside facilitator or community organization
Talk with friends, neighbors and local organizations about your idea.
As you talk to people, collect names and numbers of those who are interested. If people voice opposition or concern, take note and be sure to address these concerns in future meetings. As a general rule, aim to find at least 10 interested individuals or families who want to be a part of the garden before moving to the next step.
Hold a meeting with anyone interested in the garden
The purpose of this meeting is to determine the feasibility of starting a garden, to brainstorm ideas and to address some basic questions. This meeting can be informal or formal, but at the very least, one person should be responsible for taking notes and sending them to the group after the meeting. Publicize the meeting to individuals, groups and relevant organizations using phone calls, personal visits, emails or fliers posted around your community.
See quetions to address at an initial meeting
Find and evaluate potential garden sites
Get on your bike. Go out on foot. Tour the neighborhood with friends and family and talk to your neighbors. Be sure to consider churches, nonprofit agencies and businesses as potential partners. These groups may own land and have an interest in being a part of your garden.
See questions to help evaluate potential garden sites
Identify local resources needed for starting a garden
Gardens can require a fair amount of tools, equipment, supplies, infrastructure, knowledge and other forms of support. Gardeners themselves can provide some resources. For other resources, it makes sense for the group to seek out and acquire materials in bulk or solicit donations and support from other groups.
See questions to identify local resources needed
Hold a second meeting.
The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the notes from the previous meeting and hear reports from the people who volunteered to find and evaluate possible locations for a garden (Step 3) and identify local resources for starting a garden (Step 4). If you completed the Purpose, Values, Vision exercise, you may wish to revisit this document to see if people are still in agreement and to gain input from new group members.
If your group feels like the primary issues have been adequately addressed and enough people are committed to the project, you may be ready to evaluate and select one or more sites to pursue for your garden.
You may also be ready to elect your garden's leadership team. At the very least, you will need to have one or more garden co-leaders and two to three additional people to handle important tasks such as drafting and negotiating the lease agreement (Step 6), leading the planning and preparation of the site (Step 7 and Step 9), and drafting gardener guidelines and the gardener application (Step 8).
Draft a lease agreement
It is in everyone's best interest to have a written agreement that outlines your group's and the landlord's obligations and responsibilities and includes a "hold harmless" clause that states that the landlord is not responsible if a gardener is injured on the property. Try to negotiate a lease that enables your group to use the land for at least three years.
See the sample permission for land use
Develop a site plan
The plan for your garden can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. Consider including the following elements in your plan:
- The boundary of the lot
- The location and size of garden beds
- Any trees, shrubs or existing vegetation that will be kept
- Driveways, pathways and open spaces
- Compost bins
- A shed
- The location of the water source
- Common or shared garden areas such as perennial or herb beds, a row planted for donation purposes, a picnic table with chairs, or grassy areas
- Garden sign
- Garden name
Establish gardener guidelines and draft the gardener application
Just as there are many types of community gardens, there are many types of gardener guidelines and gardener applications. Having clear guidelines for gardeners to follow and an application to collect their contact information will aid in your efforts to keep order among and stay in touch with gardeners.
For starters, let's look at some common issues that most gardener guidelines address.
- Application or membership fee. Is there a fee to garden? How much is the fee? Is there a sliding scale? When is the fee due?
- Plot maintenance. Is there an expectation that plots will be maintained to a certain standard? What happens if a plot is not maintained? Who decides?
- Garden maintenance. Are gardeners expected to volunteer for certain chores?
- Planting restrictions. Are there restrictions on which types of plants can be grown?
- End of the season. Do plots need to be cleaned by a certain date at the end of the season?
- Composting. Which materials may and may not be composted?
- Materials and tools. Are shared materials and tools available for gardeners to use? How should these items be handled and stored?
- Pesticides. Which pesticides are allowed?
- Other people's plots. How should gardeners treat and respect others' gardens?
- Water. Can the water be left on unattended?
- Pets and children.
- Alcohol and drugs.
- Unwanted activities. How should theft, vandalism and other unwanted activities be handled and reported?
- Violation of garden rules. What happens if a rule is violated?
For an exhaustive compilation of garden rules, click on "Community Garden Rules" at Gardening Matters.
See an example of gardener guidelines
As for gardener applications, most gardens collect the following information:
- Name, address, phone number and email address
- Number and location of plot(s) assigned
- Total plot fee paid
- Sign up for a garden job/chore
- Request for help if the person is a new gardener
- Offer to help if the person is an experienced gardener
- Photo permission
- Phone and email list permission
- Agreement to follow all of the garden rules
- Hold-harmless clause
- Signature and date
See an example of a gardener application
During the planning stage, it may be wise to treat these initial documents as drafts that will be revised by the gardening group after the first season. In addition, after your first season, it is strongly recommend that you create a relatively comprehensive set of written documents that explain how your garden operates and how gardeners can be involved. To aid your efforts in this process, a link to a downloadable Gardeners' Welcome Packet is included in this toolkit.
