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Basic infrastructure for successful community gardening

Story and photos by Russ Grayson, 2009

THERE IS A COMMON SET OF DESIGN ELEMENTS that make the experience of community gardening an enjoyable one.

It is a set that has become defined through more than 30 years of community gardening in Australia and that can be considered as the basic infrastructure to include in community garden design and construction. As such, it is something to take into consideration in the planning of new community gardens.

The basic infrastructure of community gardens is made up of:

  • soil improvement and management — making soils fertile
  • water harvesting and storage — to reduce water consumption
  • an area for compost production
  • pergola for shelter from sun and rain
  • tool storage
  • a materials storage area
  • durable paths and garden edges
  • plant propagation area
  • a means of making teas and coffees and sharing food
  • a log book to document garden planning and development and a safe place to store it and other paperwork
  • documentation garden development and socially network it
  • social organisation that makes the experience of community gardening a happy and productive one.

Soil improvement and management

Soil quality and fertility are the basis of the organic gardening approach commonly used in community gardening. A fertile soil is the greatest non-human asset a garden can have.

A soil capable of providing nutrients and water to crops and otherwise supporting their healthy growth requires:

  • appropriate acidity/alkalinity balance (pH around 7)
  • the presence of organic matter in the root zone (the top 10cm to 20cm) of the soil profile; this retains nutrients and moisture that are accessed by growing plants
  • a looseness (friability) that allows the penetration of water, air and nutrients
  • an absence of soil contaminants injurious to plant or human health.

Most of these qualities are easily achieved over time through the application of compost to garden beds. This is one reason that compost production should be a practice in all community gardens.


Depending on soil condition, initially, garden beds might be forked to loosen the soil to allow penetration of water, air and nutrients. Forking is done by pushing a garden fork as far into the soil as it will penetrate, then rocking it back and forth to open, but not turn, the soil.

Placing 25mm or so of compost on the soil surface then forking it into the upper soil profile, or incorporating it by single or double-digging, provides a means of getting nutrients to the root zone rapidly. No-dig garden construction is a slower way to achieve this, however even with this method, forking the soil before making the garden may be beneficial.

Soil improvement begins as soon as the community garden makes a start, and the management of soils continues through the life of the garden.

Water harvesting and storage

Collecting and storing rainwater provides a reserve from which the community garden may be irrigated. This may be accomplished through:

  • using the soil as a moisture storage medium by developing a friable soil, the open structure of which allows water penetration into the root zone of the upper soil profile; spreading compost to assist the retention of soil moisture in the profile
  • the installation of water storage and collection technologies such as roof guttering and water tanks; water can be harvested from the roof of the pergola shelter, tool storage shed, chook house and nearby buildings
  • earthworks, such as those excavated across the contour of a slope and which are known as swales, contour or infiltration trenches; others include drainage channels that take rainfall runoff that flows across the soil (called ‘overland flow’) to a pooling area such as a small dam or large pond from where it is diverted for irrigation.

The construction of earthworks in community gardens should be entered into with a lot of planning and care. Knowledgeable advice should be sought, as misdirected runoff can inconvenience neighbours and damage the garden.

Water tanks

The installation of water tanks also requires expertise. The area of the roof available influences tank capacity. Overflow from a full rainwater tank must be dealt with effectively, such as by diverting it to the stormwater drain.

As of 2009, there were government grants payable for the purchase and installation of  water tanks, Additionally, some councils give rebates. It is worth checking whether subsidies are payable on water tanks.

Given sufficient roof area to harvest rainwater from, community gardens do well to install the largest capacity tank they can afford or accommodate in the garden. This will help them though dry periods when water use restrictions might be introduced. Installing sufficient storage is important where community gardens, like the Randwick Organic Community Garden, have no connection to the water mains and are entirely rainfed.

Where there are no funds available to purchase and install a new tank, community gardeners have proven adept at improvisation.
Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle, in Sydney’s Inner West, collects water falling on the roof of its substantial chook house and stores it in a row of 200 litre fuel drums laid on their sides and connected in series.

Fuel drums to be used to store water should be clean and contain no residue of previous contents.

