When exploring or participating in a Community Garden project, you have crossed the divide between personal or individual gardening into the world of Commercial Gardening. Okay, maybe it is just “sort of” commercial but community gardening is this interesting hybrid between the individual and the agricultural – combining the best pieces of two different worlds to bring people together for a shared purpose – maximizing the bounty brought forth from our gardens.
The Individual Side
Sure, you are now part of a “team” but are your always working together? Some community gardens focus on providing space only – the rest is up to you. You focus on your plot and do your best to coax forth the wonders of fresh produce. You may talk to your neighbors (those who have plots next to or near yours) or you may not – that is sort of up to you. This loose affiliation of a group of individuals is not a bad thing – but may not always create the biggest benefit of a community garden: the concept of a connected community.
Don’t get us wrong, this is not necessarily a bad thing but perhaps does not maximize the benefit of community gardening – the shared purpose. Sure, we are all gardening but are we doing it in concert with the “system”? As an example, an affiliation as described could mean that everyone is growing a few tomatoes (or insert your vegetable of choice here) but is the community maximizing their tomato experience (variety, production, disease management, etc.). This shows that there may be something still on the table to coalesce all of these individuals into a collective whole.
We embrace the concept of a true “Community” Garden – where the individuals work together to both produce the most product possible, share the bounty between gardeners and to provide excess bounty to good causes to help support the greater community. What are some of these potential benefits? Well, here are a few we have been thinking of:
- Provide kids with their first gardening experience – actively seek out local schools (the younger the students the better) and arrange tours or visits so these kids get exposed to the joy of bringing forth food from the earth
- Provide an outlet for kids with too much time on their hands. This is potentially where older kids come in. Many cities around the US are seeking ways to support policing through afternoon and summer activities that can provide older children (even into the late teen years) with something to engage in other than trouble. Gardening can be a great way to engage folks who need a few more distractions. Regular and consistent support of plants can teach responsibility and discipline – great skills for later in life
- Social Responsibility – if a group wants to do good, using the bounty from the garden to support food shelves, co-ops or farmers markets (again, you have the older kids to focus on as well) can teach so many different skills. At the Minneapolis Farmers Market there are many multi-generational farmers/gardeners that are teaching the next generation how to build all sorts of skills – not only gardening but customer service, inventory management, time management, financial responsibility, etc.
- Social Skills – cooperation is not necessarily an innate trait in people. Little children need to be taught to share and our current fascination with electronics often creates a gap in social skills – from interacting with actual people to speaking on the phone to having to deal (in person) with the consequences of our actions – all are wonderful skills to develop. Additionally, the cooperative nature of true community gardens means that there will be give and take and compromise. Getting a team of disparate folks to all pull in the same direction is a true exercise in leadership, compassion and caring that everyone should learn
We could go on for hours on this – but suffice it to say that embracing the community aspect of Community Gardens is about so much more than raising flowers or vegetables. If you decide that community gardening is right for you, we recommend you find one that embraces the total sense of community possible. You will be glad that you did.
For some quick tips on setting up a community garden – check out these two links. One is for Hamline University’s take on setting up a community garden and the others is a recent Facebook post from Food Security News.
Hamline Community Garden Reference Guide: Reference Guide
Community Garden Best Practices Toolkit: Tool Kit
The Commercial Side
This portion of Community Gardening is where business aspects overshadow the simple joy of gardening. During our research on this wonderful phenomena, we have found a variety of elements that reflect this aspect. A few of these are below.
- Structures – many community gardens focus on in-ground gardening or perhaps box gardens. For us, this tends to exclude too many people so we are fans of raised garden beds for community gardens – this way, seniors and others with physical limitations can feel comfortable as part of your community. Seniors especially can provide a wealth of information, guidance and wisdom to help the longevity of your community project.
- Soil – again, often the ground or land selected has “dirt” that will need to be converted and maintained as soil. From mulch to cover crops to nutrient replenishment, these are all things the community will need to rally around to keep things healthy year over year. Even if you go with raised garden beds – like the Eco Garden Systems’ Original Garden (check out our 360 degree view here) you will need to make sure your soil stays healthy. See the next point for another related decision!
- Sustainability – deciding if your garden will be organic is a major decision to make up front as it comes with other requirements (check some info on this here). For many, this may be a bridge too far – but that does not mean you can’t choose to be sustainable. This should become part of your community rules – what types of nutrients and pesticides are acceptable, what soil amendments are acceptable and what you plan to do with your extra organic material. Many potential gardeners will want to understand the approach – and making yours easy to understand will help.
- Scalability – so, what happens if you get so big that your current layout is insufficient? Like any small business, understanding how to scale before it is needed is a critical component of your overall plan. You may not want to get bigger – but sometimes you may not have a choice. Gardening is becoming so popular that you may get pushed in this direction. Being prepared for this possibility will make continuity for the garden that much better.
- Sharing – this aspect touches so much of what your community garden is all about – and some of it may not be visible right out of the gate. As an example, we first thought about how to share the bounty – do you align with a food shelf, a senior center or some other group to share the excess produced (think about growing zucchini – if more than one member of your community is growing these, bounty is likely to follow!!). Not only should this be identified as part of your community’s purpose but you should plan for who you want to work with and make that part of your total community. Who knows, you may even get some resources (people, time, money, etc.) to help sustain your community garden. We also found that things like tools, access to water, nutrients (especially if your list of approved amendments is limited), pesticides, accessories, etc. You should come together as a community and determine what is sharable and what should be the individual gardener’s responsibility.
- Stability – most community gardens start out simply trying to survive and thrive. We believe that creating an orderly succession plan for leadership and accountability is pretty important. Life tends to throw curveballs and you want to make sure the community garden runs smoothly if one of these curveballs impacts leadership or connections with benefactors. Creating an advisory board and a record keeping system will help with this – there are plenty of free CRM tools to help keep you organized and it is best to start with one to make sure you are ready from the get go.
Wow – seems like a lot of information. We love the balance between the two styles – both individual gardening and commercial focus are needed to get to the survive and thrive stage. People make the community strong and the commercial aspect will help things continue to run smooth year after year. The most important thing is to get started – good luck and reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if we can provide more information!