10 Steps to Starting a Community Garden

1. Organize a meeting of interested people

First determine if the garden is really needed and wanted by the community. It seems obvious, but community engagement is the most important part of a community garden. Talk about why you all want a garden, who is willing and has the time to help with the project and who might be interested in using the garden once it is built. Talking about these questions will help you figure out the foundation of the project. Try and answer questions such as:

  • Will you grow vegetables or flowers or both?
  • Will everyone get their own plot or will they all be shared?
  • Whom will the garden involve and benefit? (make sure to include these people in all discussions throughout the entire process of starting and maintaining the garden).

2. Form a planning committee

Choose one or two well-organised people to facilitate the group. Having two people who work well together can really help prevent overloading one person with this responsibility, and remember it is their job to call a meeting and facilitate conversation, not to do everything.

Collectively agree on a name, open a collective email account for the project, then form action groups to tackle specific tasks such as:

  • Raising money and sourcing donations
  • Securing land
  • Publicizing the project to the wider community and inviting them to get involved in planning and building
  • Designing the garden space
  • Organizing construction days
  • Sourcing and buying materials

Always make garden meetings engaging and fun! Ask people to bring food or have tea together, start building relationships and community from the start. I was once told by a fellow community garden organzier, “Never hold a meeting when you can host a party, if you aren’t sweating you aren’t doing it right, if you aren’t laughing you aren’t doing it right.”

3. Identify all your resources

First look within your group and community and assess your collective resources. Have each person tell the group what excites them about this project, what skills they have to bring (e.g. enjoying talking with people, very organized, good at building etc.) and what skills they’d be interested in learning or developing in this process. It is also helpful to ask each person how much time they have to give to this project and for how long they are available. It is usually enough simply to talk this out, but if you feel the need to write it down here is a Volunteer Form you can look at for ideas.

After you have an idea of the resources you have within the group identify what is still missing and who might be able to help. Contact local municipal planners about possible sites, as well as horticultural societies and other local sources of information and assistance. Look within your community for people with experience in landscaping and gardening. In Halifax contact the Urban Garden Project at the Ecology Action Centre.

4. Find Financial Support

Some gardens “self-support” through membership dues, but for many, a sponsor is essential for initial costs of building the garden and sometimes for the ongoing costs of seeds, compost and tool replacement each year. There are many options for raising small or larger amounts of money for your project including:

One garden raised money by selling “square inches” at $5 each to hundreds of sponsors. If you do choose to fundraise through an event, make sure to weigh the work involved in organizing the activity against the money you will raise. Some activities are better tools to build relationships with the community and others tend to be better fundraisers.

5. Choose a site

Look around your neighbourhood for potential garden sites. Consider the amount of daily sunshine (vegetables need at least six hours a day), availability of water, and soil testing for possible pollutants. Find out who owns the land. If it is private land contact the landowner and discuss your idea with them.

If it is municipally owned land ask your local councillor for help determine the right avenue for inquiring about the space. If you live in HRM there is a centralized process for applying for municipal land. You can find the application here. The deadline is April 1st, however it is sometimes extended. If you have any questions about applying contact your local Recreation Area Coordinator: 

6. Design the garden 

Members must decide how many plots are available and how they will be assigned, or if the entire garden will be run collectively. Once you have decided these basic needs its time to design the garden. There are limitless ways to organize a garden, and design makes a huge difference in the beauty and productivity of your garden space. So do your research first and ask some local professionals to lend a hand in the design.

Consider rain water catchment systems, a large compost area, and a small shed to store your tools and wheelbarrow in and don’t forget the pathways between plots!

Plant flowers or shrubs and medicinal herbs around the garden’s edges to promote good will with non-gardening neighbours, passers-by and municipal authorities. Consider having at least one communal plot for everyone to contribute to and take from, maybe with flowers and herbs, and keep native species in mind when choosing and planting perennials around the garden plots. Include social areas with seating and spaces to eat, or read. Finally include signage to let folks in the neighbourhood know what’s happening and how to get in touch.

