The health of a neighborhood can be determined by looking at its open land. A vibrant community features parks, public gardens, and gathering places for the neighborhood. A disconnected and disenfranchised community often has vacant lots that are used as trash dumps and breeding grounds for criminal activity such as drug dealing. According to a study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, almost one quarter of the public and privately owned lands in American cities lie vacant.
So how does a community make use of its vacant lots to better a neighborhood, making it a safe, bright, and healthy place to live? One way to transform abandoned, chaotic land into healthy, productive land is to build community gardens. Not only are gardens useful for growing healthful food and flowers for residents, they provide public gathering places for festivals, meetings, and classes. Community gardens have the reputation of being a great first step in transforming rundown areas with little civic pride into thriving neighborhoods with increased property values and enthusiastic resident involvement.
During National Garden Month 2007, the National Gardening Association encourages people everywhere to GROW! If you don't have your own land, check out the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), one of our National Garden Month partners, about finding a plot in your town or city. If there isn't an established community garden nearby, consider organizing with some neighbors to start one. Here are some tips to help you get started.
The first step is to find like-minded souls to help you organize the project. Ideally you can recruit five to 10 families interested in helping. Survey neighbors to see who would like to participate and hold planning meetings at least monthly to get the ball rolling.
Consider getting a partner or sponsor for the project, such as a local church, parks and recreation department, a nonprofit organization, or a local business. They may be able to provide land, supplies, organizational help, and money to get the garden going.
Look for open pieces of land that might serve the purpose, and contact the owners for permission to use it. Make sure the site gets at least six hours of sun per day. Test the soil for nutrients, and for contaminants such as lead and other heavy metals. The site will also need a water source, easy access, and parking. The best scenario is to find a landowner who is enthusiastic about the plan and is willing to provide a written, multi-year lease. You don't want to establish your garden just to have to move it in two years' time!
Once the site is secured, your group can start to plan the site's development! Involve as many stakeholders as is practical. The more people involved in the design and planning of the gardens, the more help you'll have in building and maintaining the garden.
Schedule workdays and clean-up days. Measure the site, determine the size of individual plots, and mark them. Amend the soil as necessary with nutrients and compost to build up the health of the land. Water is crucial to a garden's success. Plan and install an irrigation system before opening the garden to residents.
Consider including community areas where you can plant trees, shrubs, and flowers for general beautification. Some community gardens have special areas just for kids to garden. Create some shady areas where people can sit to rest, have a picnic, and to gather and socialize.
Your garden group must be well organized if the community garden is to be successful. You'll need to determine how much to charge for plots and create a budget for spending the money. While most of the money will probably pay for tilling, soil amendments, and water bills, consider soliciting donations from individuals and businesses for special additions such as a tool storage shed, a sign, and a bulletin board (a good way to notify gardeners of upcoming events and meetings).
Build a compost pile in one area of the garden where everyone can dump their dead plants, and a trash barrel for dumping non-biodegradable materials.
Community gardens should also have rules of conduct that all the plot-holders read and agree to when they register. Rules can govern pesticide use, planting deadlines, weeding requirements, and cleaning up garden plots at the end of the season.
A group of dedicated, organized volunteers will help keep your garden growing well and diffuse misunderstandings before they become problems. That said, here are a couple of common issues that arise for community gardeners:
Celebrate and have fun. Be sure to hold social gatherings in the garden, especially in the summer and fall, to celebrate the garden and all its bounty.
You'll find very detailed guidance for starting and managing community gardens at the ACGA Web site. If you feel compelled to do more, check out National Gardening Association's Adopt a Community Garden Program where you can lend support to a specific community garden in your area.