Gardening Sustainability

How to Start a Community Garden

This type of garden is wonderful for a community. They can provide food, bring people together, and create a beautiful, productive space to be enjoyed by all. They can be a space of sharing and healing, and can be used by locals in a wide range of ways.

In this article, we’ll look at how to start a community garden. Though aimed at UK readers plenty of these tips will apply no matter where.

Before Starting 

While starting a community garden can be a very rewarding experience, it entails a lot of work. If you simply want somewhere to grow your own food, or to work with your hands in the soil, there are other possible options, so it is worth asking:

Is There Already a Community Garden near You?

Though community gardens are often welcoming and inclusive, there may be one hidden away nearby, or in an area you don’t usually visit. 

Could You Share an Existing Garden?

Even if there is no community garden in your area, if you are unsure about plunging headfirst into creating one yourself, gardening in someone else’s private space may be an alternative option.

You might be able to share someone else’s garden; start by approaching friends or neighbours who could be willing to let you cultivate a section of their garden – perhaps in return for a share of the produce. 

👉 Otherwise, you may be able to contact homeowners online who are willing to share their garden space. A good starting point is Lend and Tend.

Could You Get an Allotment?

Alternatively, your local authority may offer allotment plots; in some areas, there are plenty going begging, while in others there are long, long waiting lists. If you haven’t already done so, it is well worth looking into the situation in your area. Find out more about allotments from the National Allotment Society.

Could You Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Scheme?

If you want to support local growers, but not necessarily get your hands dirty yourself, consider a Community Supported Agriculture Scheme – another potential way to get your hands on locally and sustainably-grown food. 

Why Start a Community Garden?

Having a place to grow your own food, giving access to freshly-grown produce, is not the only reason – so even if you have an existing growing area, or are involved in local food production, it could still be incredibly worthwhile. 

💡 Before getting started, it is vital to consider your reasons for doing so in the first place. There is a wide range of reasons why community gardens are a great idea: 

For Food and Security:

  • Community gardens make a community more food-secure. Food security is vital for the long-term survival of any community – yet, all too often, communities become ‘food deserts’, with many people going without enough food. Community gardens ensure access to good-quality, local, and organic food.
  • Community gardens put power back into the hands of local people, reducing reliance on regional authorities or government to provide for their needs. Communities are increasingly recognising that co-operative efforts can improve areas’ wellbeing more quickly than by relying on authorities to do so. 

For the Planet:

  • Growing food locally is also highly positive because it reduces food miles, lowering the carbon cost of food production. It also helps tackle global warming because intensive small-scale sites can be ‘farmed’ or gardened more sustainably, with less recourse to fossil fuel-powered vehicles or machinery. 
  • Community gardens allow local people to combat global warming by ‘re-greening’ cities: planting trees and crops can turn unpromising corners or brownfield sites into thriving carbon sinks. 
  • Community growing areas can improve local biodiversity and protect local wildlife. The more biodiverse an ecosystem, the more resilient it will be. 
Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

For Individuals:

  • A community garden can provide other yields as well as food, such as fuel, crafting materials, and natural medicine. 
  • Intangible yields like fun, joyfulness, and connections with others can enrich the lives of individuals and the community in a range of often unexpected ways.
  • Gardens can be great for the health of a community; they not only provide physical nourishment and a source of healthy food, but also nourish the mind and ‘soul’, though connection with and enjoyment of nature. A garden is a healing place – for horticultural or garden therapy, healing, or palliative care. 

Your reasons for starting a community garden will often dictate the appropriate process. Firstly, this will determine the type of garden best suited to your community and its particular needs. You may have a focus on one or more of the above, or think in terms of a range of the above reasons. 

Different Types of Community Growing

Whatever your reasons, one of the first things to consider is what type of community growing scheme to create. Here are the main options:

Traditional Community Gardens and Allotments 

Traditional community gardens or allotment sites generally involve growing mostly annual crops. Crops can be grown in the ground, raised beds, or even in containers, depending on the site. However, a typical focus on food production doesn’t preclude traditional ornamental planting or flower gardens. 

Whereas community gardens usually involve some element of communal growing – often with larger planting areas tended by more than one family, individual, or group – allotment sites are generally divided into specific, private plots. 

Crossover between these approaches mean that many community gardens may feature some combination of the two. There are no hard and fast rules, and many community gardens evolve over time according to the needs and wishes of their members. 

Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash

Community Farms

Usually larger sites than the above, with a definite focus on growing food for the community, these farms may have large areas for fruit and vegetables, and sometimes even arable crops. They also often extend to keeping livestock such as chickens and ducks, goats, and even larger farm animals. 

