1. Making a start

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There are two ways to start a community garden…

...from the bottom up or the top down.

Both approaches work and which one is used depends upon where the proposal for a community garden comes from.

Bottom-up

Working from the bottom-up is the most common:

  • a group of people get together
  • they approach the local council or some other institution for help in finding land and, perhaps, for other assistance
  • alternatively, they might have found a site where they would like to make their community garden; they then find who the landowner is and approach them
  • they work out a governance structure—how they will make decisions, resolve disagreement and communicate
  • next, the group conducts a needs analysis to identify what their needs are—how they want to use the community garden, what should be included in it and what they want from the expeience of community gadrening
  • when they have gained access to land, they then design the garden, build and start to cultivate it.

This approach builds ‘ownership’ of the community garden because the people who work the garden put in all the effort.

Council, government or professional role

For community workers and local government staff, the most constructive role is to assist the community group and guide without controlling it.

Help the gardeners to help themselves.

Top down

The top-down approach is taken by professionals such as community workers and local government staff:

  • the professional workers become interested in the potential of community gardens to build a sense of community, to improve the nutrition of the people they work with or its potential to help achieve sme other social goal
  • through their existing contacts with government, schools or church they obtain land and funding
  • they then have to popularise the idea of the community garden among the target group they believe will use the garden
  • if successful—and it might take some time—they then make use of a council landscape architect or a contracted designer to design the garden; alternatively—and this might be the better solution because it builds ownership of the garden—they might find someone in the community who can lead a design workshop with the would-be gardeners, turning what could have been a professional-led solution into a participatory process.

The good news is that the top-down approach can succeed if the community or local government worker or consultant has the patience and persistence to build support for the garden within the community. It works best where any potential participants in the proposed community garden are assisted to form a team and participate in the design and construction of the garden.

Once the idea has been discussed with the local community, it is a good idea is to organise a tour of three or four existing gardens (see Checklist for New Community Gardens for things to look for). Some councils may help with this. Be sure to visit gardens that are different so as to expose community members to a range of approaches to community gardening. Look at the design of the garden and discuss with the gardeners visited how they manage the garden and make decisions.

Employ a coordinator

To increase the chance of the top-down approach working after land has been found, community workers or council staff and consultants might think about raising funds—perhaps through a grant—to employ a coordinator.

The coordinator would:

  • stimulate interest in the garden within the community
  • provide basic horticultural training
  • guide the garden’s initial development
  • if necessary, design the garden as a participatory process with gardeners.

Qualifications for a community garden coordinator include:

  • importantly, the possession of people skills such as the ability to communicate effectively, to make decisions, solve problems, resolve conflict, coordinate participatory planning and decision making and to work participatively with community garden teams in doing these things; facilitation skills are indespensible
  • basic landscape design knowledge including site analysis, water managment and drainage, soil improvement, basic horticultural skills, knowledge of relevant local and state government landuse regulation, plans and strategies affecting the site.

Planning and starting your community garden by Russ Grayson + Fiona Campbell 2002

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