Community gardens enjoy a long history in the U.S. and are popping up all over urban areas. More and more people are growing their own food. Doing so encourages self-sufficiency, saving money and a sense of pride. A community garden also builds a sense of, well, community among neighbors often lost in an urban setting.
For several years, I envied the gardeners involved in the gardens in my area. In 2009 I participated in a “veggie bike and dine” where we toured several community gardens on the North side of Chicago. I was in awe of what these folks were accomplishing and practically in my backyard.
Fast forward to December 2010. My boyfriend joined a group of folks starting a new community garden in our neighborhood. This group started late in the Summer of 2009. It took two years and a lot of hard work to take a small, forgotten city park and turn half of it into an official community garden with beds ready for planting. This city park was so forgotten that neighborhood gossip suggests it was used as a brothel until the sofa hidden behind the trees was removed. Seriously.
If you have always wanted to be a part of a community garden, start with an existing garden. This is the easiest route. Find a garden nearby and contact the leader. Ask if there are any open plots. You may need to get your name on the waiting list. Now is the time to do that for the 2012 Spring-Summer gardening season.
No community gardens near you? Consider starting one. Before you commit to any particular space, which you don’t own, do some research to understand all the implications and requirements. Find the rules for that space. Talk to other groups who have built similar communities in similar spaces. Ask a lot of questions like: How long did it take before they harvested their first tomato? How did the existing neighborhood around the space accept the new way of using the space? I asked the leader, Christine Wellman, of the new Dubkin Park Community Garden, where I’m now sowing seeds for Fall harvesting, for some tips on starting a garden. Important steps to building a community garden:
- Reach out to the community and build a group of like-minded people. Community building starts at step one and is critical to a successful outcome.
- Contact community-based organizations that are interested in working with community groups.
- Identify an area for the garden (park district or private property).
- Identify and connect to stakeholders (Park Advisory Council and Supervisor for park district property, for example). Consult the property owners and develop an agreement in the case of private property.
- Talk to leaders of other community gardens for insights, suggestions and alternatives.
- Prepare a budget.
- Identify funding sources (Participatory Budget is one option).
- Map out your tasks (Chicago Park District has a guide for this when using its property).
- Notify the community of the new garden to encourage support.
- Get the gardeners on board and start a waiting list if necessary.
- Execute the plan.
- Continue ongoing maintenance and management.
- BE PATIENT! Something is always waiting around the corner to trip you up.