Community gardens are a fantastic way to enrich community health, food security, and forge positive relationships. They also empower, upskill, and foster inclusivity. Through the act of shared care, we develop social skills and pioneer gentle conflict resolution. But don’t think you have to work with your formal community. You can set up a garden on your street that serves the community passively. Even your street garden can peacefully offer free flowers, food, and entertainment.
All around the world, from remote towns to highly-populated cities hide buzzing pockets of community gardens. Permaculture design thinking enriching these structures by applying both physical design tools as well as the principle of care of people. Overall, the best approach for community projects like these is to always act with kindness.
10 Tips for Starting a Successful Community Garden
- Build Support
Successful community gardens usually have a small, but committed team. Long before you start designing the growing space, build a supportive social network of like-minded folk. Luckily, there are many old hands and spades of advice from community garden associations.
Discover the diversity of skills in your team. Some people will have skills in marketing, fundraising, or seed-saving and composting. By learning from one another, skills are transferred to others and this reduces the risk of burn-out whilst increasing the resilience of the whole group.
Remember to keep everyone well informed so they have the chance to contribute, and celebrate the milestones.
- Gather Ideas
Community gardens can take on many different shapes but all need access to sunlight and water. Now that you have the support to make this dream a reality, brainstorm what you want it to look like. How big will the grow space be? How will inputs and harvests be handled? Where will infrastructure like communal gatherings, classes, shed and facilities work best? Gathering this information will help to build your group design.
- Check the Paperwork
Paperwork isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. You’ll want protection in case someone gets injured while in the garden or distributing food. Look for insurance options provided by parent organisations.
If you don’t want to do all the start-up paperwork, join a nearby community garden that would benefit with your support.
Put Down Roots
- Find a Space
Finding the physical space for the community garden might be the most challenging step. Thankfully, you can start a garden in all sorts of environments, from backyards to abandoned lots. Not all community gardens are formally contracted. Some are on private land, generously supplied by a friendly benefactor. Some may be simply on a space owned by a small group of neighbours with a common boundary.
On the other hand, if you plan to lease the space, opt for a contract that runs at least three years. Because many plant varieties take several years to establish. You don’t want all of your hard work to go to waste if you have to relocate in a hurry.
However, don’t despair, relocatable gardens are also possible as long as you factor this into the design.
- Recruit Members
Now that you and your team have a vision, it’s time to enlist help from your community! Reach out to schools, hospitals, clubs, and other organizations to see if anyone is interested in getting involved. In addition, be sure to list the benefits and potential member requirements.
Permaculture Design Boosts Plans
- Plan and Design
Firstly, design to optimise the space for shared resources. Instead of everyone having separate plots, separate goals, aim for healthy conversations, and a shared vision.
Community gardens that share the work and harvest have a far greater total yield. Shared spaces build conversations and deeper cultural understanding.
Then, consult the users in the development of the design. Productive designs fit the landscape shape to make use of gravity and natural resources. Moreso, adaptable design encourages ownership and expertise from the users.
Set Meaningful Goals Rather than Olympic Dreams
- Meaningful Goals
What do you want to achieve from this venture? What role will the community play in creating resilience in your area? Listening to the concerns of the project members, the wider community and surrounding neighbours fulfills both permaculture ethics to care for people and care for the environment.
- Build Relationships
Community gardens are often started by passionate individuals hoping to create a beautiful growing space. However, relationships will grow further by inviting people to enjoy the garden, even if they’re not interested in growing anything. So, keep the space flexible. Design for flexibility to support a range of uses. Open the community garden to complementary programs such as outdoor yoga, children’s camps, music performances, or poetry readings. The design for adaptability broadens the yield.
“The Yield Is Truly Unlimited” Graham Bell
- Connect With Partners
If we calculate the potential of a project in merely energy terms, the potential yield may look quite limited. But actually, the yield is not just measurable in kilojoules. In truth, a garden yield is not the simple sum of the energy-in subtracted from the energy-out. In fact, biology has explosive potential.
Graham Bell stresses that our yield is unlimited because life has exponential growth.
As a result, the yield from a community garden has the potential to be far greater than the effort invested.
And the social implications are immeasurable.
Furthermore, partnering with local businesses and organizations helps to magnify the yield potential. For example, a local business could regularly supply high-value organic waste (such as coffee grinds from nearby restaurants). Eventually, the community garden requires fewer inputs and the partnering business builds a powerful awareness of the value of their waste. The business owners may decide to use their waste to make an onsite garden.
As a consequence, success grows beyond the walls of the community garden.
- Establish New Community Ties
Share your message all around the local area. Let people know there’s a local space where they can grow food and friendships. You may be surprised by how many people want to get involved. If you’re lucky enough to have too much food on your hands, find ways to donate leftovers to vulnerable people.
In the end, community gardens provide healthy food and healthy physical activities. They also offer security and self-reliance in uncertain times. Best of all, these social connections nurture our mental health.
Text Coauthored by Emily Folk
Thanks to contributions from Emily who is passionate about environmental sustainability. More of her work can be found on her site, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for her latest updates.