How to Start a Community Garden
Written onSeptember 01 , 2009
Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.
That’s why I got involved with the Middlebury Area Community Gardens. I saw a sign posted at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op for an initial meeting of people interested in starting a community garden in the town. Having given up hope of finding gardening space of my own, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The meeting took place in the conference room of Middlebury’s Ilsley Library on a cold, late-January evening that made spring seem very, very far away. The group consisted of about 25 people, many in a similar situation to my own. Some came from neighboring hill towns like Ripton, with poor soil and very shady trees, looking for a place that would be more hospitable to a garden. There were a few students from Middlebury College, hoping to become involved in the community. Some people who had graduated from the University of Vermont Master Gardener program wanted to help. And Morgan Wolaver of Otter Creek Brewing came offering land.
From that large initial meeting, we created a steering committee of 11 people, of which I volunteered to be a member. We determined that the garden would be located behind Otter Creek Brewing and would be known as the Otter Creek Organic Community Garden. We hoped that in time, Middlebury Area Community Gardens would expand to more sites throughout the town.
Just after the first steering committee meeting, my husband and I found a house outside of town with both a big yard and an accommodating landlady: we would have a garden of our own. Nonetheless, I decided to remain on the committee and stay a part of the new community garden, even though I wouldn’t need a plot, because my short involvement had convinced me of the project’s value, even necessity.
In this time of uncertainty over the economy, food safety, and national health, growing some portion of one’s own food is a pro-active and effective measure to take. Growing vegetables saves money over purchasing them, increases the likelihood of their consumption, and assures their quality. According to the National Gardening Association, home vegetable gardening has increased 19 percent over last year.
As I learned, however, housing with space to garden can be hard to find, and often costs more. Additionally, the process of starting a new garden—breaking sod, amending the soil, laying out beds—can be overwhelming to a new gardener, and is a lot of investment for a renter. Community gardens provide a solution: a place where anyone can have a garden. A community garden can also be a gathering place, where neighbors can meet and share gardening tips, and perhaps cultivate a new friendship or two in the process. From a certain perspective, community gardening is as old as agriculture; the first fields were almost certainly tended by family or tribal groups and the produce shared. Archeological evidence also suggests communal gardening space in ancient cities. More recently, the Victory Garden movement during the Second World War launched some community gardens still in use today. In Vermont, Tommy Thompson and the nonprofit Gardens for All championed community gardens starting in the early 1970s in Burlington.
The number and vitality of community gardens in the Burlington area increased throughout the ’70s, declined in the ’80s, and began a slow revival again in the ’90s. In 1992, Friends of Starr Farm Community Garden was formed to initiate and support a garden in Burlington’s New North End. Under the leadership of Jim Flint, that organization evolved into the nonprofit Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) in 2003. FBG initially focused on supporting community, neighborhood, and school gardens in Burlington, but in 2005 it widened its mission by creating the Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN), which now provides technical and financial support to community, neighborhood, and school gardens throughout the state. Roughly 40 Vermont towns now have community gardens.
As part of its mission, FBG administers a mini-grant program, awarding up to $500 to community gardens to use for soil amendments, fencing, signage, and other operating costs. One of these mini-grants provided critical start-up funding for the Otter Creek garden, and FBG provided critical support all along the way. In 2008, FBG provided financial support to 62 garden sites in Vermont, of which 20 were new gardens. Although a few hundred dollars may not seem like much, it all adds up: FBG has awarded more than $40,000 since 2006.
As I write this at the end of July, the Otter Creek Organic Community Garden is bursting with life. Sprawling beans and tomatoes fill some beds, while others are edged carefully with marigolds and planted in neat rows. No two plots are the same, and the whole area sings of diversity and community. Although I have my own garden at home now, I find myself wishing that I had a plot here as well, to be part of this vibrant and colorful whole.
For those interested in joining a community garden, FBG maintains a directory of community gardens statewide at www.burlingtongardens.org. For those with no established garden nearby, VCGN (at the same website) can provide support for starting a new one. A detailed guide to starting a community garden can also be found at www.communitygarden.org. Information on the Middlebury Area Community Gardens can be found at www.middleburygarden.org.
Photo by Caitlin Gildrien
How to Start a Community Garden in Six Pretty Easy Steps
1. Form a Group – Find other interested and committed people. Finding one very committed and organized person to take the lead can make the rest of the process much easier.
2. Choose a Site – Make sure it has sunlight and access to water! It should also have a place for people to park their cars and bikes nearby without creating problems for the neighborhood. A walkable site is likely to receive more attention than one far away from where members live.
3. Organize – Who will be making the decisions – a steering committee, a single person, or some other arrangement? How will the plots be laid out? How will they be allotted? Will there be a fee, and if so, how much? What happens if someone abandons a plot? Will the garden be affiliated with the town? Will it be organic? Good planning at this stage saves a lot of headaches later on.
4. Make the Organization Official – Write bylaws and stick to them. Some groups incorporate with the state as a nonprofit; having at least a checking account and a PO Box goes a long way toward creating a sense of permanence. Jim Flint and FBG recommend acquiring at least a two-year lease agreement for use of the land.
5. Publicize – Make sure the community knows about the community garden! Put up fliers, issue a press release, make a website, hold a seed-swap, have a barbeque. Get the word out.
6. Get Gardening – Take advantage of resources near you; new gardeners will find this especially helpful. Is there a local garden center, college, or farmer who might be willing to donate seedlings or give a short workshop on basic gardening? UVM Master Gardeners are required to do some community service as part of their program; maybe they can help. Regular work days throughout the summer can keep morale up and build a sense of community (or maybe a tool shed).