A Growing Trend

How to Start Your Own Community Garden

The day is cool, the sun moving higher, the birds are clearing their throats. In Ontario, the Carleton Place Community Garden Coordinator, along with a Lanark County Master Gardener, a representative from the Lanark County Food Bank and myself, arrive early to weed the 2018 beds.  Strawberry plants are already visible and the compost heap is ready for the new season.  

Folk come in – one mom with a baby wrapped to her back – and head to their allotted plots to share in the first seasonal work party.

Soon, very soon, soft laughter and intermittent “hellos” fill the air – we no longer notice the birds.

Community gardens are peopled places.  They’re places of conversation, food, support and learning – they’re about growth and making connections on many levels.  

It seems obvious that plants need the right soil, the right watering, weeding and above all, harvesting.  But growth is also what happens to those who plan for the garden.  It’s amazing how your personal toolbox grows – with confidence, camaraderie, new skills like fundraising, communications, public education.  Who knew?

What’s a community garden?

A community garden is any piece of land gardened by a group of people in an urban or rural setting and everything in-between. The size and configuration vary.  It could mean one plot, or a network of plots. In northern climates, it might mean community greenhouses. There can be flowers, vegetables, herbs or a healthy combination.  The garden can benefit individuals, families and enhance nutritional security through local food banks and local markets. Fundamentally, it’s the choice of those who plan for the space and the surrounding community. 

Why start a community garden?

The reasons for starting are unique to each community but common threads include a range of social, economic, health and education benefits: 

  • To bring community together. 
  • To provide a social place to engage with the community; meet new people across generations; to have fun and be creative. 
  • To address food security issues.
  • To provide a low-cost option for food choices; to share excess produce to meet local need.    
  • To promote health benefits. To improve overall household nutrition; increase physical fitness and reduce stress; to enhance emotional well-being and build self-confidence.    
  • To share knowledge.
  • To learn new skills through planning and hands on gardening; to become more aware of how your choices can make a difference and to contribute to the local environment by acting as a steward of the land.

What to consider?

You’re not alone…or shouldn’t be…in the garden and certainly not in the planning and implementation of your community or allotment garden. 

Who’s your team and what skills do these volunteers have or are keen to learn?  Consider setting up a hands-on planning committee who meet regularly to advise and make things happen – governance will be an element of success over time. 

Consider the range of skills needed: coordination, communication and fundraising, community outreach and education, securing land and resources, someone who understands gardens and possibly garden design.

From David Taylor, Deputy Chair of the Board of the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective – Developing Community Spirit and Pride: “(you) need a key person to develop a garden site… Basically, someone that you can authorize to get stuff done, to hire contractors, spend money etc. Someone needs to buy wood, schedule building events, monitor contractors etc. Some stuff can be done by committee, but some things just need someone who cares about the result to get active and get things done.”

Decisions need to be made. What land is available?  Who needs to be approached and how? Who will test the soil? How do you build the beds? Do you charge for a plot? Do you limit the number of plots one individual can cultivate?  Will you allow perennial plantings? Where will the seeds and plants come from? How will tools be provided or will they?  Who can access the storage facility and how?  How will you brand yourself? What else do you need to think about? 

Planning is fundamental and a lot of work. Good news is you can build on the experiences of others to suit your needs.  What’s happening in your area – who can you talk to? 

On-line resources are available too, which can provide steps, key activities and templates to consider.  A smattering of examples include: The Community Garden Best Practices Toolkit – Newfoundland; A Guide for Community Gardens – Alberta; Dig it!  A Practical Toolkit – British Columbia.  

What do gardeners need to know?

Your successful planning now means that a garden space is at hand, beds are ready and your great community communications have attracted gardeners.  Excellent.  

What guidelines are in place that outline the roles and responsibilities of gardeners?  Can you develop an information package? What is a recommended gardening calendar for the season outlining when information sessions will take place, when work parties are needed, when year-end clean-up will take place? How will you share these? 

Sharing information can run the gamut from physical structures on site like communication boards; to phone; print; direct or e-communications. Staying engaged with the gardeners is a sure way to keep on track.  

July 6: email from the Carleton Place Community Garden Coordinator to gardeners: “We have a resident ground hog living under bed number 25.  We need to determine whether it’s a mommy with babies or not.  If not, we can live trap it and remove it.  Please keep your eyes open for our guest.”

It’s an opportunity to draw on local resources that can help.  Across Canada there are horticultural clubs and Master Gardeners groups who can animate sessions to educate green thumbs. 

Reaping rewards from what you sow!

You’ve helped to create gardeners, shared and created awareness about health and food security, helped to strengthen and build a community – take a bow.

Then start again by mentoring new volunteers and oh, sharing your experience to help the next community go (and stay) green!

Heather Phaneuf
Heather Phaneuf

Heather Phaneuf lives in Mississippi Mills, Ontario, in the creative company of Pete and Furgus, the great grey cat. She turned a cultural anthropology degree into an international development career within both non-governmental organizations and the federal public service.  Now completing studies in creative writing and in horticulture, she’s primed to enjoy community life, learn from the garden, and tell a tale or two…or three.

Posted on Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

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