Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tanya Denckla Cobb: Running a Community Garden

Community gardens must begin with the community.
The desire to help is noble, but not sufficient. Time and again, the experiences of food projects across the nation point to the same guiding principle: if a project such as a community garden is to truly help a community of people, it must be theirs from the beginning. They must own it, design it, build it, and maintain it.

Top: The People’s Grocery’s urban agriculture program is based in the transformed
parking lot of the historic California Hotel, now a subsidized housing facility 
very-low-income residents. Bottom left: Nyota Koya, a community health and
nutrition demonstrator, leads a cooking demonstration for staff members.
Bottom right: Residents like Mickey Martin help in the gardens and at the 
bringing fresh, healthy food to low-income populations throughout Oakland.

A group of committed community leaders is essential.
One person is not sufficient to steward a new garden into fruition. Key items to discuss are:
  • Identifying the skills and tasks required and recruiting other people for these roles 
  • Making sure other community groups have opportunities to be involved, such as nearby food banks, native plant groups, or green building groups 
  • Making the planning group inclusive, to reflect the neighborhood’s multicultural population
Rely on collaborative decision making.
All decisions about the garden must be made jointly, by all members.

Schedule regular meetings for decision making. 
Community gardens thrive when they hold regular meetings for decision making. One community garden holds meetings on an unusually intensive schedule: once a week, every Saturday, without fail. During these two-hour meetings, the garden community plans events and workshops, prepares for visitors and tours, and discusses garden sign-ups, plant distributions, community workdays, and new program opportunities. This might seem like an intensive commitment, but the meetings feed a sense of community: participation is open to all members and is completely volunteer, and people keep coming.

A grassroots support group helps sustain a city-managed community project. 
Establish clear rules and guidelines for the garden. Community gardens should establish rules and guidelines in collaboration with the gardeners, to increase their sense of ownership of the garden and also to make sure that the rules will reflect their values and goals. Typical items to cover in the rules and guidelines are the process of allocating plots, fees, use of tools and watering equipment, maintenance requirements, and a system for allowing the garden to evict someone who isn’t using or tending his or her plot. Management of the garden plots is not the only factor to consider when drafting community garden guidelines. Ensuring member safety, discouraging disruptive behavior, and facilitating emotional development may be priorities. Encourage or require members to sign a “community contract” that is in essence a code of conduct.

Learn from others. 
For those wanting to start a community garden, one of the best ways to avoid costly mistakes is to learn from others in the field. Visit other projects and meet with people who have experience with different types of projects. Then share what you’ve learned with your community so that you can tailor the project to your community needs. 

To bolster community support, keep the garden looking good year-round. 
Community gardens are always beautiful and lush in the summer. But the key to obtaining community support, is whether the gardens also look good for the remainder of the year. Simple things like having an attractive entrance, such as a pretty iron gate or colorfully painted fenceposts, can help. And, of course, clear guidelines for keeping garden plots maintained are essential.

Don’t be afraid to ask local businesses and organizations for help. 
Designate a garden manager to contact local businesses, and ask if they would be willing to help. Many will be happy to make a donation or bring in volunteers to assist — the results can be immense!

Adapted and excerpted from Reclaiming Our Food © 2011 Storey Publishing
Text © 2011 by Tanya Denckla Cobb
Photography © 2011 by Jason Houston

All Rights Reserved

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