7. Prepare and develop the site

In most cases, the land will need considerable preparation for planting. Organize volunteer work crews to clean it, gather building materials, order soil and translate the garden design into a building plan. 

Make sure to buy the best soil possible to fill your raised beds or to add to existing soil. You will want a soil with a high organic content (usually soil companies will mix their compost, or HRM municipal compost with sand and/or peat moss. Often their high “organic mixes” will be listed as 70% organic. The best way is to go look at the soil, it should be a nice rich brown colour and have an earthy smell, it’s not a bad thing to see bits of bark, wood shavings or straw still in it and earthworms are always a great sign.)

If you are working with the soil you have, get a soil test first. If you are in the city consider testing for contamination as well as nutrients. If you aren’t in an industrial or urban area, a nutrient test is likely all you need. For more information on this take a look at How To Get Your Soil Tested. The soil will likely need a bit of work. Consider taking a season to grow only cover crops to prepare your soil or use sheet mulching to build new beds. Or if you’d rather hit the ground running, build or buy lots of compost to add in to your existing soil. The soil test will also give you a great idea of what soil amendments you will want to add.

8. Make the Garden Accessible

Consider creating a special garden just for kids—including them is essential. Think about bean tunnels or sunflower forts, and using plants to create special spaces. Make the space and garden membership family friendly.

Look at making the garden accessible to wheelchairs and walkers, with wide and sturdy central paths. Having a raised bed that is better adapted for sitting is another possibility for increasing accessibility. If you have questions consider calling a local community organization that specializes in making spaces accessible such as reachAbility here in Halifax.

Gardens are not only made accessible through physical means, but also through social and political means. Making sure the garden is accessible to folks of different races, classes, sexual orientations (and etc.) is an ongoing process of learning, talking with one another and changing. Pay attention the language used around developing and inviting people into the garden project, be aware of obstacles people might face in becoming involved in the garden and work to remove them. Most of all keep communication open to all, listen to what is being said.

Keep in mind the wide range of needs your gardeners may have and strive to make the space accessible to everyone.

9. Create membership guidelines and put them in writing

Will gardeners share tools, meet regularly, handle basic maintenance? Do you need a waiting list for more members? Are members required to use organic methods (ie. prohibit pesticides and fertilizers)? What happens if members neglect their plots? If your group charges dues, how will the money be used and who will be responsible for it?

You can take a look at this Garden Membership Outline from a community garden here in Halifax to give you an idea of one garden’s organizational structure. They also use a Membership Commitment as well.

10. Keep in touch with each other

Communication is the essential foundation to a successful community garden. All conflicts and obstacles I have seen are from a lack of communication, or from a communication breakdown. Remember that everyone is coming to this garden from a different place and communicates differently.

Find out how people prefer to communicate. Does everyone use email? Would people rather be called? Install a physical communication area in the garden such as a rainproof bulletin board or a chalkboard, and have regular celebrations where people can get to know one another better and have fun together.

It is also helpful to have one common email account, and to put that on your sign. All garden members can access the account, but it helps the general public get in touch over the years as your coordinators change if they want to get a plot, lend a hand, or ask a question.

There are a lot more great resources in the Halifax Garden Network Toolkit.

This list is adapted from the American Community Garden Association’s, Guidelines for launching a successful community garden in your neighbourhood http://www.communitygarden.org/learn/starting-a-community-garden.php

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Steps to Get Your Garden Ready

The buds are starting to pop on the trees and whether you’ve noticed or not your garden has started to wake up and is working to get ready for the season ahead. Here is a short to-do list to help it along its way and boost your soil fertility this season. Love your soil and it will love you back.

1. Nutrient Test: Know what you are starting with

Start with a simple home nutrient and pH test of your garden, as this will give you a good starting point of what your garden needs this summer to be healthy and productive. It is really best to test in the fall, especially to get an accurate reading of your soil pH levels. If you didn’t test your soil last fall, wait until the end of this season before you make any decisions to add lime to change your soil pH.

