It might sound glib to say that starting community gardens can be easy or difficult, but that’s the truth. Sometimes they start rapidly without opposition; others have taken years to get started.
Community garden organisers face a number of challenges:
- finding land
- convincing the landholder that you will manage the land in a responsible manner
- overcoming local opposition to the garden
- finding public liability insurance
- managing the site
- accessing training for the gardeners
- raising startup and onging funds
- maintaining the interest of gardeners.
If you are a community worker, then you might consider the grounds of health or community centres or other community support facilities. The grounds of government housing estates have been made available for community gardens for people living on the estates. This is accomplished through state government social housing agencies.
If you are a member of a community group, you can either:
- ask your local council about land they might be willing to make available
- look around for unused land, then find out who owns it and contact the owner about access.
An increasing number of councils have adopted policies or strategies to support community gardens and these will usually include a process for starting a garden.
Wher coucnils do not have a policy, a well researched and written submission will go a long way to convincing the landholder and your local council staff or elected councillors that your group is responsible and credible.
In your submission, include information such as:
- the purpose of your proposed community garden (eg. building a sense of community; improving family nutrition; environmental improvement, urban food security etc)
- the objectives of your garden group—what you plan to do to achieve your purpose
- the beneficiaries of your community garden—who they are (socioeconomic or demographic description); why they deserve to benefit—would the community garden fulfill some health or social need
- potential benefit of the garden to the local area—environmental improvement, regreening the suburb, safe place for families with children, community education, creative recreation etc
- how the garden links with local government city plans, strategies, social and other plans
- how the garden will benefit your local government—such as the implementation of council policies on waste minimisation (through composting and use of recycled materials), waste education (waste minimisation and composting classes), community health programs (access to fresh, nutritious food), access to the space for non-gardeners for passive uses, positive public perception of council support for community slef-help initiatives such as the garden etc
- an estimated budget for garden development and maintenance and potential sources of funding you have identified (grants, membership fees, fundraising events etc)
- an estimated timeline covering the planning, design and construction phases of your garden’s development; allow plenty of time if the garden is to be constructed by voluntary labour
- risk assessment—what the risks involved in gardening and caring for the site might be and how you will design the site/ educate the gardeners to minimise risk; any potential environmental risks and how you would address these in garden design and management
- management plan outline—how you will care for the land once the garden is complete
- training and induction of new gardeners
- proposed legal structure for access to land—licence, peppercorn lease etc
- structures for the gardeners to make decisions and solve problems
- community garden liaison person—contact details for a person who will act as a point of contact between council and the gardeners.
Public liability insurance
Public liability provides insurance covers legal liability in the case of a person injuring themselves in the garden and seeking a damages or injury payout in court.
Public liability insurance is paid annually and is expensive. Obtaining funding for insurance can present gardeners with a real challenge. Some gardens may choose not to take out public liability, however they then carry the legal risk.
If your garden is on council land you might ask council if they will extend their public liability insurance to cover it. Councils will often require that a community garden group obtain insurance as a condition of making land available.
Managing the site
How you will manage the garden should be outlined in a brief management plan. It should cover activities that need to be done regularly, such as:
- monitoring the site for safety for gardeners and visitors
- maintaining any shared gardening areas
- keeping structures such as tool sheds and pergolas in good repair
- maintaining the aesthetics and tidiness of the site.
Training for gardeners
New gardeners without skills will need training in organic gardening techniques. This should be obtainable from experienced community gardeners.
A basic set of gardening skills includes:
- soil testing – pH (acidity/ alkalinity, texture, structure)
- methods of soil improvement
- producing compost
- using mulch
- garden construction
- path construction
- plant propagation (starting plants from seeds or cuttings)
- planting patterns (close planting, clustering etc)
- integrated pest management
A characteristic on many community gardens is that participation in the garden fluctuates. Sometimes, there will be a waiting list of people who want to join the garden. Other times there might be so few gardeners that maintaining the site is a challenge.
What you do to maintain a steady participation rate will depend on the circumstances of the gardeners themselves. One approach is to build into the operation of the garden some non-gardening activities such as cooking classes (using produce from the garden), workshops, social, arts and peformance (music, poetry and book readings) events.
Assessing requests in councils
When presented with a request or submission for assistance with a community garden, council staff might assess it by asking whether the proposal:
- could be linked to council policy, strategies or plans such as waste education, open space provision, recreational, health and community development policy
- has addressed risk such as site safety
- identifies how the gardeners will maintain aesthetic qualities appropriate to the use of the site as a garden; council and government landscape designers should remember that, visually, a community garden may be an agricultural rather than an urban park landscape
- will not conflict with adjacent landuses
- will make use of environmentally safe gardening techniques that carry little health and environmental risk, such as organic gardening
- will retain public access to the garden grounds for activity compatible with community gardening and relative to the need for opening times and site security, especially if the garden is fenced
- will improve the local natural and social environment through regreening and provision of safe public space
- will reflect positively on council; if council provides substantial support, perhaps the gardeners would agree to council providing a sign bearing the garden’s name, membership information and a statement of support by council.
Planning and starting your community garden by Russ Grayson + Fiona Campbell 2002