Community Garden Start-Up Guide
iGROW Sonoma is a countywide initiative to connect people with resources to grow their own food -- in their own yards or planters, with neighbors, or in a community garden. iGROW collaborates with community partners to provide information, tools, and resources to support individuals and families throughout the county to grow food and connect with local sources of fresh produce in the community.
This Community Garden Start-Up Guide is intended to help neighborhood groups and organizations along the path to starting and sustaining a community garden.
This Community Garden Start-Up Guide was adapted from the community garden start-up guide developed by Common Ground Garden Program of the University of California Cooperative Extension Los Angeles to include resources in Sonoma County.
Why Start a Community Garden?
Many families would like to grow some of their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Some want to save money on their food bills. Others like the freshness, flavor and wholesomeness of home-grown produce. And for many, gardening is a relaxing way to exercise and enjoy being out-of-doors. There are also families from other cultures who would like to grow traditional foods not available in the supermarket.
Community gardens beautify neighborhoods and help bring neighbors closer together. They have been proven as tools to reduce neighborhood crime--particularly when vacant, blighted lots are targeted for garden development. Community gardens provide safe, recreational green space in urban areas with little or no park land, and can contribute greatly to keeping urban air clean.
Those who are lucky enough to have sunny backyards or balconies can plant a garden whenever they have the time and energy. But what about those who do not have a place to garden? For these people, community gardens may be the answer.
Step by Step to Your Own Community Garden
1. Get Your Neighbors Involved
There is a lot of work involved in starting a new garden. Make sure you have several people who will help you. Over the years, our experience indicates that there should be at least ten interested families to create and sustain a garden project. Survey the residents of your neighborhood to see if they are interested and would participate. Hold monthly meetings of the interested group to develop and initiate plans, keep people posted on the garden's progress, and keep them involved in the process from day one.
2. Form a Garden Club
A garden club is a way of formally organizing your new group. It helps you make decisions and divide-up the work effectively. It also ensures that every one has a vested interest in the garden and can contribute to its design, development, and maintenance. It can be formed at any time during the process of starting a community garden; however, it's wise to do so early on. This way, club members can share in the many tasks of establishing the new garden. The typical garden club will have many functions, including:
- Establishing garden rules (see sample)
- Accepting and reviewing garden applications
- Making plot assignments
- Collecting garden dues (if any)
- Paying water bills
- Resolving conflicts
The typical garden club has at least two officers: a president and a treasurer; although your garden club may have more if necessary. Elections for garden officers usually are held annually.
3. Find Land For the Garden
Look around your neighborhood for a vacant lot that gets plenty of sun--at least six to eight hours each day. A garden site should be relatively flat (although slight slopes can be terraced). It should be relatively free of large pieces of concrete left behind from demolition of structures. Any rubble or debris should be manageable--that is, it can be removed by volunteers clearing the lot with trash bags, wheelbarrows, and pick up trucks. Ideally, it should have a fence around it with a gate wide enough for a vehicle to enter. It is possible to work with a site that is paved with concrete or asphalt by building raised beds that sit on the surface or using containers. You can also remove the asphalt or concrete to create areas for gardens, but such a garden will be much more difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to start. A site without paving and soil relatively free of trash and debris is best.
The potential garden site should be within walking, or no more than a short drive from you and the neighbors who have expressed interest in participating. If the lot is not already being used, make sure the community supports establishing a garden there.
It's best to select three potential sites in your neighborhood and write down their address and nearest cross streets. If you don't know the address of a vacant lot, get the addresses of the properties on both sides of the lot--this will give you the ability to make an educated guess on the address of the site. We suggest you identify at least three potential sites because one or more might not be available for you to use for various reasons, and you want to end up with at least one that works out.
4. Find Out Who Owns the Land
It is illegal to use land without obtaining the owners permission. In order to obtain permission, you must first find out who owns the land.
Take the information you have written down about the location of the sites in step 3 to your county's tax assessor's office. The Sonoma County Tax Assessor's office is located at 585 Fiscal Drive, Suite 103F, Santa Rosa. There is a branch in Petaluma located at 11 English Street, Room 20, open only on Tuesdays. Or go to a branch office listed in the white pages of the telephone directory. At this office, you will look through the map books to get the names and addresses of the owner of the sites you are interested in.
5. Find Out if Your Proposed Site Has Water
While you are researching site ownership, contact the water service provider in your area to find out if your potential site(s) has/have an existing water meter to hook-in to. Call your water provider's customer service department, and ask them to conduct a "site investigation". They will need the same location information that you took with you to the Tax Assessor's office.