You can buy an inexpensive home soil testing kit at your local gardening store (such as Halifax Seed). This test will tell you what your soil pH is and where your levels of your 3 basic nutrients are namely: Nitrogen, Potash and Phosphorus. This isn’t essential, but if you don’t feel like you have any guideposts, or having trouble getting to know your soil, this information can be helpful.

If you just brought in nutrient rich soil the previous season your pH will likely be just right and you’ll simply need to add a bit of compost. However if you are gardening in the ground, or your soil has been in production for a couple of seasons its quite likely that your soil is a bit on the acidic side and that your nitrogen levels are running a bit low (nitrogen is water soluble and so often gets washed out with the ice thaw and spring rains).

2. Add Amendments

Your soil test will give you a great idea of what you will want to add to your soil before planting. You will want your soil pH to be around 6, having neutral soil is important to making the nutrients in your soil available to your plants. If you are adding lots of compost and organic matter to your soil, you don’t need to worry much about your soil pH and compost is a great neutralizer.  If your soil is slightly acidic you can add  large quantity of eggshells to your garden. This is a great option if you think your soil is acidic but aren’t sure or want a more gentle approach than using lime. Collect your eggshells in the freezer or get them from your local bakery for a great alternative. If you know your soil is really acidic and you want something to work a bit faster than eggshells use calacidic limestone, or even clean wood ash, put on a week or more before you plant.

When you are trying to change the pH of your soil you need to take it slow (i.e. change the pH over multiple growing seasons).  Be careful not to add lime and animal manures within a couple of weeks of one another as they don’t react well to each other.

It is also likely that your nitrogen levels are low. If this is the case there are a few options to build up nitrogen:

  • coffee grinds and/or coffee chaff
  • chicken, sheep and horse manure (do not add with your lime)
  • grass clippings
  • bloodmeal

If your potash (or postassium) levels are low you can add:

  • woodash or
  • greensand

And if your phospourus levels are low you can add:

  • rock phosphate
  • bonemeal
For a great understanding of your soil check out our blog post Soil Health.

3. Digging In

If you planted a cover crop such as fall rye or used sheet mulching last autumn, now is the time to dig it into the soil. It is good to dig in any of your organic matter (this includes cover crops, mulches, leaves, straw etc.) and then leave it for two weeks or so before planting. You don’t need to dig deep (in fact this can disturb your soil life), think of it more as a turning action, giving air to the mixture. Giving it a week or two to start breaking down will wake up the microbial life in your soil and start making nutrients available to your plants.

If you haven’t added any of these things in the fall then add in some compost to your beds, and some well rotted leaves if you have them (this is called leaf mould and is wonderful and fungi rich).

4. Wake up the Microbial Life

There is a whole world in your soil, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms and more. They all have their role to play in making your soil healthy and nutrient rich. When you add organic matter you are feeding this microbial community and building up the resilience of your soil.

As a final step to preparing your garden bed, consider taking it one step further this spring and adding a batch of compost tea to your garden. This will add a great boost to your mircrobial soil life and will help break down all that organic matter you just added to your soil, making it readily available to the plants you are about to add.

If you can’t get your hands on a compost tea brewer, then add a layer of worm castings to your garden instead. Fish and seaweed fertilizers are also great microbial foods, and kelp meal helps replenish lots of micronutrients, giving your soil a well rounded support system for the season ahead.

Your plants will thank you for the prep work and you’ll be happy to see your harvest’s bounty this year.

Written by: Garity Chapman

How Much?: Deciding On Details and Costs In Your Garden.

I often get asked for a budget when communities decide they want to build a garden and I never have a great one to offer. So this week I am sitting myself down and doing some math. Here it is, broken down, with store-bought and DIY (do-it-yourself) options so you can pick the pieces you want and add them up into a feasible budget for your project. Don’t forget long-term planning and that a lot of this can be phased into your garden over a few years, so start small, do what you can afford and plan for the future.

1. Start with a Soil Test

You will want to test your soil for nutrient levels in year one to give you a starting point of what soil amendments you will need to add to get your garden up to par. If you have any concerns about past use of the land it is also a good idea to get your soil tested for heavy metal contaminates. You can read all about this here.