Community Orchards

An area planted with a range of fruit and/or nut trees, these orchards are often not as intensively managed as community gardens or farms, and may require only minimal intervention once the trees have been planted and the system set up. 

Forest Gardens

Resembling wild woodland more than a managed orchard, a forest garden is another low-maintenance way to provide food and other resources for a community. Unlike a community orchard, which may only have trees, a forest garden features rich and dense layers of planting. Though mimicking natural woodland or forest, traditional woodland species are replaced with plants that are edible or otherwise useful to humans. 

Determine Your Motives and Find Your Community

The right option will of course depend on your primary motives for creating a community growing area. But another major factor is the community itself; it is important to begin your project with a clear idea of who this comprises. 

These gardens can serve a wide range of communities. You might define your community geographically, but other parameters may be preferable. 

For example, you might create a community of like-minded people from your town or city. You might set up a community garden at work, to serve you and your colleagues, to serve a school and its families, or a youth club or other social enterprise. Community gardening can bring people together, or cement existing ties. 

A successful community garden is always one that keeps its members in mind at all times. What works for one community may not work for another – so people should come first.

Once you have found your community garden group, it is time to begin seriously looking into the practicalities of getting your start-up off the ground. It is best to begin with a small, dedicated group who can work together to give the idea practical form. Make sure you agree on a mission and vision, and all share a clear idea of what your garden project can become. 

Once you’ve got a steering group and a clear idea, you can engage the wider community to get more people on board. 

How to Find a Site

Some community garden schemes begin because a piece of land in need of improvement has already been identified. In other instances, the idea for a community garden comes before a clear idea of where to put it. Community gardens can vary greatly in terms of size and scope; therefore many different pieces of land can be considered, so it’s good to keep a fairly open mind. 

👉 Looking for a site often begins with a walk around your area. If you see a potential site or vacant lot, try to determine who owns it. Ask around, or do a search of records on the Land Registry website. Your local authority can also be a good source of information; ask them for records of land ownership.

Council-owned land may have the potential to become a new community garden: a portion of a park or school field, or the grounds of a public building might be available. It never hurts to ask. Check the council’s Local Development Plan or Local Area Plan to see how your scheme might fit in. It can be a good idea to speak with town or parish councils as well. 

If land you are eyeing up is under private ownership, approach owners directly to see whether a deal might be agreed. Private landowners, farmers, charitable organisations, and big businesses that own land may be amenable to discussion. 

👉 Think about whether you will share, rent, or even buy land for your community garden. Obviously, whatever you choose will affect what’s available to you. It may be worth contacting your local authority to determine whether they have a Community Asset Transfer (CAT) strategy, and will lease land at an affordable rate. 

How to Identify Suitable Land

Of course, you will have to determine whether a potential site will be suitable for your needs. Here are some important questions to consider:

  • How does sunlight fall on the site? How many hours of sunlight does it receive? Is there enough light available to grow food?
  • Does the site have access to mains water, or would it be possible to capture enough rainwater on site?
  • Are there utilities on site (power, sewerage, etc)? If required, would connection be possible?
  • What plants and/or wildlife is already present? Are there any conservation issues to consider? 🥬
  • Has the land been contaminated by previous use? (For example, are heavy metals an issue?)
  • Is the site large enough for the community’s needs?
  • Is the site safe, or can it be made safe for the group to use?
  • Can the site be made accessible to all members of your community?
  • Are any other parties interested? (Do you have competition for the site?)
  • What are the neighbours like? Would they be amenable to your scheme?
  • Do any planning restrictions apply? (For example, you may have to consider listed buildings, roadways, parking, etc.) Community gardens may fall under permitted development – but it is important to check. Any small structures should not be built without checking with relevant authorities. (You can also speak with the Community Land Advisory Service or Planning Aid before choosing your site.)
  • Do any rights of way or servitudes apply on the property? Who will have access to the site?
  • Would any bylaws stop you from doing what you intend?

Make sure that you think through all potential issues before deciding that a site is the right one for you. 

Sharing and Shaping Your Vision

Whether for funding purposes (more on this later) or simply to inspire, it is very important to share your vision with the wider community and accept feedback. While you will already have a core group who have been involved from the beginning, you should reach out to others in your community to get more people interested and on board. 

Even if not directly involved with the garden, sharing your vision will help others feel a sense of ownership over the idea, and that your project really is for the whole community. Consultation and community support is crucial for some types of funding, but more than this, it can help ensure that your garden really is a community garden. 