Prepare and develop the site
Once you've held the meetings, gained commitments from a number of people, selected a location, identified and assembled the resources, drafted and signed the lease, established the garden rules and made the plans, it's time do the physical work of preparing and developing your community garden.
There are many ways to go about this, and much will depend on the condition of your site. Generally, groups will schedule regular workdays to take care of the initial tilling, trimming and building projects. It is helpful if one or more people can lead various projects and coordinate equipment, supplies and volunteers.
Celebrate your success
Don't forget to take a step back and recognize your accomplishments. Hold a garden party and invite neighbors, local businesses and organizations. Show off the work you've done, and talk to people about your plans for the future. This is a great way to gain community support for your garden.
Additional information for local agencies interested in starting a community garden, or groups interested in involving an outside organization
As noted previously, community gardens are generally started by individuals or small groups of neighbors or an outside group or local agency. In the latter case, the process of starting a garden is very similar to the process outlined previously, with a few added twists.
First, an outside group or agency needs to be clear about its reasons for wanting to start a community garden. Just as a small group of neighbors should be clear about its purpose and vision for a gardening project, an outside group or local agency should take the time to define its own purpose and vision for the project.
Second, an outside group or agency needs to be clear about its role in the garden's establishment and management. What exactly does the group or agency expect to contribute to the project? Money, staff time, equipment, land, training, other resources? For how long?
Finally, it is very important that the outside group or local agency involve clients and potential gardeners from the beginning. All too often, outside groups or agencies develop well intentioned plans without engaging the people who will be affected by them.
Role of an outside facilitator or community organization
In some cases, a volunteer gardening group will enlist the help of a facilitator or community organization who is not a part of the immediate group. Trained facilitators and organizers, such as university extension staff or other agency professionals, can assist groups as they work through the process of starting a community garden.
However, the garden group and the outside facilitator should be clear about their respective roles. The facilitator's job is to help move the group along and assist with the group process. It is not the facilitator's job to do the actual work of starting and managing the garden. According to Jack Hale, executive director of Knox Parks Educations in Hartford, Conn., facilitators and organizations should use the following guidelines (Growing Communities Curriculum, p. 58) when engaging with garden groups:
- Facilitators or organizations should only work with groups that have at least 10 committed gardeners. Expect half of these people to drop out before the project is completed.
- The gardening group should accomplish at least one task — locating potential garden sites, finding out who owns a particular site, checking for water, etc. — before the first meeting.
- At the first meeting, everyone should be assigned a job to complete before the second meeting.
Additional things to consider while getting started
Growing a garden
Your local extension office can provide an array of resources concerning horticulture, composting, food safety and preservation. To search for an office in your area, go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture.
Creating a garden roster and map
As interest in your community garden begins to grow, it is essential to keep good records of interested gardeners, existing gardeners and plot assignments. Garden leaders will need to collect the names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of individuals. They will also need to create a map of the garden, keep track of plot assignments and develop a system for contacting gardeners. All of this can be done with paper and pencil or you can use spreadsheets to create electronic documents.
Enhancing opportunities for success
New and returning gardeners may need support and encouragement to keep up with their garden plot for the entire season. Garden leaders can encourage gardeners to take the following steps to enhance their chances of success:
- Visit the garden two to three times a week during the growing season to keep from being overwhelmed by weeds, pests and disease.
- Attend scheduled meetings and workdays and volunteer for a committee to meet other gardeners and contribute to the garden.
- Make friends with other gardeners to share challenges, successes and gardening tips.
- Study, attend classes or participate in an extension Master Gardener program to learn more about gardening.
Security and personal safety
Theft and vandalism can be common occurrences at community gardens, regardless of the height or strength of your fence. The following tips are intended to help minimize theft and vandalism and keep gardeners safe while working at the garden.
- Know your neighbors.
Learn the names and a little about your non-gardening neighbors. Share some extra produce. Take the time to visit with them about how the garden works if they're not familiar with it. You may be surprised to find that people just assume that they can take food from the garden. "Hey, it's for the community, right?"
- Harvest produce on a regular basis.
Some thieves use the excuse that "a lot of food is going to waste" to justify taking food from a garden. During harvest season, let other gardeners know if you plan to be out of town for more than a few days. Gardeners can harvest for you and donate the food to a local pantry.
- Consider growing unpopular, unusual or hard-to-harvest varieties.
Thieves generally go for easy-to-snatch things like tomatoes, peppers and corn.
- Grow more than you need.
- Put a border or fence around your garden or individual plots.
Even a simple barrier can be a deterrent.
- Use common sense.
Although your garden may be well lit by street lights, only garden during daylight hours. Garden in pairs or keep a cell phone nearby if it makes you feel more comfortable.