Soil Test Costs:

Nutrient Test: $20.50

Heavy Metal Test: $25-$70 (depending on which lab you test at)

2. Raised Beds or In The Ground?

Your soil test may help you decide if you want raised beds or not. You will need to decide if you are going to till the soil and build up what is there or if you are going to use lumber to build raised beds and bring in new soil. If your soil is contaminated we recommend lined raised beds with fresh soil. If your soil is great and folks are able to bend down, growing in the ground is the cheapest way to go.

In Ground Option

You will want to pull off the sod by hand and till your earth if it is currently lawn. Then you will want to add in lots and lots of compost, plus any soil amendments your soil test indicates you need in order to bring your soil fertility up to an adequate level. There are lots of free and natural amendments you can get in your neighbourhood such as coffee grinds, woodash, egg shells etc. If this interests you take a look at our booklet Build Me Up Buttercup: Knowing and Loving Your Soil

In Ground Costs:

Compost (40lb Bag) : $5 (as a general rule of thumb for new gardens, one bag of compost will cover double the size of the bag)

2 kg Box of Bloodmeal: $8.00 (as needed)

Box of Greensand: $10 (as needed)

2 kg Box of Bonemeal: $8.00 (as needed)

Bag of Kelp Meal: $10  (this is sprinkled into the soil, so one bag would likely cover 3-4 beds)

Raised Beds

If you are building raised beds use a wood that is more rot resistant, such as Hemlock, and preferably a thicker board (such as a 4×4) as they tend to last a lot longer. I build my beds about 3 ft. high to give lots of growing room for the roots and like them to be no wider than 4 1/2 ft. so I can easily reach the middle. Click here for a simple explanation of how to build your own.

However if you are happy with your plant roots going down into the soil below (there is no contamination and you are simply using lumber to give the beds a defined look) you can build beds that are only 6″ high. You can buy pre-made kits like the ones at FreeSpirit or build your own. The length is arbitrary, however if each person gets one plot I’d recommend giving them a fair amount of space (8-12 ft) so that they can have some room to grow.

Then you will want to fill the beds with the best quality soil you can get your hands on. Do not skimp here! The cheapest soil will be sandy or clayey and have very little nutrients, causing you grief for years to come. Buy a soil that is high in compost (70-80% compost) and has a good texture (not too much like sand and not too much like clay). Use a soil calculator to determine how much you will need to fill your beds.

Most local soil companies use municipal compost, and so I would also recommend adding some organic matter rich in microbial life into the mix. This could be some backyard compost, worm castings, leaf mould, seaweed compostkelp meal or your own compost tea. This will help “wake-up” the life in your soil and help to get everything going.

Raised Bed Garden Costs:

Hemlock per board ft: $0.80/ft

or

Pre-made raised bed kit (4 x 8 ft) $88

Soil per cubic yrd: $25 (once you decide a bed size, and number of beds, use the calculator to determine the amount of soil you need.)

Soil Delivery Fee: $85

Seaweed Compost (18 kg bag) : $12 (as a general rule I would add 2-3 bags/garden bed in the first year)

or

Worm Castings (one bag): $10 (optional/instead of seaweed compost)

or

Homemade Compost: Free and great!

Kelp Meal (one bag): $9 (this is sprinkled into the soil, so one bag would likely cover 3-4 beds)

3. Tools & Storage

Now that you have your beds in place you will need some tools and a place to keep them safe and dry. Essentials include shovel (2-3), hand tools (2-3 trowels, cultivator), watering can (1-2), leaf rake if there are trees around the garden, pitchforks (1-3 if you are building your own compost on site), hose if you are using a water hookup and a wheelbarrow. Buy the best quality tools you can afford, they will last longer, however watering cans seem to be a dime a dozen.

Then you will need somewhere to put all of these tools where they will stay dry and not be stolen. By far your best bet is a good ol’ fashioned shed. It allows enough room, can be easily secured and best of all you can collect rainwater from its roof. But if you can’t afford a shed or are not allowed to build one, a big wooden garden tool storage box will also work and can be easily built by a handy volunteer.

