• Publishers' Note Fall 2009

    Publishers' Note Fall 2009

    There’s a quiet revolution going on.

    On a late afternoon this past July, we visited the Westgate Farmers’ Market in West Brattleboro. Never heard of this one? That’s not surprising, as the market is in its first year and it’s not your typical farmers’ market. It’s a small one by current standards—there’s only one farmer—but its potential is evident in the delight of the children. How often do you hear a squabble over how many bunches of kale to buy or, “Should we get the green beans or the broccoli?”

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    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.

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  • Horsepower: Taking the Reins

    Horsepower: Taking the Reins

    So much of what I love about agriculture is exemplified by draft horses. Like small farms, they have continued to exist, sometimes in spite of us, and often despite what is popular. They accept the seasons and adapt to them, growing heavy coats in the winter and glistening ones in the summer. True localvores, they eat what the land produces and find pleasure in the small yet important things, like the taste of new grass in spring.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    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.

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  • Set the Table with Winter Squash

    Set the Table with Winter Squash

    A couple of years ago, as the gardening season at the Westminster West Elementary School came to a close, my fellow Master Gardener and school garden coordinator, Albin Zak, and I joined the 30 kids and their teachers for a squash-tasting event. First and second grade teacher Alison Taylor had made up recording sheets for the children to fill out as they sampled the various squashes we had prepared—they could circle the smiling faces for the squash they liked, and the frowning faces for those they didn’t.

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  • A New (Old) Source of Local Food

    A New (Old) Source of Local Food

    I hear the dull thump of heavy stones against the trees from far through the rustling wood, where boys are ranging for nuts.
    —Henry David Thoreau

    In this journal entry from October 24, 1857, Thoreau was referring to boys who were “chestnutting”—rattling the trunks of American chestnut trees to loosen the green, spiny husks that held sweet, glossy-brown nuts.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Autumn

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Autumn

    When autumn arrives in Vermont, it’s as if the searing heat of summer is absorbed by the maple trees and expressed through their blazing foliage. This signals the fiery death of another growing season, and the rapid retreat to winter’s dormancy. Ann Robinson Minturn remarked on this bittersweet transition in a letter to her husband, Lloyd, in September 1866: “The country never could be lovelier in September, I am sure, than during the present one—but it is always a melancholy month for me.”

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  • Women’s Agricultural Network—WAgN

    Women’s Agricultural Network—WAgN

    We all know that the number of farmers in America is declining and their age is increasing. Given that farming is often associated with men, we may interpret this to mean that fewer men are going into farming. But the word farmer isn’t gender specific. The number of women in agriculture is actually growing, according to experts in the field.

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  • Communities on the Corner

    Communities on the Corner

    The local foods movement can claim its roots in Vermonters’ earliest enterprises. Long before ski vacations and the Golden Dome, there was boiling down maple sap and digging root crops for the winter. But food isn’t the only part of our local economy with a long pedigree. Our country stores have a history that stretches through the centuries, close on the heels of those first farms. And like those farms, today’s country stores are both celebrated by their community and challenged to find a viable business model to carry them into the future.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—No Ordinary Cheese Puffs

    Farmers' Kitchen—No Ordinary Cheese Puffs

    The day-to-day swing of life at Orb Weaver Farm is determined by the season. Spring, with its lengthening days, finds us ending our cheese-making and cow chores and looking forward to the summer growing season. Beginning in June our cows are literally “put out to pasture” for the warmer months, and our efforts turn toward our market garden, which for the past 29 years has supplied our local food co-op with a variety of organic produce.

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  • Last Morsel—A Farmer Forages

    Last Morsel—A Farmer Forages

    During cross-country excursions in college to nuclear reactors, desert lettuce fields, the Glen Canyon dam and other heartbreaking landscapes, I decided the best way not to perpetuate the hell of modern life would be to learn to grow my own food. To that end, I spent my 20s working as an apprentice on small organic vegetable farms and dairies, then eventually purchased six acres in Craftsbury on which to exercise my dissent. For the past five years I have been raising milk and beef cows, lambs, meat and laying hens, turkeys, and vegetables, in addition to teaching and writing.

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How to Start a Community Garden

Jim Flint, executive director of Friends of Burlington Gardens
Jim Flint, executive director of Friends of Burlington Gardens

Written By

Caitlin Gildrien

Written on

September 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).

About the Author

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien is a writer and graphic designer in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. With her husband and two small children, she also grows several acres of organic vegetables and medicinal herbs on their 200-year-old farmstead.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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Home Stories Issues 2009 Fall 2009 | Issue 10 How to Start a Community Garden