How to Start a Community Garden

Expert Bill Dawson offers tips on starting a shared community garden in your neighborhood.
Bill Dawson lending a hand in a community garden.

Community Gardens

Bill Dawson lending a hand in a community garden.

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company

Image courtesy of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company

Bill Dawson lending a hand in a community garden.

Cropping up in vacant lots, donated land and municipal plots, community gardens are on the rise once again as civic organizations, church groups, schools and neighborhood activists band together to transform unused or neglected land into beautiful and often bountiful gardens. Bill Dawson, coordinator of the “Growing to Green” program at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio see the growing interest in community gardening as more than a trend.

“It’s truly a movement,” says Dawson. “In the '40s, war gardens became Victory Gardens when 40 percent of our food was grown in these neighborhood, factory and community gardens. It was about food. Then we saw growth in the '70s with hippies and communes and organics. Now in the 2000s, we’re seeing another resurgence.”

Dawson believes economics is a driving force in the resurgence when “a pepper sells for two dollars while that same money can be spent to buy a thousand seeds.” But there are other factors at play as well. A growing awareness of nutrition, organics, the environment and support of local agriculture all play a part.

“The interest is there and when you can look at a model (of success), you can look to those that help start new gardens. The movement is on, and when a church group wants to start a community garden to feed the hungry, education, mentoring and resources are available.”

Dawson explains that community gardening is about more than just food. “We have a garden that grows over ten thousand of pounds of food on just a quarter acre to feed the hungry, but there are gardens focusing on other missions. There’s job training. There is education. We see the Native American Indian Center, Burmese and Somali gardens that are all about celebrating culture and one in an African-American community that features art and performance art with plays, poetry readings, jazz and hip hop in the garden.”

The reasons for starting community gardens are varied, but the results are almost universally positive.

“They’re living safer,” Dawson expounds. “They’re making the neighborhood more attractive. There is economic development and good friendly folks. Maybe you used to wave to a neighbor, but now they meet at the fence, sharing stories, sharing recipes, sharing food and looking out for each other.”

Working with the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and the Columbus Foundation, Dawson heads a program offering classes and mentoring for those interested in starting community gardens. Connecting resources and people, what started as a small organization serving Central Ohio has grown to provide support to communities nationwide. Starting a community garden requires effort and dedication, but the rewards are boundless. 

Dawson offers the following suggestions on how to start a community garden in your area.

Have a Mission

“Plan before you plant,” recommends Dawson. Whether your goal is to support shelters, strengthen community ties, beautify the neighborhood or simply create a safe space to grow food, having a mission in mind will help drive development.

Build a “Core Group”

A small group of dedicated participants will provide leadership, share responsibilities and provide structure to the burgeoning endeavor. Organization is key and having a cadre of devoted planners on board sows the seeds of success.

Know Your Stakeholders

A stakeholder is anyone for whom the community garden has impact. Nearby churches, schools and residents all have a stake in the success of the garden. “The neighbor who lives across the street and will see the garden 24-7 is a stakeholder,” Dawson explains. “It matters to them how it looks and awareness may inspire them to get involved.”

Learn the Basics

Organizations like the Franklin Park Conservatory offer classes on how to start and sustain community gardens. “Programs teach gardeners everything they need to know from A to Z or at least O to S—organization to sustainability,” jokes Dawson. “Designing, soil testing, companion planting…these are all things you’ll need to know to get going.”

Cooperative extension programs at many universities also offer education through volunteer programs that pair master gardeners with those planning garden projects.

Find Resources

Knowledge, locations and materials are all essential elements for starting a community garden. Organizations like the American Community Gardening Organization and Scotts Miracle-Gro Urban Academy are great sources for finding grants and classes designed to help get new gardens off the ground. The success stories are many, and connecting with those who have already gone through the process can ease growing pains considerably. Consider local businesses for sponsorship or donation opportunities.

Community gardens may span acres or be limited to creative container gardening when space is at a premium. Check around. In many cases, land may be donated or leased for little or no money.

Seek Sustainability

Planning a community garden may begin up to a year before a single seed has been sown, with an eye toward meeting long-term sustainability and “thinking about where the garden will be next year or over the next few years." Says Dawson, "The hope is to wean off of grants and see a garden become self-sustaining, finding ways to fund the garden by using  renewable methods or entrepreneurship, selling produce or creating products like salsa or hot sauce to remove dependence on outside support." 

“If the education, leadership and resources are there, and maybe the occasional hug,” Dawson concludes, “they are likely to succeed long-term. Attrition is low as long as these things are in place and someone is there when leaders are ready to pass the torch.”

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