Tool Costs:

Shovel: $40 (will want 2-3 shovels)

Hand Trowel: $9 (2-3)

Cultivator: $9 (2-3)

Pitchfork: $50 (1-2 if building compost on site)

Leaf Rake: $15 (1-2 if trees are around the garden)

Wheelbarrow: $130

Watering Can: $10 (1-2)

or

50′ Hose plus nozzle: $35 (if you are using water hook-up)

Wooden Tool Storage (DIY, cost of lumber): $100

or

Shed: $500-$2500

4. Compost Bins

I personally believe these are a must have, but you need to be committed to using them or else what’s the point? But building compost allows you to have a source of soil fertility for years to come, so if you decide not to build your own compost remember to factor in the cost of buying more compost every year (add about a 2 inch layer to your soil every year).

There are a few different options depending on how much money you’d like to spend and what kind of system you’d like. For serious compost making for a community garden, I’d suggest having three bins plus a leaf storage area. You can make 3 bin system out of pallets, which are easily gotten for free. The design is simple and a pleasure to use, as it is quite open. Here are great instructions on this design.

If ascetics or rodents are an issue, you can build the mac daddy version that is supposedly rodent proof (when you use line the inside with wire mesh) and it’s beautiful. Here are great instructions on this design and here are great instructions on a few others.

As for holding the leaves you can pile them in an unused corner of the garden to let them sit and make wonderful leaf mould, or enclose them using wire mesh in a circle or square shape. Make this space big, leaf mould takes a long time but is the best soil conditioner there is, you will want lots of this stuff around.

Composter Costs:

Pallet Composter: Free! plus cost of some wire and screws

or

Materials for Wooden 3 Bin Composter lined with Wire Mesh: $350-$400

or

Store bought tumbling composter: $180

Wire mesh enclosure using 25′ wire netting: $20 (use to hold leaves and make leaf mould)

5. Rain Barrels

If you have a nearby structure to catch rain from, rain barrels are an awesome addition to your garden. The rainwater is great for your garden, it also allows you to store up this precious resource during wet times and use it when you need it the most, in the dry times. You can buy rain barrels at a garden centre, and if you’d like to increase your water capacity, you can join two barrels together. You can also turn any plastic barrel (or garbage can) into a rain barrel following these Rain Barrel Construction Plans.

Rain Barrel Costs:

Two Rain Barrels with Connector Kit (Home Depot): $150

or

DIY Rain Barrels (using construction plans: $100

7. Signage and Chalkboard

You will want a sign in your garden with the name of your garden and a phone number or email address where people can get in touch if they want to become a member. You can easily build and paint a sign yourself or have one professionally made.

You will also want a place where garden members can communicate back and forth. A simple chalkboard under the awning of your shed or under a tree works great, or an outdoor bulletin board is another good option. You can buy a chalkboard at an office supply store or make your own with chalkboard paint and a piece of plywood.

Signage Costs:

Homemade Sign (paint, scrap wood/plywood): $40

or

Professional Sign: $150

Chalkboard: $35

6. Flowers, Trees, Herbs and Berries

Lastly don’t forget that you will want to have some flowers, native plants, berries, herbs and possibly even fruit or nut trees in your garden. They all play different roles, offering shade, attracting pollinators to your garden, and offering snacks to hungry gardeners or passersby. And of course they are beautiful and smell good, and that is so much of what a garden is about!

Plant Costs:

3 Blueberry plants: $35

6 Raspberry plants: $30

2 Grape plants: $45

2 Cherry plants: $40

10 Native Plants (Botanical Garden Sale May 5th 2012): $30

15 Herbs (Riverview Herbs): $45

7. Please Share Your Budgets!

If your project is making a budget why not share it so others can get a better sense of what different sorts of gardens cost? If you’d like to share your budget as a resource (you can remove any identifying information before sending), please email Garity Chapman. Together we can make funding applications a happier situation!

Written by: Garity Chapman