It’s Easy Being Green with a Local Community Garden

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During World War Two, as American troops fought enemies across the world, civilians back home contributed to the war effort by planting vegetables in Victory Gardens so that farmer-raised food could go to feed soldiers. In 1943, nearly 40 percent of produce grown in the United States was cultivated in community Victory Gardens.

After the war, the gardens disappeared, sold to developers for the post-war suburban housing boom. Only two of these gardens survive; one is Fenway Victory Garden in Belmont, Massachusetts, and the other, Dowling Victory Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Now, a renewed interest in local, healthy food has led to a blossoming of community gardens across the United States. It’s estimated that 35 percent of American households grow at least some of their own food. In towns, suburbs and in urban areas, the number of community gardens is expanding to meet the needs of both new and experienced gardeners.

And while it’s too late in the growing season to plant, now is a good time to start planning if you’re one of those with an interest in creating a new community garden near you.

The American Community Garden Association says the first step is forming a planning committee. Look to neighborhood associations, local religious groups, service organizations or other places where people come together to find participants.

Gardening groups should organize a planning committee, then begin to focus on funding, partnerships with sponsors, finding a suitable site and organizing volunteers. The biggest problem for many community gardens is putting together the start-up costs, which, according to the University of California Extension, can average between $2,500 to $5,000.

There are a number of ways to find funding. One source is to charge a fee for a garden plot. Business sponsors can offer equipment and supplies. Non-profit community garden groups can apply for grant funding and various fundraisers, such as dinners, barbeques and yard sales, can be another way to bring in money.

Another challenge is finding a site. Look for land with at least six hours of daily sunlight and a reliable source of water. Check with a local municipal planner and with the state Master Gardener Program or agricultural school. Some groups such as churches or park systems may have land to offer. Empty private lots might be available as well and can sometimes be leased for a nominal amount.

Plan on meeting with government officials. Talk with a lawyer (perhaps also a volunteer) about the positives and the pitfalls of a community garden. Be aware of zoning rules and local laws that might make one location forbidden and another ideal. To avoid taxes, most community gardens operate as non-profits. Don’t forget liability insurance, just in case. In some places, this is a requirement but even if not, it’s a good idea.

Also, talk to neighbors about the plans. Some homeowners might object to increased traffic, strangers on the block and even possible noise. Be ready to negotiate. Before finalizing a location, have the soil tested. You can find out about the soil’s fertility, its pH and more importantly, if the soil is polluted with substances that would make it unsuitable for growing food.

There are other details that face the committees, such as how to divide up the garden into individual plots, where to place paths, compost bins and storage sheds and a community bulletin board. Decide if there will be a special kids’ garden with space dedicated to the youngest gardeners. Many gardens also have a common area with benches or picnic tables. And, some have fences to protect the garden from thieves and vandals, both human and animal.

Once the site has been chosen and is available, it’s time for volunteers to begin the real work. The area needs to be cleared, compost needs to be added, garden beds need to be rototilled and paths created so gardeners have access to their plot without stepping on their gardening neighbor’s land.

There are other decisions; what are the rules and who will enforce them? How will plots be assigned? What are the hours? Who has keys to the shed and who will be in charge of supplies? Who will maintain the area? Who will organize the volunteers? All of this needs to be decided before a single spade digs its first scoop of soil.

Studies have found that community gardens have surprising benefits for both neighborhoods and gardeners. In urban areas, people living near a garden see lower crime rates. Families with access to community garden plots were three and a half times more likely to eat their veggies every day.

Creating a community garden is not easy, but the rewards are great. It’s not just a chance to grow your own; it’s a way to make new friends, bask in sunlight and connect with your (vegetable) roots. ■

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