No garden? why not share one
With so much of Australia’s population living in apartments with little or no access to gardens or even balconies, community gardens are an exciting addition to any neighbourhood. Whether utilizing a shared grassy verge or vacant council land, community gardens bring the added value of collaborative environment, sharing stories, tips and tools to create an abundant source of seasonal food. Community Gardens across Australia are now a thriving national network and if you haven’t visited one I’d encourage you to have a look.
Connect to a community garden in your area – Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network.
The idea of sharing land to grow produce is often called social sustainability, it refers to the human aspect of working together, of sharing. Kevin McCloud TV presenter of Grand Designs puts it this way, “What interests me is people’s behaviour and how we can help people to share things.”
Even universities are getting on board
Monash University students in collaboration with Monash University and Notting Hill Community Association have recently begun their own Community Farm (MUCF) occupying a plot of land on Blackburne Road. As it grows it will provide a space for students and local residents to walk and relax, to grow food and herbs, and to learn and share the gardening experience. They aim to:
“develop and nurture a sense of togetherness and a celebration of diversity by providing an example of how public space can be effectively used to increase social resilience in a changing climate.”
MUCFarm aims to provide fresh local organic produce through the student-run Wholefoods Restaurant and Veggie-Box Co-Op, and to encourage students, staff and the wider community to learn and grow together, sharing skills & knowledge, thereby developing and demonstrating community supported permaculture.
How to get a community garden started in your area
Where to start? first of all you need to make sure that veryone has the same ideas. Here a great checklist of ideas to consider before starting a community garden provided by Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network.
Ten Steps to start Community Garden
There are two ways to start a community garden… from the bottom up or the top down. Both approaches work and which one is used depends upon where the proposal for a community garden comes from.
Bottom-up: Working from the bottom-up is the most common:
- a group of people get together
- they approach the local council or some other institution for help in finding land and, perhaps, for other assistance
- alternatively, they might have found a site where they would like to make their community garden; they then find who the landowner is and approach them
- they work out a governance structure—how they will make decisions, resolve disagreement and communicate
- next, the group conducts a needs analysis to identify what their needs are—how they want to use the community garden, what should be included in it and what they want from the expeience of community gadrening
- when they have gained access to land, they then design the garden, build and start to cultivate it.
Top-down approach: This is taken by professionals such as community workers and local government staff:
- the professional workers become interested in the potential of community gardens to build a sense of community, to improve the nutrition of the people they work with or its potential to help achieve sme other social goal
- through their existing contacts with government, schools or church they obtain land and funding
- they then have to popularise the idea of the community garden among the target group they believe will use the garden
- if successful—and it might take some time—they then make use of a council landscape architect or a contracted designer to design the garden; alternatively—and this might be the better solution because it builds ownership of the garden—they might find someone in the community who can lead a design workshop with the would-be gardeners, turning what could have been a professional-led solution into a participatory process.
The good news is that the top-down approach can succeed if the community or local government worker or consultant has the patience and persistence to build support for the garden within the community. It works best where any potential participants in the proposed community garden are assisted to form a team and participate in the design and construction of the garden.
It might sound glib to say that starting community gardens can be easy or difficult, but that’s the truth. Sometimes they start rapidly without opposition; others have taken years to get started.
Community garden organisers face a number of challenges:
- finding land
- convincing the landholder that you will manage the land in a responsible manner
- overcoming local opposition to the garden
- finding public liability insurance
- managing the site
- accessing training for the gardeners
- raising startup and ongoing funds
- maintaining the interest of gardeners.
Just where you start planning for a community garden depends upon the circumstances you are faced with, such as whether you have found a parcel of land and whether you have a group of people willing to put in the work of getting a garden going.
The starting point will be different for all of us. The bottom-up approach, however, calls for persistence, patience and planning.One thing is for sure—you will find that a little thinking and planning now, rather than rushing in, pays off in the longer run. When the time comes to put your submission for land access to council or some other landholder, they will be more impressed and ready to cooperate with a group that has thought through how they would go about designing and managing a community garden.
Get the numbers
Many community gardens start as a good idea among friends. Otherwise, your first task is to get together a group of interested people.