Existing access to water will make a critical difference i the expense of getting your project started. De on the size of your garden site, you will need a 1/2-i to 1-inch water meter. If there has been water servi to the site in the past, it is relatively inexpensive to get a new water meter installed (if one doesn't already exist) If there has never been water service to that site, it might cost much more for your water provider to insta a lateral line from the street main to the site and insta your new meter.
If the garden site has a well, you may want to test the pressure and the water for bacteria, arsenic, nitrate, and boron. In Sonoma County, Brejlie & Race Laboratories perform irrigation well tests, 707-544-8807.
6. Contact the Land Owner
Once you have determined that your potential site is feasible, write a letter to the landowner asking for permission to use the property for a community garden. Be sure to mention to the landowner the value of the garden to the community and the fact the gardeners will be responsible for keeping the site clean and weed-free (this saves landowners from maintaining the site or paying city weed batement fees).
Establish a term for use of the site, and prepare and negotiate a lease. Typically, groups lease garden sites from land owners for $1 per year. You should attempt to negotiate a lease for at least three years (or longer if the property owner is agreeable). Many landowners are worried about their liability for injuries that might occur at the garden. Therefore, you should include a simple "hold harmless" waiver in the lease and in gardener agreement forms. For more information on the lease, nd the hold harmless waiver, see 8, "Signing a Lease".
Be prepared to purchase liability insurance to protect further the property owner (and yourself) should an accident occur at the garden. For more information on the hold harmless waiver, and liability insurance, see 8, "Signing a Lease", and 9, "Obtaining Liability Insurance".
7. Test Your Soil
Before planting your garden, It is advisable to get a “complete soil test” for pH, organic matter, and macro and micro-nutrients. Harmony Farm Supply (www.harmonyfarm.com) is a local agent for A&L Labs, which performs these tests. Call Harmony for information about the testing process and cost, 707-823-9125. Heavy metal tests can be expensive and are specific for the metal tested for, so land history is important in making the determination. A common sense approach is to look at the area surrounding the garden site. If there are trees, bushes, or other plants growing well in the vicinity, there is likely no problem with heavy metals.
8. Sign a Lease
Landowners of potential garden sites might be concerned about their liability should someone be injured while working in the garden. Your group should be prepared to offer the landowner a lease with a "hold harmless" waiver. This "hold harmless" waiver can simply state that should one of the gardeners be injured as a result of negligence on the part of another gardener, the landowner is "held harmless" and will not be sued. Each gardener should be made aware of this waiver and should be required to sign an agreement in order to obtain a plot in the community garden. A sample gardener agreement form is attached which your group can use as a model.
9. Obtain Liability Insurance
Landowners may also require that your group purchase liability insurance. A local non-profit or organization may agree to put the insurance in their name. Once you have a lease signed by the landowner and liability insurance, you're free to plan and plant your garden!
10. Plan the Garden
Community members should be involved in the planning, design, and set-up of the garden. Before the design process begins, you should measure your site and make a simple, to-scale site map. Hold two or three garden design meetings at times when interested participants can attend. Make sure that group decisions are recorded in official minutes, or that someone takes accurate notes. This ensures that decisions made can be communicated to others, and progress will not be slowed. A great way to generate ideas and visualize the design is to use simple drawings or photos cut from garden magazines representing the different garden components--flower beds, compost bins, pathways, arbors, etc.--that can be moved around on the map as the group discusses layout.
Basic Elements of a Community Garden
Although there are exceptions to every rule, community gardens should almost always include:
- At least 15 plots assigned to community members. These should be placed in the sunniest part of the garden far enough from trees and shrubs to be free of root competition. Without plots for individual participation, it is very difficult to achieve long-term community involvement. Raised bed plots, which are more expensive, should be no more than 4 feet wide (to facilitate access to plants from the sides without stepping into the bed), and between 8 and 12 feet long (it is advisable to construct your raised beds in sizes that are found in readily-available lumber, or that can be cut without too much waste). In-ground plots can be from 10 x 10 up to 20 x 20 feet. Pathways between plots should be least 3 to 4 feet wide to allow space for wheelbarrows. The soil in both raised bed and in-ground plots should be amended with aged compost or manure to improve its fertility and increase its organic matter content.
- A simple irrigation system with one hose bib or faucet for every four plots. Hand watering with a hose is the most practical and affordable for individual plots (and it's almost a necessity when you start plants from seed). Drip and soaker-hose irrigation can be used in all areas of the garden for transplanted and established plants, but especially for deep-rooted fruit trees and ornamentals. If no one in your group is knowledgeable about irrigation, you might need some assistance in designing your irrigation system. Seek out a landscape contractor or nursery or garden center professional to help you develop a basic layout and materials list.
