How to Start a Community Garden in 5 Steps that Sound More Complicated Than They Are

A few weekends ago, on the 17th of October, around 50 students from the course I teach descended on two community gardens that previous classes helped build and prepared them for winter. I’ll explain what that means in a bit. First, the Carver Culinary Arts Garden is the better part of an acre in size and is located just outside the recently renovated state-of-the-art industrial kitchen built onto Carver High School. The Smiley Court Garden is about a quarter acre located at the Smiley Court Housing Office, a central building which houses administrative functions for the surrounding Government Project Housing. These gardens are purpose built, which brings us to the first step in garden building

1- Identify the need for a garden. Being a bit of a plant nut, I frequently find myself believing that everywhere I look needs gardens (I think I can make a pretty good case for this) but, for now, let’s assume that we need to, for whatever reason, enumerate WHY we might want a garden. Needs and desires will drive creation of the vision. Here are a few of the reasons Carver Garden was conceived… 

Food. The culinary arts program lacked good access to very fresh produce, for various funding and logistical reasons, and an on-site garden could produce right at the doorstep. Smiley Court housing is located in a food desert, or a place where grocery store produce access is challenging, for a number of reasons (intermittent public transportation, lack of access to vehicles, grocery store beyond walking distance). Both gardens will provide those around them access to food – virtually for free! Also, the gardens will provide an opportunity for…

Education. A garden is a site for multi-disciplinary learning and teaching. Calculating the length of irrigation hose needed is a math problem, and calculating flow rate through the drip tubing is physics. Analyzing the soil is chemistry, and determining the types of soil life is biology. Not to mention, bringing students out of the classroom is a great way to get them engaged and jolted out of any schoolroom doldrums that a daily schedule grind creates.  At Smiley Court, Government provided landscaping does not provide for garden space – so how would the children of the neighborhood even learn what a garden looks like? This isn’t a subject taught these days in most public schools (although we are trying to change that with Carver). The only elementary schools I know of teaching gardening currently are Montessori schools, which are far out of the economic reach of Smiley Court families, by the very nature of the housing project. Parents with incomes large enough to send their kids to education programs like these, some of which are based right on farms, where children can see and play with the stimulating things to be found in gardens environments, do not qualify for Government subsidized housing. So how else can kids get the exposure, and inviting outdoor environment found only in gardens and on farms? Should kids be forced to play in concrete jungles? No, I say, all children deserve to experience an ourdoor sense of…

Beauty. I am not sure I can describe what food gardens bring in the way of beauty, especially in the South, unless you have seen an okra blossom for yourself. Until then, you’ll have to trust me. Or visit a permaculture, biodynamic, or integrated farm yourself. You should probably visit, if for no other reason than to experience the…

Community. Remember all those school subjects I mentioned a moment ago? Each has its own educational community, which do not often cross-pollinate in our modern educational system  which seeks to break systems down to their basic elements and achieve understanding through analysis of each individual segment. A garden provides a perfect place to reintegrate much of what has been segregated – this creates multiple invested parties, and where people settle their interests, community arises. Thus, the gardens are multi-functional, as are many plants in the garden. Not only do they provide their caretakers food, but they serve as a rallying point for well-intentioned people, and create an atmosphere of curiosity and enthusiasm for those who see them. Getting all these people together, and picking their brain is a great way to get started with the next step in the process, too.

2- Develop a gardening strategy. Yes, there is such a thing. You have many options when it comes to getting a garden going. Will you go all Permaculture? Till up your earth and fertilize it? Raised beds? No till? The options are nearly limitless. In my opinion, each has its benefits, and drawbacks. For this garden, we wanted to minimize maintenance, maximize fertility, and ensure there was no risk of contamination of edibles by pesticides, especially because of the garden’s close proximity to children. We chose to do a sheet mulch/raised beds technique, irrigated with (somewhat costly) drip tape and soaker hose, for ease of care. When you have your strategy defined, it’s time to…

3- Plan your work schedule. Who is doing what? When? How will that affect other efforts? For Carver and Smiley Gardens, we decided to bring all the compost we wanted to use as our primary effort, knowing we could pile it into berms if need be, then run irrigation, then plant seeds. Building raised beds was a secondary effort because we didn’t have enough construction materials (pallets in this case) to hold all the size of the entire garden we had envisioned. Our work flow ensured that if we had to stop for any reason, another team could come in and pick up where we had left off. 

4- Execute! Start to finish, turning just under an acre of desiccated field into a patch of fertility with a few raised beds and fruit trees to diversify our effort and make the site more oasis-like took less than 4 hours. We had about 35 people contribute their efforts and skills.

5-Maintain. This is what happened last weekend. The garden was originally installed in May 2015, and this fall we had to weed. We prepared the soil for the fall by mulching heavily with rescued pizza boxes and pine mulch. This will hold in moisture all winter and give the soil fertility web a leg-up come spring, when it is time to plant again. Hopefully, we’ll be putting in more perennials in both places, because they require even less work than annuals, and will result in larger harvests in the long run.

(Bonus Step 6- Iterate/Review. Run your ideas past a few people external to the garden, and make sure that it makes sense to them. I call this optional, because, let’s face it, you’re going to make this garden no matter what if you’ve already put in the work to plan it this far.)

There you have it. Now that it’s Fall, it’s a great time to get ahead of the curve and start making plans for Spring, especially if you want to involve more people. After all, many hands make the work light.

Original article covering the construction here:

http://www.maxwell.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123448484