Stimulate interest in your idea:
- use social media sites (and here) to let people know of your intention, to ask for volunteers or for help
- contact the local newspaper and community radio station; issue a press release and contact the editor or, if a radio station, the producer of a suitable program to offer an interview; ask your council if they can help publicise your intentions
- put up a poster about your plans in the local library, shopping centre, community centre or health food shop
- do a letterbox drop in your area
- organise a public meeting to form a community garden planning team.
When the planning team has come together, do a skills audit to discover what talents and abilities are available within the membership.
Decide who will be:
- treasurer (to manage the funds you will seek)
- spokesperson (who liaises with the media, landholder and other agencies you will deal with)
- secretary (who acts as a point of contact, handles correspondence and keeps all the records of meetings and other activities in order).
Now that we have seen how other community gardens are run, it’s time for our group to make a start planning.
The first thing to do is to get your group together and work out just why you want a community garden and what you hope to achieve. This is your purpose. After defining your purpose, work out what will have to be done to achieve it. These points become your objectives, the actual things you will achieve over time.
Make a budget
Work out what you will need to start the garden and the approximate cost of these things;
- a couple spades
- a couple garden forks
- a garden rake
- a hoe
- a mattock
- several trowels
- a wheelbarrow
- one or two long garden hoses with adjustable spray trigger fittings.
Buy the best quality tools you can afford as they will last longer.
Make a timeline
Be generous in estimating how long it will take to get things done. Better to be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you did things than unpleasantly discouraged at how long things are taking.
Break the work of establishing the community garden into chunks:
- planning chunk—getting together a group of potential community gardeners and identifying your purpose, objectives, budget, timeline, resources needed
- finding land
- finding funding
- design chunk
- garden construction chunk.
Make a generous estimate of the time you think it would take to do all these things.
For community workers and council staff stimulating interest in community gardening, land and funding may already be available.
After the planning and construction phase the garden moves into a less intensive maintenance stage in which the main activity is gardening rather than construction.
Having formed a group and planned your garden project, it’s time to find a site if you do not have one already.
If your council has a policy to support community gardens with a guide on how to approach council, you are well ahead of people whose council lacks such an approach.
Otherwise, to approach council effectively, it really helps to prepare a well written, well presented submission.
This should contain:
- a description of your group
- your aims and objectives
- the skills and competencies of your members
- the characteristics and size of land needed
- whether you have public liability insurance or plan to obtain it
- your actual or proposed legal structure (eg. incorporated association)
- case studies of other community gardens, especially those in the same city
- potential sources of funding or other avenues for fundraising
- what legal arrangement you would prefer—licence, lease?
- what you would require from council such as request for council assistance in funding or in kind to cover the start-up and recurrent costs of the garden such as public liability insurance, shed, tools, water supply and water rates
- how you would manage risk
- a description of the benefits of community gardens to communities and councils
- how the community garden would implement provisions in city plans, policy and strategies.
Meet with council staff
Organise a meeting and present your submission to council.
Take council staff through the main points, explaining them clearly and answering to the best of your ability their questions.
Try to anticipate their probable concerns such as:
- traffic and parking
- alienation of public open space
These are frequently encountered concerns of both councils and local residents. Be prepared to deal with them through the information you have collected and presented in your submission and describe the experience of other community gardeners who have dealt with them. While they are all valid concerns, most turn out not to be real problems at all.
If you know a councillor or supportive bureaucrat who can advise you on how best to make your approach, take advantage of the opportunity and ask them to accompany you when you meet with other council staff. It may be best to meet informally with them first so as to get their advice on taking your submission to other staff.
Remember that you will probably be presenting council with proposal they have never encountered before. Try to allay their concerns by adopting a courteous and competent manner and by addressing their concerns honestly.
Now that you have brought your gardening group together and found land, it’s time to start the design process.
First, go to council and obtain a copy of the site survey plan. If this is not available, measure up the site and draw it to scale.
Community garden design is not a conventional landscape architecture exercise, nor is it a design-led process.
The design process is best led by someone with a deep knowledge of and experience in designing community gardens. They will need to understand the importance of incorporating opportunities to achieve any social needs the gardeners identify and know how to do participatory needs and site analyses. They will also need to know how to access local and state government planning regulations and any other regulatory conditions affecting the site such as flood plans.
Design works best when everyone ‘owns’ it and this happens when the design process involves the full participation of the community gardeners.