A few gardens have obtained the large plastic drums in which olives and other preserves are imported. They are filled with rainwater via a downpipe from the roof guttering. These drums are usually quite cheap to buy. Gardeners with the know-how and tools can install a tap low on the tank from which watering cans can be filled.

Any kind of water tank needs a solid base that will maintain stability when the tanks are filled and at maximum weight. Consider, too, what happens to overflow once drums are filled. If water stands on the ground for any length of time it can become a breeding place for mosquitoes.


Swales (contour or infiltration trenches) detain water and do not drain it away. To do this, they must be excavated along the contour of the slope so that they form a level excavation. They retain runoff, allowing it to temporarily pool in the excavated swale, from where it infiltrates the soil profile to become available to plants established in the interswale zones.

A swale is excavated by digging a ditch or equal depth and placing the excavated material immediately below the excavation to form a lip.
Swale depth, width and interswale distance is influenced by the degree of slope. Remember that swales take up a reasonable area of community garden land, depending upon their scale, making them perhaps less suitable for smaller community gardens.

The marking and excavation of swales is a precise activity calling for knowledge and experience where they are to be made at any substantial scale.

A couple examples

A successful set of swales can be seen at the Habitat and Harmony Community Garden at Belmont, in the lower Hunter region of NSW. There, a double set has been cut into a moderate, westerly-facing slope and the interswale zones planted to fruit trees and vegetables.

In the 1990’s a single, substantial, long swale was excavated on a moderate, south-facing slope in the clay soils of the permaculture demonstration garden at Fairfield City Farm in south-west Sydney, as part of an Urban Landcare project. Designed by landscape designer and permaculture educator, Bronwyn Rice, the area below the swale was planted to a mixed orchard ‚ a ‘food forest’ — while that above was given to vegetables.

Soil water storage

It is common knowledge among organic gardeners that a friable soil, one with an open, porous structure, can store moisture in the root zone (the top 10cm to 20 cm of the soil profile where vegetable roots penetrate) and below.

Regularly adding mulch to your soils introduces the organic material that holds soil moisture. Clay and clay loam soils have better moisture retention capacity than sandy soils. While the addition of compost to sandy soils will, over time, improve moisture retention, applied to clay soils it will loosen them.

Adding mulch

Placing a substantial layer of mulch on a garden and topping it up when needed reduces soil moisture loss through evaporation.
Over time, the mulch degrades into fine organic matter that infiltrates the soil profile where it becomes available as plant nutrient and helps retain soil moisture.

An area for compost production

When designing a community garden it is worthwhile to consider siting a utility area where compost can be produced and where gardening materials can be stored.

It will not always be sensible to locate these functions in the same area, however, as the layout of community gardens differs. If a storage area is located adjacent to the entrance gate, and if the gardening area is located further into the garden, then locating compost production adjacent to the growing area makes sense. This is called ‘relative location’. It suggests the rather common-sense notion that elements, such as compost production and the gardens on which the compost will be used, be located adjacent to each other.

If the raw material for compost production is delivered to the community garden, the facility might be better located adjacent to the gate or unloading point to minimise its movement, providing this is still close to the gardens. A number of Sydney gardens have stable waste delivered and have installed a gate in their chainlink fences large enough to admit a five tonne tip-truck.

The area set aside for compost production should be sufficient to accommodate the movement of compost into and out of bays or bins. That is, there should be enough working space.

Some Sydney councils allow the use of only the covered, plastic compost bins used for domestic composting because they minimise the potential for rodents to breed. Community gardens where this is the situation commonly have ten to twenty, perhaps more of these bins, necessitating a compost production area of suitable scale. Where open compost bays are used, the weekly turning of the compost will minimise the opportunity for rodents to breed. Community gardeners have been unpleasantly surprised to find rodents and their young nesting in seldom-turned but still warm compost bays.

One Sydney community garden trialed a system of large scale compost production. Two parallel rows, each of four open bays (see photograph below), were constructed from wooden freight pallets wired together. The rows were separated by a distance such that compost could be moved by a garden fork from one bay another diagonally opposite. In this way, compost zig-zagged its way down the rows until it reached the end bins where it was left to mature to a usable condition.

The system required reasonable space and a substantial and regular input of waste materials, making it too ambitious for most community gardens.

