6. Designing the garden

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A large circular garden can provide a number of allotments or can be used as a shared garden.   Coutour ditches (swales) were excavated to catch water and fruit trees planted on the slope behind the circular vegetable garden at the Interlife project in NSW's Blue Mountains.

A large circular garden can provide a number of plots or can be used as a shared garden. Coutour ditches (swales) were excavated to catch water and fruit trees planted on the slope behind the circular vegetable garden at the Interlife project in NSW's Blue Mountains.

Now that you have brought your gardening group together and found land, it’s time to start the design process.

First, go to council and obtain a copy of the site survey plan. If this is not available, measure up the site and draw it to scale.

Community garden design is not a conventional landscape architecture exercise, nor is it a design-led process.

The design process is best led by someone with a deep knowledge of and experience in designing community gardens. They will need to understand the importance of incorporating opportunities to achieve any social needs the gardeners identify and know how to do participatory needs and site analyses. They will also need to know how to access local and state government planning regulations and any other regulatory conditions affecting the site such as flood plans.

Design works best when everyone ‘owns’ it and this happens when the design process involves the full participation of the community gardeners.

Professional designers can work with the gardeners and present to them a range of design options.

A people-led process

Designing a community garden is not a design-led process. The design for the site that identifies where everything goes—the landscape design—is drawn up later.

Because community gardens are about people, it makes sense to use a people-led process to set up the garden. A design adviser working with a community garden team might better think of themself as a design adviser assisting the team design the garden themselves, with the designer's assistance.

We can call this people-led design process 'social design' because it is about people and the arrangements they work out together to design and manage their community garden.

Social design is important

Not all community garden members will want to participate in social design. The importance of social design, however, is great as its sets the starting conditions for community garden participation and development that influence what comes after. By thinking through and discussing social design, community garden teams are prepared to some degree to deal witth the contingencies that may come up later.

It's much as the co-originator of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison, said—you should apply protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action. Observation, in our social design process, is observation of the needs of the group and the site.

Particiption in garden planning, specially when the designer or consultant educates gardeners in useful skills, builds what we call 'social capital'—the capacity of individuals and groups to make effective decisions, to plan cooperatively and work successfully with others, and to fully participte in civic affairs.

Social capital is a product of successful community gardening. It has potential to make self-help possible and increases group self-reliance. It is an outcome less likely to be achieved when councils or other institutions or  when consultants and designers working with community garden teams take the managerial approach of designing and doing things for the gardeners rather than with them by eduating garden teams in the skills of self-management.

First things first—what do the gardeners want?

Social design process starts with a needs analysis:

  • how do the gardeners want to use the site? Is it just for gardening or do they want to offer community workshops, horticultural therapy, activities for school children, production of specialised crops, passive recreation etc?
  • what types of experiences do the gardeners want from the process of community gardening? Learning? Social etc?

Answers to these and other questions about what gardeners want from the garden are incorporated as opportunities into the design of the garden.

Second—organisational design

Organisational design defines:

  • how the group will make decisions in an open, participatory and democratic manner; we are talking about direct democracy here
  • how the group will resolve serious disagreement and coflict and what they will do when they can't
  • how the group will community with each other, with their activity teams, with council or landholder, with the media and the public
  • how the group will responsibly manage the land the community garden occupies.

You can use the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network's Management Plan Template to develop your organisationbal design, or 'governence structure' as it is also known. For community gardens developing a submission for assistance to present to council, the template can be used as a component in their submission.

Next—the placemaking process

Community gardens are best developed through a process known as 'placemaking'. It turns spaces into places where people want to spend time and it is a core component, with needs analysis, of the people-led rather than the designer-led approach to community garden development.

As part of the design process, the placemaking approach might include the community garden team, perhaps working with their design adviser, going on site and working through a participatory site analysis (see Mapping site conditions next) and marking out in the soil where garden beds, compost systems, storage shed, water tank, social space and shelter and other elements of design could go. This develops a concept design and forms the basis for drawing up a landscape design for the site that will serve to guide construction.

