Garden groups

Some 18,000 to 20,000 people nationwide, according to the American Community Gardening Association, are planting vegetables and flowers in parks, vacant lots, schools, office parks, and even cemeteries. If you’re looking for a perfect community garden spot, here are some things to keep in mind.

Locate land for your garden

Start the search by walking, biking, or driving around your neighborhood. Consider a site that offers six to eight hours of sun each day. Some shade is OK if you intend to plant flowers as well as food. Gardening is easier if the site is flat, and less expensive if there’s a ready source of water—a building spigot, a fire hydrant, or a well.

Also consider the convenience of volunteers. Is the site near parking or public transportation? Are there nearby restrooms? Is there a place in the shade for benches?

Have your soil tested, especially if you’re gardening in an urban area. Tests look for two things: the presence of any contaminates—like lead—that might make the soil unsuitable, and the chemical composition of the soil, which will help you know what types of fertilizers and soil additions you’ll need. Your university agricultural extension or your park district can often help you test the soil.

Last but not least, consider a site that won’t arouse opposition. Gardens can be messy (compost piles) and smelly (fertilizers), so you may not want to put your garden near buildings or in an open space with lots of passersby.

Community gardens vary in size greatly because of local land availability. Some are as large as 25,000 square feet. Others fall in the 2,000 to 4,000-square-foot range, says Bill Maynard, vice president of the Community Gardening Association.

Get permission to garden

Once you’ve found a promising spot, make contact with the owner. This approval process is often more complicated if you want to garden on public land like a park or school. Check with your local parks or recreation department or school district for specific requirements and deadlines to submit a request to garden. Some cities require that you conduct public hearings and submit a garden design and budget before you can receive a permit.    

If you can, draw up a lease between your garden group and the land’s owner. The longer the better, advises Sally McCabe, community education project manager for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. It can take several years to improve the soil and get a garden going, so get a lease for at least five years.

A lease can also spell out rent, if any, and who will pay for costs like property taxes, water, and insurance. In many cases, a landowner will be willing to donate most or all of these costs to the garden. 

Divide up the space

Assigning individual plots requires less management. It also lets each plot holder decide what to plant and when and how to garden. On the downside, allotments don’t offer as much opportunity to build a social network or to share costs. Even in an allotment system, you might want to ask volunteers to donate one day a month for garden clean-up tasks, suggests Laura Berman, author of How Does Our Garden Grow: A Guide to Starting a Community Garden.

Communal gardening, where everyone works the space, requires coordination and keeping volunteers motivated, says Maynard. On the plus side, a communal garden lets you concentrate efforts on the most important work that week—weeding or watering, for instance.

Develop a design

There’s no set size for a community garden, but you’ll want to match the size to the number of volunteers. A 10 x 10-foot or 20 x 20-foot plot is often the allotment size for each volunteer.

Draw out the design using graph paper or an expensive landscape design software program like the HGTV Home & Landscape Platinum Suite. Then transfer the blueprint to the site using stakes and twine to lay out rows.

Factor paths of about three feet between rows for workers and wheelbarrows. Paths can be as simple as mulch laid over cardboard. Add benches where volunteers can rest. If you have space, add a shed for storing tools with an overhang that provides shade. Include a rain barrel to save on water.

Raised beds offer an option if you’re working with poor soils. Beds should be between 8 and 10 inches deep to allow for root formation, says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturist and spokesperson for the National Gardening Association. Higher beds of two to three feet are a plus for elderly or disabled gardeners.

Decide what to plant

Whether you grow vegetables, flowers, or both, involve volunteers in the decision. What and when you plant depends on your location. Easy-to-grow plants like summer squash, bush beans, peppers, lettuces, greens, and tomatoes are good crops even for beginners, says Nardozzi. Many of these plants can be started from seed either inside or grown directly in the garden. Root crops like carrots and beets are harder to transplant and should be planted directly in the soil.
 
If you’d rather have the ease of plants, many garden centers will donate unsold plants if you’re willing to wait until later in the growing season.

Garden costs and time commitment

Start-up costs can run about $3,750 to $7,500 if you have a nearby source of water, says Maynard, higher if not. A large garden in a public park with city fees and prevailing wages for contractors could run as high as $30,000.

In terms of time commitment, as the organizer, you can expect to spend 20 to 30 hours a month for six to eight months to get a garden going, Maynard says. Once your garden is planted, it’ll take a few hours a week to maintain, Nardozzi says.

But the land will pay you back for all your efforts: A 4 x 16-foot bed can yield $200 to $600 year in produce, depending on climate, says Bobby Wilson, president of Community Gardening Association, not to mention good will.