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

To consult the community about your new scheme:

  • Hold a public meeting.
  • Pop fill-out-and-return forms through letterboxes.
  • Hand out flyers, forms, or similar, or talk with people at a local event.
  • Conduct a survey, making sure all sectors of your community are represented.

Once you have a clear community response, and have shaped your plans more fully, you can spread the word further through:

  • Simple events (a picnic, for example; if you have not yet secured your site this could be in a local park).
  • A stall at local events.
  • Presentations or talks to local groups or organisations.
  • Press releases, posters, articles in the local press, information booklets, etc.
  • A regularly-updated website, social media, blog posts, online articles, and emails to new contacts.

Finding Funding 

It will not only be important to think about the land itself, and how it will be used, but also about any planning issues and details of the lease or rental agreement.

💡 Remember to negotiate and remind landowners of the value you will be adding to the site, and to the community, to get the best deal.

However, regardless of how good a deal you manage to get on the land, there will still be costs involved in starting a community garden. Even if using the land for free, money will be required for saplings, plants, or seeds, as well as tools and other materials (eg, for raised beds, rainwater harvesting, compost bins, etc), and perhaps sheds or other buildings too. There will also be ongoing costs to consider.

Developing a Working Committee and Getting Organised

You should create a working group to prepare a business plan or action plan. A governing document or constitution will also be helpful to consolidate aims and objectives. Some form of management committee will likely also be necessary to keep things running smoothly forward. 

How you raise funds for your project will depend in part on what type of organisation you choose to be:

  • An unincorporated organisation.
  • An incorporated organisation.
  • A charity.

Check out 👉 Select-a-Structure Tool; a helpful tool for deciding which legal structure will be best. 

Planning and Designing Your Community Garden

To raise funds, you need a concrete idea of how much money is necessary. The next step is the fun part: working together to plan and design your community garden.

Consider:

  • People (your community: who they are and what they want).
  • Place (the limitations and characteristics of the site itself).
  • Priorities (main objectives and how best to achieve them according to the first two categories).

👉 The ethics and principles of permaculture may help provide a blueprint for garden design. 

A detailed site survey will allow you to move beyond the basics of whether a site is suitable, and begin to determine the best plan for realising your intentions. 

Sectors, Patterns, and the Big Picture

You should also build up a clear picture of the type, pH, and characteristics of the site’s soil. Note whether it is degraded or contaminated, and establish what must be done to improve or make it safe. For a list of companies offering soil testing, or for more information on soil in your area, the Soil Association is a good source of information. Will you have raised beds and containers, or largely grow in the ground?

Look at any vegetation already on site, and think about what must be done to clear it before you begin. The process of design should begin with observation; look at patterns and the big picture before progressing to designing details of the site.

Zoning and a Garden Site Plan

Think about all the major elements to be included on site. For example, an annual vegetable garden, a forest garden zone, or perennial beds. Other main elements may include a composting area; water tap, water source, or rainwater harvesting; tool shed(s)/buildings; a seating area; a wildlife pond; wilderness zones; etc.

Permaculture zoning and an analysis of inputs, outputs, and characteristics for the various elements can help you develop the best positions for them in terms of usage, and how they will be joined by pathways. 🥦

If you and your group are not confident about designing the garden, many online resources can help you learn more about permaculture practices and methodology. And you could always seek the services of a permaculture designer.

By now, you should have a much better idea of what you need and want, and therefore also a clearer idea of how much money will be required.

Financial Planning and Budgeting

It will be crucial to manage money wisely. Clear rules about the handling of money are essential, and it is a good idea to set up a dedicated bank account for the group, to keep funds separate from those of individuals. Find out what financial skills are already present in the group, and seek out financial and budgeting help if required. 

Make a spreadsheet of all costs, and begin to calculate a start-up budget, and to record ongoing yearly costs. In terms of financial planning, it will be useful to have:

  • A project start-up budget.
  • An income and expenditure budget.
  • A cash-flow budget (a monthly breakdown of the above).
  • A summing-up balance sheet at the end of the financial year. 

Budgets are very useful for the group’s internal use, as well as, especially in the early stages, sending to funding bodies when applying for grants. 

Costs for a community garden usually include:

  • Land (either bought or rented) – though sometimes this can be gardened for free.
  • Fencing – to keep out people and animals, and deter vandalism and casual damage.
  • Tools (though often these can be sourced for free, or shared).
  • On-site storage (for tools and supplies).
  • Plants and seeds (again, these can often be sourced for free).

Raising Funds and Generating Income

So, where is the money needed for the community garden going to come from? There are a number of different options to consider.

