Putting the Community in Your Community Garden

Recently I had the pleasure of hosting an Expert Panel for The American Community Gardening Association, of which I am a board member. The topic was “Putting the Community in Your Community Garden” and was attended by 50 or so community gardening organizers and volunteers from around the country.

We talked about what works (and what doesn’t work) in The Peterson Garden Project garden in Chicago’s 40th Ward.

Here are the suggestions and ideas shared:

Remove Complexity

Slide01Urban life is busy so if you want people to be actively involved in a community garden, it needs to be simple for them to participate. We did this by making the beds small (4×6’) and individual (no need to discuss or compromise on what is to be grown). We also suggested the garden was organic and all edible. For the 50% of our gardeners the first year who had never gardened before, we used the Square Foot Gardening method to teach them.

Communicate Everything… Often

Slide12Building our garden was an exercise in gumption. We had a history edible garden building but no experience taking on a project of that size. Furthermore, what can you do when Mother Nature rains on all your scheduled volunteer days? To make sure everyone felt invested in the process – the good and the bad – we shared every up and down with our community. While they were frustrated about delays too, not just the weather, it helped us all feel like we were in it together.


Slide15The transparency about events, details, delays, etc. went hand-in-hand with listening to what the gardeners wanted. Within five days of announcing the garden, we had over 50 community members gathered for a meeting. We talked about the garden plan and we listened to their ideas and questions.  At the end of the season we did a survey to find out what the gardeners thought of their experience in 2010. We put many of those good suggestions into practice for 2011.

Let Volunteers Be Good At What They’re Good At

Slide18Everyone is good at something. By listening, you will learn what people like to do. By communicating often they’ll know what needs to be done!

Find that match and let them run with a project! They’ll have a sense of purpose and accomplishment. When you have hundreds of people feeling good about their contributions it makes for a great garden community.

Give the Kids a Job

Slide24We found that the kids were as eager as the adults to participate but often were too tiny for the hard labor. To put them to work – and give them a sense of purpose- we taught all the kids how to water properly. It was really charming to see an eight year old go up to some adult they didn’t know and coach them on how to water! (At the roots!) They did a great job, everyone learned from them and we had a healthier garden to show for it.

Encourage Group Education

Slide27Provide opportunities for the enthusiastic and/or experienced gardeners to teach others. We provided classes in the garden and noticed a pattern – the same people showed up every time. And those people then taught others. When we had our seed swap this past March, last years’ gardeners were teaching new gardeners (and people who just showed up) what to do. The knowledge collected quickly and people wanted to share it.


Slide29Celebrate large and small victories. We had several events throughout the summer in the garden. The first was a garden re-dedication on 4th of July weekend. It made sense considering our garden was a WWII Victory Garden. We also had a harvest fest, a wine tasting, a fashion show… some of these were to raise funds but we always said our events needs to raise “Friends” first.

For the small victories, recognize the accomplishments of the gardeners. Everyone likes to hear they’re doing a good job. Join in the joy of the first tomato! Have fun with weird things growing in the garden… it gives a chance to talk about other cuisines or cultural backgrounds. For new gardeners the growth process is a mystery. Celebrate their induction into the gardening world!


Slide34Gardens are magical places – especially in an urban setting. We made our garden available to anyone who wanted to come see it… schools, church groups, garden tours. It gave our gardeners a sense of pride and the visitors a sense of inspiration.

Reach out to others in your community to find out if they’d like to view your slice of urban paradise.

Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

Slide37A recent study found that community gardeners ate better and were healthier than most other people. Last year at our garden, one man told us that in 2009 he hadn’t left his house all summer. In 2010 he was at the garden every day… Gardens are wonderful, healing places. Enjoy yours, spread the world, help form new gardens… and maybe community gardening can be a Victory for our generation too.

To learn more success strategies for your community garden, consider attending The American Community Garden Conference August 18-21 at Columbia College in NYC!

LaManda JoyPutting the Community in Your Community Garden

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