- An 8-foot fence around the perimeter with a drive-through gate. In our experience, this is a key element of success. Don't count on eliminating all acts of vandalism or theft, but fencing will help to keep these to tolerably low levels.
- A tool shed or other structure for storing tools, supplies, and materials. Possibilities include a chain link dog enclosure with a roof or a wooden shed with or without chain link around it. Youth Build, Boys Scouts, or Eagle Scouts may be able to help build any structures.
- A bench or picnic table where gardeners can sit, relax, and take a break--preferably in shade. If there are no shade trees on the site, a simple arbor can be constructed from wood or pipe, and planted with chayote squash, bougainvillea, grapes, kiwis, or some other vine.
- A sign with the garden's name, sponsors, and a contact person's phone number for more information. If your community is bilingual, include information in this language.
- A shared composting area for the community gardeners. Wood pallets are easy to come-by and (when stood on-end, attached in a U-shape, and the inside covered with galvanized rabbit- wire) make excellent compost bins.
Nice Additions to Your Garden Plan
- A small fruit tree orchard, whose care and harvest can be shared by all the members. The orchard can also create shade for people as well as shade-loving plants.
- A water fountain. This can be a simple drinking fountain attachment to a hose bib (or faucet) ou can purchase at a hardware store.
- Perimeter landscaping, which can focus on drought tolerant flowers and shrubs, plants which attract butterflies and hummingbirds, or roses and other flowers suitable for cutting bouquets. Herbs are also well-suited to perimeter landscaping and help to create barriers to unwanted pest insects who do not like the smell of their essential oils.
- A children's area, which can include special small plots for children, a sand box, and play equipment.
- A meeting area, which could range from a semi-circle of hay bales or tree stumps, to a simple amphitheater built of recycled, broken concrete. Building a shade structure above would be beneficial as well.
- A community bulletin board where rules, meeting notices, and other important information can be posted. 11. Create a Garden Budget Use your design to develop a materials list and cost-out the project. You will need to call-around to get prices on fencing and other items. You might be surprised at the cost. A community garden with just the Basic Elements (listed above) typically costs between $2,500 to $5,000. At this point, your group might decide to scale back your initial plans and save some design ideas for a "Phase Two" of the garden.
12. Where to Get Materials and Money
While some start-up funds will be needed through determination and hard work, you can obtain donations of materials for your project. Community businesses might assist, and provide anything from fencing to lumber to plants. The important thing is to ask. Develop a letter that tells merchants about your project and why it's important to the community. Attach your "wish list", but be reasonable. Try to personalize this letter for each business you approach. Drop it off personally with the store manager, preferably with a couple of cute kids who will be gardening in tow! Then, follow- up by phone. Be patient, persistent, and polite. Your efforts will pay-off with at least some of the businesses you approach. Be sure to thank these key supporters and recognize them on your garden sign, at a garden grand opening, or other special event.
Money, which will be needed to purchase items not donated, can be obtained through community fund-raisers such as car washes, craft and rummage sales, pancake breakfasts, and bake sales. They can also be obtained by writing grants, but be aware grant writing efforts can take six months or longer to yield results, and you must have a fiscal sponsor or agent with tax-exempt 501(c)3 status (such as a church or non-profit corporation) that agrees to administer the funds.
You can also visit “Recycle Town” at the County Dump and construction and demolition sites. You may be able to find many recycled building materials for free or very low cost.
13. Make Sure Your Garden Infrastructure is in Place
If you have not yet formed a garden club, now is the time to do so. It's also time to establish garden rules, develop a garden application form for those who wish to participate, set up a bank account, and determine what garden dues will be if these things have not already been done. This is also the time to begin having monthly meetings if you have not already done so. Also, if you haven't already contacted your city councilperson, he or she can be helpful in many ways including helping your group obtain city services such as trash pick-up. Their staff can also help you with community organizing and soliciting for material donations.
14. Get Growing!
Many new garden groups make the mistake of remaining in the planning, design and fundraising stage for an extended period of time. There is a fine line between planning well and over planning. After several months of the initial research, designing, planning, and outreach efforts, group members will very likely be feeling frustrated and will begin to wonder if all their efforts will ever result in a garden. That's why it's important to plant something on your site as soon as possible. People need to see visible results or they will begin to lose interest in the project. To keep the momentum going, initiate the following steps even if you are still seeking donations and funds or your project (but not until you have signed a lease and obtained insurance).