Firstly, you might generate your own funds, for example, by:

  • Fundraising activities and events.
  • Seeking donations in kind. (Individuals, authorities, and local businesses might all be enticed into helping supply goods, resources, or services.)
  • Sales of goods and services. (For example, paid social events to get started; once up and running, excess produce could be sold – for example, through a farmers’ market. Cuttings, plants, or seeds might also be sold, as well as products made from garden yields. Educational or training workshops on site could give an additional income.) 🥕

Securing external funding is another possibility. Capital funding (for initial set-up of the site) is usually more forthcoming than funding for running costs. Sources for funding might include:

  • Charitable trusts.
  • Lottery funding.
  • Public funds (government departments, local authorities, groundwork trusts, etc).
  • Local businesses, or local branches of natural or international companies.
  • Crowdfunding and online fundraising services.

Reducing the Money Required

Raising funds for a community garden can sometimes take time and effort – but it is possible. It is key to remember, however, that you might need less money than you imagine.

To reduce the amount required, think about:

  • Reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling, and reviewing regularly.
  • Borrowing or sharing to reduce the need to buy new products.
  • Bartering for goods and services, joining Local Exchange Trading Schemes or co-ops.
  • Joining local Time Banks.
  • Joining forces with other groups to get better prices on goods or services. 

Safety Issues and Insurance

Once a site is secured, with funding in place, you will doubtless want to get started right away, but a few matters should be attended to before getting cracking on site. It is very important for all community groups to have the right insurance in place. You will likely need:

  • Public liability insurance.
  • Professional indemnity insurance / Employers’ liability insurance. 

It may also be worth having:

  • An all-risks insurance policy (to cover the site against fire, theft, vandalism, etc).
  • Other specific insurance, such as for vehicles, if one will be used to carry materials or people for community garden work, or a group personal accident policy for all staff and volunteers. 

At the very least, public liability insurance will usually have to be in place before any work begins. 

👉 Community groups have a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their volunteers, staff, and visitors. After carrying out an initial risk assessment, ensure that regular risk assessments are carried out each year. 

There can be a number of dangers in a community garden, including:

  • Poisonous plants and fungi.
  • Obstacles and trip hazards.
  • Overloaded wheelbarrows, bending, and heavy lifting causing back problems.
  • Dangerous garden tools. (Good practice around putting tools away, and training in their use, go a long way toward reducing accidents.)
  • Vermin posing health risks. (These can be attracted, for example, by poorly maintained and managed composting.)
  • Pathogens spread, for example, by the use of manure.
  • Fire hazards. 
  • Bees (if these are kept on the site). 

Preparing and/or cooking food on site has its own potential dangers, requiring adherence to food safety legislation. 

Volunteers and Training

Taking on volunteers, and perhaps even employing staff, is an important step. People are a community garden’s most valuable resource, so whether paid or unpaid they need to feel valued, supported, and well managed. Be active in engaging volunteers, but make sure you understand how to manage them, and have met all legal obligations toward them. View training for volunteers as an investment rather than a cost, and remember that training can take many forms. 

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

You may welcome volunteers as and when, but a more formal recruitment structure is preferable for long-term sustainability, including, interviewing and training. This will help avoid some common pitfalls, ensuring that those who form a central core of volunteers (or potentially, later in the process, paid staff) will be retained after the initial ‘honeymoon phase’ of the project.

Keeping Up the Enthusiasm

After the initial creation phase, when the garden is new and exciting, it may be difficult to maintain volunteers’ or the wider community’s enthusiasm. Be sure to:

  • Continue to keep everyone regularly informed – through a newsletter or website, for example.
  • Keep drumming up interest and raising your profile in the local area.
  • Make sure that you have plenty of interesting things going on, such as workshops and events. The garden shouldn’t only be about the more humdrum gardening work such as weeding.
  • Keep things going during the winter months with indoors events, infrastructure maintenance, etc.
  • Provide plenty of variety in tasks, crops, and harvests. Keep trying new things.

Keep checking in, reviewing, and evaluating to make sure your community organisation is still working and fit for purpose, and cast your eye back over your initial ideas, action plan, and constitution to make sure your community garden is doing what it was intended to. Track your progress and results by measuring yield, volunteer hours, sales totals, or a range of other metrics.

There are plenty of other things to consider, and plenty of online resources to help you. But once these basics are in place, you can go on to enjoy your community garden – turning your chosen site into the beautiful and productive place you knew it could be, and managing it sustainably.

Featured photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Author

Elizabeth is a writer and green living consultant with a smallholding in rural Scotland. When not writing, she can be found growing vegetables or tending to rescue chickens in her fruit-filled forest garden. She's passionate about permaculture and sustainability, and works on projects all over the world.

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