How to start an urban community garden

You and your neighbors can start an urban community garden in that neglected eyesore of a vacant lot by doing a little research and working together.

Would you like to start an urban community garden? If so, you're in good company. Sources estimate that there are 10,000 community gardens within U.S. cities. There are two important questions that need to be answered if you're thinking about starting an urban community garden.

QUESTION NUMBER ONE: Why do people start and work in these gardens?

Numerous studies show that community gardens are good for community residents. They lessen levels of crime, improve the communication between neighbors who work in them, improve the beauty of the local environment, provide good nourishment for unemployed and low income urban residents who often experience difficulty finding fresh nutritious produce in their neighborhoods. In 1993 the USDA found that urban gardeners in its programs grew $16 million dollars worth of produce. As they grow food children and older people also learn to understand how the food chain operates, and their role in it.

In addition to improving nutrition, health professionals are also beginning to recognize the value of community gardens in providing exercise, and general enhancement of quality of life for those that live near and are nourished by them. The presence of plants and trees improves the livability of the neighborhoods in which they exist. They help by reducing noise, temperature and pollution levels, creating a positive community image for locals and visitors, and allowing people to work together and get to know and appreciate each other.

Some studies on the value of plants and trees in improving individual and neighborhood life point to reduced individual stress, less street crime, increased property values and a more inviting environment for businesses. In addition, residents involved in community gardens begin to learn how to work with funding processes and resources that they can access to improve their communities.

QUESTION NUMBER TWO: How do they pay for the work that needs to be done to turn an abandoned, junk filled vacant lot into a beautiful, productive garden? Let's get down to the nuts and bolts of the project. How can you get started in your neighborhood? Here are some steps you may find helpful.

Find the land.

This may be the reason you're even thinking about a community garden. If you have a dangerous urban eyesore right under your window, you don't have to look far. But if you have the vision and not the site, then start looking around.

Don't worry about the condition it's in now. That can be worked with. In fact, the worse the condition, the more likely that authorities and neighbors would like to see it improved. There are plots of land which lie unused for a variety of reasons, and even in areas where property values are high, it may be possible to use an area for some time, and even to eventually convert its status to a park or other protected area. Study successful urban community gardens.

You may be surprised at how many different models of success there are. One great resource is New York City's Clinton Community Garden. The complete history of this garden and its development is available online. In addition there are many other sites and resources that will tell you about great community gardens, how they started, what they do, and how you can learn from their experiences.

Learn about resources.

While you're researching successful gardens, check out the USDA literature or web site. You'll find lots of information about various food growing programs, plus funding resources. If you want to grow food for your neighborhood in your garden, you may qualify for several million dollars worth of grants. You'll find this information on-line under the section entitled Community Food Projects, or CPF. There are forms to apply for grants, plus completed sample grants available online.

Do some horticultural research-

Find out what you need to do to make your soil better. You may want to create a neighborhood compost pile. Do education and outreach with local merchants. Perhaps nearby markets will give you their vegetable waste. Perhaps nurseries will give you free plants in return for the public relations.

Find the plants that grow well in your area and grow a lot of them. It's important to have success at the beginning so that people realize this project can work. You can always change things later, but it's good to have something that looks great at the beginning, even if it's morning glories and nasturtiums. Better than rotting abandoned cars, right?

Develop local support and cultivate leadership.

Who cares about the neighborhood? Consider recruiting residents, school teachers and their classes, local churches or other service organizations, public safety or sanitation authorities and involving them in the project. The broader your base of support, the more likely that your project will succeed, and the more resources will be at your disposal.

It's also important to have good leaders. You'll need gardeners as leaders in the actual gardening to plan your design and bring the vision to reality, but leadership doesn't stop there. Successful urban community gardens are volunteer operations, so they need interpersonal organization and vision. There are bound to be different opinions, and you'll want to draw on a wide range of skills to sort things out. In addition, leaders from the community will evoke local support and help you develop a strong enough base that local politicians can see the garden as worthy of support.

Get local service organizations and the media on your side by including them. Plan local events in your garden. Let the Chamber of Commerce know what you're doing. Get your Councilman or the Mayor to turn over a shovel of soil, helped by a couple of adorable neighborhood kids. What a photo op! Once your garden is looking good, one of the churches could hold an Easter service there, or you could have a retirement party to honor a local public servant or administrator. Don't be shy. Let the paper and the local TV and radio stations know. Invite every local celebrity you can muster.

As you can see, the sky's the limit. Don't be afraid to ask everyone and try everything. Part of what's so wonderful about community gardens is the way they break down hopelessness and helplessness. The more you succeed, the more opportunities will come along. Everyone in your neighborhood can benefit from the changed perceptions the garden generates. Pretty soon you'll even be putting in garden seats paid for and dedicated to Congressmen who are thrilled to get the PR. So don't be shy. You can do it, a step at a time and a day at a time. Look around. It's time to get started with your own neighborhood's community garden.

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