How Does Your (Community) Garden Grow?

Posted by Bekah Wright and Gregory Hubacek

This post is in partnership with Pepsi Refresh Project


For urban dweller in areas where the price of real estate is high, thoughts of having a garden may be fleeting. But not so fast! Many towns and cities have programs that allow people to put their green thumbs to the test by gardening together in one designated plot of land. We spoke with a few people about how to break new ground, even when you don't have your own yard.

A Plot of One’s Own

Before scouting vacant lots, do a bit of homework, advises Beth Urban, the executive director of the American Community Garden Association (ACGA). “A lot of places have overarching community garden associations,” says Urban. Chances are, your area has one too.

But should the search come up empty, consider starting your own organization. ACGA’s website provides tools like the Rebel Tomato, a step-by-step curriculum for starting a community garden. As for securing a space, contact county extension agencies and explore land grants. First things first, though: “Don’t start a community garden alone,” counsels Urban. “Make sure it’s truly a community effort before the first shovel hits the ground.”

Ann Shepphird, a Santa Monica, California-based gardener, has a learned a thing or two about structured community gardens since joining Park Drive Community Gardens. “Make sure there are rules in place,” she recommends. “At our garden, we have to sign a full contract each year with rules about keeping our borders clean and not planting trees with roots that can be problematic.” Enforcing these contracts at Shepphird’s community garden is an official who performs monthly inspections.

As for establishing a group of gardeners, Urban advocates media campaigns and social networking. And make sure to remind people of a shared garden's amazing benefits such as providing fresh, local food; beautifying neighborhoods; and reducing crime because people are on watch.

And don't forget one of the best benefits: bringing the community together. “Our city overseer encourages group activities and brings events like open houses to the gardens,” says Sheppird. “We also have potlucks on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.” Urban has seen other tactics, too. “Some gardens pair senior citizens with elementary schools,” she says. “The experience is all about learning from each other.”

Gardeners Come in All Sizes

Elementary school gardens are something with which Asia Lyons is very familiar.  Lyons and her husband Cliff run The Spoon, a Denver-based, non-profit program that teaches adults and youth cooking skills. Lyons, a teacher at Sunrise Elementary School, won a Pepsi Refresh Project grant to revive her school’s former garden. “The land was there, but the school had let it go,” she says. “We brought it back to life.”

Lyons says having a garden component added to the program has been an enriching experience. “The kids are especially excited to taste things they’ve grown themselves.” The reaction of the community has been positive as well. “A lot of schools, churches and organizations are inquiring about getting involved with The Spoon,” she says. “We’ve been surprised by how many people are into local and sustainable.” Much as she encourages cooks to get messy in the kitchen, Lyons urges gardeners to jump in and get their hands dirty. “These are skills you’ll use for a lifetime.”

If You Plant It…

Ready to start, but unsure about what to plant? Urban steers new gardeners towards experts at nursery and plant stores who are well versed in the local climate zone. Sheppird has another suggestion–contact her at her Gardens to Tables. She’s come across more than her own share of gardening conundrums. “When I first got my garden, I had a lot of questions and very few places to turn for answers,” she says. “I found university agricultural websites, nurseries and cooking sites, but no one was putting the gardening and the cooking together.” Now, she’s happy to share the fruits of her labor, one more way of expanding upon the gardening community.

To read more about how to get involved in your town, read the GOOD Guide to Your Community.