Professional designers can work with the gardeners and present to them a range of design options.
A people-led process
Designing a community garden is not a design-led process. The design for the site that identifies where everything goes—the landscape design—is drawn up later.
Because community gardens are about people, it makes sense to use a people-led process to set up the garden. A design adviser working with a community garden team might better think of themselves as a design adviser assisting the team design the garden themselves, with the designer’s assistance.
We can call this people-led design process ‘social design’ because it is about people and the arrangements they work out together to design and manage their community garden.
Social design is important
Not all community garden members will want to participate in social design. The importance of social design, however, is great as its sets the starting conditions for community garden participation and development that influence what comes after. By thinking through and discussing social design, community garden teams are prepared to some degree to deal witth the contingencies that may come up later.
It’s much as the co-originator of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison, said—you should apply protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action. Observation, in our social design process, is observation of the needs of the group and the site.
Participation in garden planning, specially when the designer or consultant educates gardeners in useful skills, builds what we call ‘social capital’—the capacity of individuals and groups to make effective decisions, to plan cooperatively and work successfully with others, and to fully participate in civic affairs.
Social capital is a product of successful community gardening. It has potential to make self-help possible and increases group self-reliance. It is an outcome less likely to be achieved when councils or other institutions or when consultants and designers working with community garden teams take the managerial approach of designing and doing things for the gardeners rather than with them by educating garden teams in the skills of self-management.
You might think that it has taken a lot of effort to get this far are you are right, but time spent in planning is time well spent. You don’t then have to waste your time correcting the mistakes of bad or non-existent planning.
List materials needed
In planning the construction phase of your community garden, identify the materials, equipment and resources you will need.
Look for local businesses that might donate some of them. Perhaps council has old park benches at its depot they will let you use. For those you have to buy, consider grants and fundraising events.
In the construction phase, we carry out a number of tasks:
- garden bed construction
- soil fertility improvement
- pathway construction
- nursery building for plant propagation
- compost making
- propagation of plants for our first planting (this can start as soon as you secure access to land; the young plants can be looked after by a gardener until they are ready to plant)
- building a storage shed and a shelter for the gardeners to sit under out of the rain or hot sun.
With your garden designed, constructed and planted out, your project now moves into a maintenance phase in which gardening, rather than construction, is the main activity. There will still be garden beds to build for people who join the garden, of course, compost to make and plants to propagate.
Draw up management plan
With the garden established, it is time to develop a modest management plan if you have not already done so during your earlier planning phase.
The management plan need not be a formal, detailed document. It’s purpose should be to remind you of ongoing tasks. Keep it simple and brief.
The management plan identifies all those ongoing tasks and how they will be done, such as:
- organisational meetings to plan your activities
- weed control
- compost making and turning
- tool and equipment maintenance
- risk management
- social activities
- inducting new members to the garden
- liaising with landholders
- starting plants from seeds in your nursery.
Figure out a general schedule for these activities and plot this on a one-year timeline. Then decide how and by whom the tasks will be tackled.
Useful skills for community garden organisers. You might find these skills among your community garden group or in community college courses, your local library or on the internet.
- garden soil preparation and garden construction
- propagating plants from seed and planting out
- compost making
- using mulch
- organic pest management
- conserving water in the garden
- how to draw up a planting calendar for gardening through the seasons.
- participatory design processes, decision making and problem solving
- conflict resolution
- facilitating meetings
- helpfulness, tolerance, patience and a sense of humour
- the ability to think laterally, develop innovative solutions, make do with what is at hand and apply your own creative intelligence.
The level of formal organisation in a community garden depends on the number of participants and how well they know and get on with each other. For larger gardens, having new members sign an agreement covering their gardening activity is a way to:
- make known gardener’s rights and responsibilities
- ensure the garden is managed in accordance with the wishes of the group.
- A gardener’s agreement might make clear:
- the purpose and objectives of the garden
- what is allowable/not allowable if the garden is to be cultivated by organic techniques
- the dispute resolution structure
- how decisions are made
- membership fees, how and when they are paid and the consequences of non-payment in gardens with private plots, how long an allotment can be left unused before it is passed on to someone else
- the contribution of time tothe maintenance of shared garden space, the grounds, structures, equipment and shared composting facilities.