- Report theft, vandalism and unusual activities to garden leaders and the police.
The more people you have looking out for the garden and talking about what's going on, the more success you'll have at being safe and curbing unwanted activities.
Additional tips can be found in the "Theft and vandalism" article at American Community Gardening Association.
Leadership at a community garden is a vital part of any garden's ultimate success. While garden leaders may typically wear many different hats, their primary role is to help other gardeners find meaningful ways to be involved in the garden. All too often, garden leaders take on the responsibility of coordinating meetings and workdays, making plot assignments and drafting and enforcing rules when they could be enlisting the help of other garden members to do those and other jobs. Regardless, learning to be a leader takes time. It also requires the willingness and ability to lead by example. According to the Citizen's Handbook by Charles Dobson of the Vancouver Citizen's Committee, effective leaders are able to:
- Lead by example
- Delegate work
- Appreciate the contributions of others, regardless how large or small the contribution
- Welcome and encourage criticism
- Help people believe in themselves
- Articulate and keep sight of the higher purpose
- Avoid doing all of the work.
More specifically, effective community garden leaders are able to maintain frequent and regular contact and communication with gardeners and enlist the help of other gardeners with the following tasks:
- Forming a team or scheduling regular workdays to complete garden projects and maintain common areas
- Hosting community gatherings to involve neighbors and gardeners
- Planning winter or off-season activities or meetings
- Drafting and enforcing garden rules
- Seeking out funding sources
- Developing a garden budget
- Making sure that both gardeners and interested neighbors know how to become involved
Adapted from Great Garden Leader Practices, Hannah Reinhart and Lauren Maul, Gateway Greening, St. Louis
Making the garden accessible to all
Community gardens tend to attract a wide variety of people, including those with physical or other challenges. Because of this, it is helpful to think of ways to make your garden accessible to all gardeners. Building accessible raised beds for those who use wheelchairs or have trouble bending over is one way to make the garden more accessible. For more information, see MU Extension Publication G6985, Raised-Bed Gardening. Another great publication is Accessible Raised Beds, by the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Inc.
Food banks, pantries and kitchens generally welcome donations of fresh produce from community gardeners. However, it is important to check with them before making a delivery to determine their hours of operation and their capacity to handle fresh fruits and vegetables. For a listing of organizations and agencies in your area that accept food donations, search the Internet or check your local phone book. To become involved in a national effort to increase fresh produce donations to food banks, pantries and kitchens coordinated by the Garden Writer's Association, check out the Plant a Row for the Hungry program.
Often, little money is needed to start a community garden. However, it is helpful to think about potential expenses and create a simple budget to have an idea of the amount of money or materials needed for your project. Often, gardeners can sustain the garden themselves. They can either provide their own equipment and supplies or they can pool their money to purchase items as a group. In other cases, gardeners may seek donations of money or materials from community members, local organizations or businesses. Partnering organizations can sometimes cover the cost of water, insurance and other supplies. A number of grant opportunities also exist. For an excellent article that covers fundraising for community gardens, see American Community Gardening Association. For information about funding, search the Web for "community garden grants."
See a sample community garden budget
Liability insurance for community gardens
In recent years, community gardens have come under increasing pressure to carry liability insurance. Although liability insurance can be quite expensive for individual gardens, larger organizations can often obtain policies for community gardens at a reasonable price or add them to an existing policy. For a more detailed discussion of this issue by Jack Hale, executive director of the Knox Parks Foundation, see the "Insurance for Community Gardens" article at American Community Gardening Association.
Starting a community gardening organization
Once your garden is up and running, you may be interested in exploring the possibility of starting an organization to support community gardening in your area if one doesn't already exist. For more information, see the "Setting Up a New Gardening Organization" article at American Community Gardening Association.
Policy and advocacy
There are many resources concerning policy and advocacy on the "Advocacy" page of the American Community Gardening Association.
In addition, check out American Community Gardening Association's Community Greening Review, Volume 10, 2000, titled Making policy: Steps beyond the physical garden. The publication includes information about how to craft and use policies to support community gardens. It also includes information about how to lobby government officials.
Also, an article from Legislation and Public Policy, Volume 3:351, titled Community development through gardening: State and local policies transforming urban open space, by Jane E. Schukoske. This scholarly article contains research about the value of community gardens, legal issues faced by gardens and an evaluation and summary of state and local ordinances concerning community gardens.
At some point, you may wish to evaluate your progress, either for your own benefit or to apply for a grant. A sample community garden evaluation form for adults and youth can be found under the "Sample Evaluation Tools" heading at the American Community Gardening Association.
To connect with other community gardeners in the United States and Canada, consider joining both the American Community Gardening Association and its email discussion list.
See additional resources for community gardening and appendix of sample forms
MP906, new April 2009