Clean up the Site: Schedule community workdays to clean up the site. How many work days you need will depend on the size of the site, and how much and what kind of debris are on site. Prepare the Soil: Most vacant lots have very compacted soil, which will limit root growth. If possible, in early fall or late spring, have a tractor “rip” the soil at least 18” deep. Add any needed mineral amendments at this time and, if starting in the fall, plant a “cover crop” to improve the soil over winter. Take care to never work wet soil or have heavy equipment on it when wet.
Install the Irrigation System: Without water, you can't grow anything. So get this key element into place as soon as possible. There are plenty of opportunities for community involvement— from digging trenches to laying out PVC pipes.
Plant Something: Once you have water, there are many options for in-garden action. Stake out beds and pathways by marking them with stakes and twine. Mulch pathways. If your fence isn't in yet, some people might still want to accept the risk of vandalism and get their plots started. You can also plant shade and fruit trees and begin to landscape the site. If you do not yet have a source of donated plants, or don't wish to risk having them vandalized, plant annual flower seeds which will grow quickly and can be replaced later. Many seed companies will donate free seeds to community and school gardens. Contact them to inquire. West County Community Seed Bank is also a source for free seeds (707) 829-5234.
Continue to construct the garden as materials and funds become available.
At this point, your ideas and hard work have finally become a community garden! Be sure to take time to celebrate. Have a grand opening, barbecue, or some other fun event to give everyone who helped to make this happen, a special thank-you. This is the time to give all those who gave donated materials or time a special certificate, bouquet, or other form of recognition.
16. Troubleshooting as the Garden Develops
All community gardens will experience problems somewhere along the way. Don't get discourage-- get organized. The key to success for community gardens is not only preventing problems from ever occurring, but also working together to solve them when they do inevitably occur. In our experience, these are some of the most common problems that "crop-up" in community gardens, and our suggestions for solving them
Vandalism: Most gardens experience occasional vandalism. The best action you can take is to replant immediately. Generally the vandals become bored after a while and stop. Good community outreach, especially to youth and the garden's immediately neighbors is also important. Most important--don't get to discouraged. It happens. Get over it and keep going. What about barbed wired or razor wire to make the garden more secure? Our advice--don't. It's bad for community relations, looks awful, and is sometimes illegal to install without a permit.
Security: Invite the community officer from your local precinct to a garden meeting to get their suggestions on making the garden more secure. Community officers can also be a great help in solving problems with garden vandalism, and dealing with drug dealers, and gang members in the area.
Communication: Clear and well-enforced garden rules and a strong garden president can go a long way towards minimizing misunderstandings in the garden. But communication problems do arise. It's the job of the garden club to resolve those issues. If it's something not clearly spelled out in the rules, the membership can take a vote to add new rules and make modifications to existing rules.
Language barriers are a very common source of misunderstandings. Garden club leadership should make every effort to have a translator at garden meetings where participants are bilingual--perhaps a family member of one of the garden members who speaks the language will offer to help.
Trash: It's important to get your compost system going right away and get some training for gardeners on how to use it. If gardeners don't compost, large quantities of waste will begin to build up, create an eyesore, and could hurt your relationships with neighbors and the property owner. Waste can also become a fire hazard. Make sure gardeners know how to sort trash properly, what to compost, and what to recycle. Trash cans placed in accessible areas are helpful to keep a neat and tidy garden.
Gardener Drop-Out: There has been, and probably always will be, a high rate of turnover in community gardens. Often, people sign up for plots and then don't follow through. Remember, gardening is hard work for some people, especially in the heat of summer. Be sure to have a clause in your gardener agreement which states gardeners forfeit their right to their plot if they don't plant it within one month, or if they don't maintain it. While gardeners should be given every opportunity to follow through, if after several reminders either by letter or phone nothing changes, it is time for the club to reassign the plot. It is also advisable that every year, the leadership conduct a renewed community outreach campaign by contacting churches and other groups in the neighborhood to let them know about the garden and that plots are available.
Weeds: Gardeners tend to visit their plots less during the winter time, and lower participation, combined with rain, tends to create a huge weed problem in January, February, and March. Remember, part of your agreement with the landowner is that you will maintain the lot and keep weeds from taking over. In the late summer/ fall, provide gardeners with a workshop or printed material about what can be grown in a fall and winter garden. Also, schedule garden workdays for the spring in advance since you know you'll need them at the end of winter to clear weeds. If you anticipate that plots will be untended during the winter, apply a thick layer of mulch or hay to the beds and paths to reduce weed proliferation.
Good luck with your community garden project!
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