To assist design, the group can go through a number of placemaking questions:

  • what is our garden's point of difference to others?
  • how do we make the community gadrening experience memorable?
  • what is the story of the site the community garden will occupy and should we somehow express this in the design?
  • how will the garden reflect the needs, ideas and culture of the gardeners?
  • how do we make people feel at home in the garden?
  • how do we expand the experience envelope? (provide sense-based experience; blur the boundaries between elements on site; increase micro-diversity on site rather than any overall theme)
  • how do we create an positive welcome mat for new gardeners and visitors?
  • how do we encourage exchange of ideas and produce, both planned and spontanous exchange?
  • how do  we slow people down and encourage them to linger?  (what are our linger nodes?)
  • how do we focus on the micro, not the grand design?
  • who would be the anchoring presence?

Mapping site conditions

This is the participatory site analysis phase that feeds important information into the site design. Gardeners might conduct the activity themselves or seek the assistance of their design adviser.

Look at the existing features and analyse the effects of influences coming in from outside such as:

  • wind characteristics – the direction from which prevailing winds blow throughout the year and their characteristics (cold/ hot/ dry, blustery/ sea breeze etc); when you make your garden beds, you will want to protect them from potentially damaging winds by carefully placing them and through planting windbreaks; the department of metoerology may provide year-round weather information
  • look at how the sun moves across your site; think about how much access to sunlight your site has year-round (vegetables need a minimum of about six hours sunlight a day); will there be enough sunlight when the sun is high in the sky in summer and when it is lower in the sky in winter?
  • shade patterns will affect your site; shadows are longer in winter than in summer; work out whether any nearby trees or buildings will overshadow the site in winter; this information is used to locate your garden beds
  • does your site slope? Which way? This affects how runoff will move across your garden; work out how rainfall flows through the site—does it flow through in a torrent? does it pool in areas of poor drainage? is it likely to wash in pollutants from busy roads?
  • identify microclimates such as:
    • exposed places that will receive the full blast of the hot summer sun
    • areas which are permanently shaded and cooler
    • boggy, moist areas
    • pleasant and unpleasant places (how do they feel?)
  • existing paths, fences, structures and buildings are on site; are they in good condition? do you want to keep them?
  • identify existing wildlife using the site, including neighbourhood children, and whether there are any rare plants worth keeping.

Draw up a base plan

This information goes on to your base plan which has been drawn up from your site measurements or traced from the plan obtained from council.

The base plan is a scale drawing of your site showing boundaries and fixtures (existing paths, buildings, water supply, services, significant existing vegetation and so on).

Develop a concept plan

Base plan drawn up, identify design opportunities for the gardener needs worked out during the social design process.

  • vegetable beds
  • potting and propagating shed
  • play and garden areas for children
  • seating areas
  • orchard
  • shelter
  • passive and active recreational areas etc.

Now, where will you locate these things?

Using the information you compiled during the development of your site analysis, on a sheet of tracing paper overlaid over your base plan, mark in the areas where you would place the items.

Remember that it is important that things are placed so that it is easy to move around the site and so that parents can keep an eye on their children.

You may do several versions of your concept plan before you are happy that your plan has taken into account your site conditions and everyone's needs.

If th design adviser is to draw up the plans they will do the concept plan then bring it back to the gardeners to dicuss changes before proceeding to final plan production.

Draw up a final plan

Finally, draw up a final design. This guides you in constructing the garden.

A final plan shows more detail than a concept plan, such as:

  • types of plantings—the location of annual vegetable beds, fruit orchard areas, windbreaks, herb gardens and so on
  • types of structures—such as storage shed, sitting areas, nursery
  • location of taps and water supply
  • paths.

If you have obtained assistance from a landscape designer, then they will produce these plans for your approval. If the process of finding this information has been done by the gardeners themselves, under the guidance of the designer, then they will have a better understanding of their site.

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

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