A pergola for shelter

Community gardeners and their guests need shelter from the hot sun of summer as well as from rain year-round. This is necessary for the comfort, health and protection of gardeners and their children.

The most common way to accomplish this is with a pergola with at least part of its roof being covered with galvanised iron or some other solid covering. The rest of the structure might be covered in summer by a grapevine, which provides shade as well as fruit.

The floor below the pergola is usually paved with salvaged bricks or other suitable material. A large table and seating, and perhaps a barbecue, provide the necessary fittings that make meetings, social events and shared meals conducive.

Sometimes, councils include the construction of a pergola in their support for community gardens. More commonly, gardeners build it themselves.

This is where a gardener with a knowledge of construction comes in handy. Randwick Community Organic Garden got its pergola when a builder joined the group. The gardeners self-built from recycled timber under his supervision. This do-it-yourself approach builds social capital and gardener skills. Later, the pergola was extended with salvaged weatherboard to provide space for a nursery and a storage shed.

More minimal shelters are found at Newtown Community Garden where tables and seats roofed like a picnic shelter provide sufficient shelter in the compact area of the garden.

Councils differ in their requirement for gardeners to submit a development application for construction of a pergola. Check with you council’s building department.

A pergola, or some type of shelter, is a necessity for community gardening.

Storage for tools

Secure, lockable storage for tools is a necessity.

This can be included in the design for a pergola, as at the Randwick community garden. More commonly, gardeners obtain one of those metal garden sheds and a strong padlock to secure their belongings.

Woolloomooloo Community Garden has only a low fence surrounding it. There, the gardeners obtained assistance from the City of Sydney, which constructed the garden, for the installation of a small but solid tool storage. A strong, mesh door was attached so that would-be thieves could see that only gardening tools were stored there, something probably of no value to them.

Innovative gardeners will see such a structure as an opportunity to harvest rainwater and install a small water tank.

Storage for materials

From time to time, community gardeners find it necessary to store materials. This might be mulch, raw materials for composting, salvaged boards and timber or bricks and paving.

This is best located adjacent to the compost production facility in a utility area set aside at the design stage of the community garden.

The need here is for the safe stacking of materials and, where moisture could affect them as in the case of timber, for their storage a little above ground on a rack to allow air circulation. Reducing the opportunity for rodents making their home here is important and is facilitated by neat storage. Consider whether the storage area, or a part of it, needs roofing to protect vulnerable materials. If so, that calls for simple construction knowledge or advice.

What is best avoided is collecting materials, such as from council kerbside clean-up collections, that ‘might be useful’ at some future time. Collect only materials for which a use is planned. Otherwise, your community garden may start to look like a recycling centre and the aesthetics might start to annoy neighbours.

Build durable paths and garden edges

Durable paths minimise time spent in continued maintenance.
Main paths in community gardens should:

  • connect all areas of the garden, linking functional areas such as allotments, shared garden, pergola and tool storage, utility area, compost production, garden entrance and so on
  • be wide enough to allow the passage of a wheelbarrow; prefearably, main paths should be a little wider, perhaps 1.3 metres or even a little more
  • be well made with a smooth surface for safety and for ease of movement, especially if there are aged gardeners; bark chip, concrete, paving or compacted gravel are all used with success.

Minor paths providing access the short distance from main path to garden beds can be narrower, perhaps as little as 700mm; setepping stones of narrow paths provide access into wide garden beds.

Veg Out Community Garden, in St Kilda in bayside Melbourne, features a wide concrete path that circumnavigates the garden. Visitors are welcome to walk along the path from where they can see all of the garden’s features.

The path at the now-closed UNSW Community Permaculture Garden was different. Instead of being open with long sightlines, it wound around garden beds and into the food forest. The short sightlines created a feeling of intrigue and closeness. Seats placed in secluded nooks adjacent to the path provided semi-concealed places to sit and talk or be by yourself.

The Randwick garden has a wide main path of bark chips that takes gardeners from the entrance at one end of the garden to the gate at the other and provides access to the shared gardens and pergola/storage/nursery structure. Narrower paths lead from it into the allotments and to the chicken yard.

The large community gaden at Punchbowl reserve in Launceston, Tasmania, has a network of smooth, broad and paved main paths that crisscross the large site and provide access to its allotments.

