A community garden can provide a fulfilling and useful way to bond with your neighbors, promote healthier lifestyles, add urban green space, and save money on food. A 4 x 16-foot raised bed within a larger community garden can provide $200 to $600 in produce annually, depending on climate, says Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardening Association. But gardening is also hard work, not to mention the hassle of finding and coordinating hundreds of volunteer hours over the course of a growing season. Before you dig in, step back and look at what’s involved.
Your time commitment
As an organizer, you can expect to spend about 20 to 30 hours a month for six to eight months to get a garden going, says Bill Maynard, vice president of ACGA. And you’ll probably need at least two other people working almost as much time as you to look for grants and donations.
Once established, the work will ease up, especially if you have committees helping out, says Charlie Nardozzi, a horticulturist and spokesperson for the NGA. “It’s not the total time that’s important, but the consistency.”
Develop a vision for your garden
A good way to involve the community and get buy in is to hold an open meeting to discuss your garden goals, says Laura Berman, author of How Does Our Garden Grow: A Guide to Starting a Community Garden. Do you want to produce food—to eat better, feed the needy—teach children about food, or just make an ugly space more attractive?
Take special care to involve neighbors near the garden site, who can turn out to be your best friends or your biggest headaches. Many cities require community meetings before issuing permits to garden in public spaces.
Before you break ground, identify a committee of at least 10 volunteers and two leaders, says Kirsten Saylor, executive director of Gardening Matters in Minneapolis/St.Paul. Look for a range of talent. A community garden needs bookkeepers, marketers, and fundraisers, as well as farmers. You’ll also need to decide who can participate. Must volunteers live in a specific area near the garden? Can children volunteer? If so, are there age limits?
Deciding how many volunteers you’ll need depends on the size of the garden and how much time each gardener wants to volunteer. About 20 volunteers is a workable number for a garden of 15,000 square feet. More volunteers than that are also hard to manage, says Saylor.
Post flyers near the garden; ask a local newspaper, radio, or TV station to run an announcement; and send brochures or e-mails to local clubs. Many cities that have community gardening programs also have a sign-up area on their Web sites.
Extra volunteers can come in handy for one-time jobs, such as soil preparation and planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. Try tapping into existing organizations—corporations and civic groups, Scout troops, or school classes—to help with these projects.
Keep volunteers motivated
Keep interest high by making every day in the garden a party—even cheap snacks will do, says Sally McCabe, community education project coordinator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Celebrate spring planting or the first harvest and invite the neighborhood.
Regular weekly communication, such as e-mailed gardening tips and tasks, are also good motivators. Berman suggests designating one day a week for volunteers to meet to discuss concerns.
Rules, legal issues, and insurance
Once you have a core of volunteers, discuss the rules—working hours, care of tools, and the use of pesticides. Rules can also spell out how much produce each participant gets and how much work is required of each volunteer.
Consider whether to buy liability insurance to cover injuries to non-volunteers on the site. The owner of the property where you’ll be gardening may require insurance. Other owners may agree to add a rider onto their liability insurance to cover you. Liability insurance can cost anywhere from $750 to $2,000 a year, depending on your location and the size of your property, says Bill Maynard, vice president of the American Community Gardening Association.
In many cases, gardeners and visitors will be covered under an umbrella liability policy held by the church, office park, or residential property where the garden is located, says Dick Luedke, a spokesperson for State Farm Insurance. A landowner may also ask that you provide a “hold harmless” clause, which states that the owner isn’t responsible for injuries on the property. Get waivers of liability from volunteers and parental consent forms if you allow children to volunteer.
If you’re planning to garden on public land like a city park, you’ll likely need a permit. This process can be lengthy and require public hearings and a site plan, so start early.
Fund your garden
Initial costs could 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. (Gardeners can expect to spend about $50-$100 per year to maintain their individual plot.)
Seed money can come from volunteer donations or local business sponsors. Contact nurseries and home improvement centers to see if they’ll donate tools, fertilizers, or seeds. Areas with active community gardens or neighborhood associations may be willing to share equipment or plants. Ask your local park district what it can loan or give.
Maynard charges volunteers at his Sacramento, Calif., community garden $25 to $50 a year, depending on the size of their plot. Some gardeners also sell their extra produce on site or at farmers’ markets or share it with local charities.
Grants are sometimes available from local government through Community Development Block Grants, a federal program that gives local governments money to improve struggling urban areas, or from businesses, such as national gardening and home improvement retailers. Gardenburger, which makes vegetarian food, is another source.
You may need nonprofit tax status to qualify for some grants, but it may be possible to partner with a house of worship or neighborhood association that already has nonprofit status.
Your grant request doesn’t have to just be about gardens, says McCabe. “You can focus it on community improvement, nutrition, or keeping kids off the streets.”
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 Maynard.
If you’re not sure you want to the responsibility of managing a community garden, get a preview by volunteering. ACGA maintains a searchable database of community gardens (right on its home page) that would be happy to have you.