Starting a community garden… WHO, WHY & WHAT…

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Thanks to a recent Chicago Tribune article about our award from the Mondavi Growing Through Giving Campaign a lot of would-be community organizers have germinated (sorry, couldn’t resist the gardening pun). Within the first three days after the article went online I had five emails from Chicagoans who had been eyeballing empty lots and imagining what they would be like as overflowing community gardens.

This is such exciting news for me and the core team of volunteers that manage The Peterson Garden Project! We had so much fun building our garden and sharing it with over 800 people over the last two growing seasons we want to do whatever we can to help others experience the transformational power of community gardening.

So to get those groups started, here’s some philosophical musings that are best done in the dark of winter when it will be fun to get together with your new garden co-conspirators and dream of the wonderful summer you’ll have in 2012.

Ask yourself these important questions…

Who are the people that will make up your community?

Why do they want to garden?

What form will the garden take to accomplish this goal?


Bobby Wilson, President of The American Community Gardening Association, likes to say that community gardens are “10% garden and 90% community.” This is an eloquent way of saying that while the growth and beauty are the easy things to recognize about a garden, the people behind the effort are the real wonder. Plus, any garden started by a single individual – without a core of garden believers – won’t last long. Gardens, like life, take a lot of friends to be successful.

Ask yourself and your team… Who will be the community in this garden? If you’re a school or a house of worship, you may have a built in community and the answer is simple. If you’re a block club, community organization, chamber of commerce (or crazy neighbor with a wild idea) your options may be a bit more open as to who participates within your garden.

With The Peterson Garden Project our mission (see WHY below) and the size of the garden determined who we would include… since it is such a large space (almost 12,000 square feet with 157 4×6” raised beds) we knew that we needed to be open to whomever was interested to make sure the garden was fully used.  Plus we figured it would be more fun that way… and we were right!


It is important to understand peoples’ motivations for being part of a community garden and make sure everyone has a shared goal… There’s an old proverb that I love that states “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” It is a bit draconian, admittedly, but I think it sums up how powerful a shared goal is. This is a cornerstone to effective project management (my career background) and it is just as critical to have a vision for your garden – maybe more so because your gardeners and volunteers are there because they want to be there, not because it is their job.

You need to determine why your garden exists… here’s some examples in Chicago

Some gardens want to grow food to donate to the hungry like the 3 Brothers Garden in Chicago’s West Walker neighborhood.

Mike Nowak from WCPT Radio helped start the Green on McClean garden in his neighborhood to keep gang members from using an empty lot to congregate and harass the neighborhood (it worked!)

The Ruby Garden was started to improve Schreiber Park in the 40th Ward of Chicago and ended up being a place for many refugee groups to garden together, celebrate and maintain their traditional communities through gardening, food and culture.

With The Peterson Garden Project you’ll notice the word “PROJECT” tacked on to the name of the garden. Turning a huge empty lot into a community garden was inspired by my interest in WW2 Victory Gardens and research about Chicago’s leading role in the movement (and the fact that I’m a sucker for a task that seems like it can’t be done). The lot that became the garden was a Victory Garden during WW2 (many continued thanks to Asian Human Services for letting us use the land!) I wanted to try that WW2 model to see if neighbors would rally around a central cause (growing food) as they had in WW2. Luckily a lot of other people thought it would be a fun idea as well and a core team of amazing volunteers quickly coalesced and made the vision a shared one – as I said, it takes a lot of friends to make a community garden sustainable.

Another motivation was the desire to teach people how to grow their own food. During WW2, 90% of the Victory Gardeners in Chicago had never gardened before so I was curious how using the same methods that made that campaign so successful (albeit tweaked for a new generation) would work. This had a big impact on the WHAT of the garden (see below).

Ultimately we decided that our mission was:

To recruit, educate and inspire a new generation of gardeners who want to gain control of their food supply, grow their own produce organically, and make urban gardening the norm—not the exception.

These are just a few examples of the dozens of food-based gardening projects in Chicago that illustrate the great motivations to grow food collectively. They’re all worthy and useful in their own ways.

Determine what your community wants, verbalize it and share it often and with anyone who will listen.


Your WHY will indicate what your garden is philosophically but also WHAT it becomes physically.

Now here’s where words are not our friend… there are a lot of terms floating around right now about growing food in cities: urban agriculture, urban farming, community gardens, allotment gardens, etc. Let me break it down for you – as I see it.

Community Garden: A generic term where people work together (minimally or symbiotically) to garden… this can include a garden where everyone collectively decides on what is grown and gardens together or it can mean an allotment garden (see below).

Also, this does not always mean food production although, for the purpose of this blog, I do mean food production. Come on, if you’re going to put in all that effort and can’t eat what you grow what is the point!?

Allotment Garden: An allotment garden is a British term for a piece of land that is divided up for individual use. This is essentially how The Peterson Garden Project is set up with 150 individual raised beds that are gardened by single families who eat the food they produce and 7 beds that are grown for donation to two food-based organizations in the 40th ward.

On a curious note, even though only seven beds are dedicated to donation purposes, a full 25% of our garden serves as scholarship beds (for those who can’t afford membership dues), donation to food pantries, use by social service groups vs. individual families or teaching beds. Supporting our mandate to educate a new generation of gardeners, all of our classes are free to anyone.

Urban Farm: An urban farm often has a job creation or economic impact component and is a few- to-many proposition in which a few people garden and provide produce (usually in exchange for money, barter or some other transaction) to many others.  A great example of an urban farm in Chicago is the City Lights Urban Farm on Chicago Avenue.

While these terms are often used interchangeably – I like to call them “exactly the same but different” – they do have an impact on how you set up your community garden physically but also philosophically. It is important that your gardeners understand the game plan for the garden and what’s in a name does matter.


  1. Congratulations on the award and the Trib article!

    This is very timely information for me. I’m on our village’s newly-formed ‘Green’ committee, and a community garden is one of the first goals. Learning from other successful models will be a great help to us.

  2. Great article! Community gardens are becoming very popular here in NJ and I can see where they continue to expand as more people see and understand them better and their use to surrounding families.

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