At Brisbane’s Northey Street City Farm, a network of paths wind into and out of the vegetable production area to connect the buildings and outdoor kitchen to the chicken yard, market garden, and over to the forest strip along the banks of Breakfast Creek.

Make garden edges sturdy

Garden should be edged with sturdy materials to reduce maintenance and to minimise weed invasion of the garden beds. Roofing tile second, dug in to form the edges of raised garden beds, have been used successfully in a number of Sydney community gardens. Timber, recycled plastic planks, bricks and concrete blocks and bricks make sturdy garden edging. The wide concrete blocks are convenient for sitting on when capped with a top block.

The first iteration of the Randwick Organic Community Garden, before it moved to its present location, proved a challenge for gardeners in keeping the invasive Kikuyu grass out of the allotments and shared gardens because garden edges were so makeshift.

Accommodating groups

If the community garden is to also be an education centre visited by groups and the location of workshops:

  • paths should be scaled-up in width to accommodate he extra numbers
  • where there are items of interest at which tour groups stop while the leader explains something, design a bulge into the path so that people can gather around so that all can gear the leader and see the object
  • ensure that paths are smooth to minimise the chance of visitors tripping and injuring themselves.

Set aside a plant propagation area

An area for a nursery, where plants will be propagated from seeds and cuttings before being planted into the garden, need not be large.

The plant propagation area should:

  • be close to the garden beds into which the plants will be replanted
  • be close to water for irrigation
  • have a bench at a convenient height for working
  • have a shadecloth or similar roof to prevent the plants drying out in hot weather and to break the force of heavy rainfall
  • have an open, ‘standing out’ bench or area where older plants are left to adapt to garden-like conditions before being planted out.

Something to make a pot of tea or coffee with

A small gas barbecue stove is fine for this and can be stored in the shed between uses.

Making a cuppa might seem somewhat trivial, however sharing a pot of tea or coffee brings cultural baggage with it that is beneficial in the forming of acquaintanceship and friendships. People usually sit and talk together.

Beverage preparation facilities are also useful for warming the body and mind with a steaming bowl of soup on cold winter days in the garden.

Food can also be prepared on the burner and the value of sharing food around the table, under the shelter of the pergola in the community garden, should not be underestimated in the forming of interpersonal bonds among gardeners. And what better way to welcome prospective gardeners and visitors?

Some community gardens have made a ritual of preparing and sharing a meal at their quarterly meetings, supplementing it with food from the garden.

Other innovative community gardens have organised workshops to build cobb ovens of clay and straw . Cobb ovens are hemispherical, wood-fired ovens in which breads and pizza can be prepared as well as other foods. Not to be outdone, Veg Out Community Garden has a huge brick oven that would seem more at home in a wood-fired pizzeria.

Keep a logbook

Keeping a log book as a systematic record of the development of the community garden is easily done. The log supplements records of minutes of meetings and provides a documentation of the history of the garden over time.

The outcomes of participatory planning sessions can be recorded and their implementation documented as works are carried out.

The records provide a handy reference when decisions and ideas have to be checked back on. It is best stored in a dry place, perhaps in the tool shed where a small table and shelves can be placed to store paper records, reference books, and so on.

Document garden development

As well as keeping a written record of the history of the garden in a log book, photographers among the garden crew might like to make a photographic record, or a video record, of the development of the community garden.

Social network the community garden

It doesn’t make much sense to keep a community garden a secret, so some gardeners set up a website so that people can find the community gardens (the web is now the first place people search for things like community gardens), to promote workshops, celebrations and events and to tell people about the garden.

Video can also be placed on You Tube and stills photos on Flickr or other social media sites.

Community gardens might also set up a Facebook presence to develop a social network — a community of interest around the garden — even among non-members.

Social organisation

Effective social organisation is found in all successful community gardens.
In the planning phase, before the commuity garden is set up, time should be spent thinking about and discussing how the garden will function and be administered. Experience suggests that this would be time well-spent.

Devise equitable, fair, democratic and participatory ways to:

  • make decisions
  • find solutions to problems
  • resolve conflict between gardeners
  • creatively facilitate meetings
  • maintain good relations with neighbours and lcoal government or other landholders.

Celebrating successful projects — Sydney Community Garden Calendar 2008

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