How to Start a Community Garden

Written by Lauren Mackay

It’s one of the great urban community building ideas of all time: secure a piece of land suitable for growing, put the word out, and see what comes. The best case scenario is a beautiful and sustainable shared green space that provides a nourishing growing area for neighbours to meet at, and collaborate in, for many years to come.

The world of community gardening is as diverse as the communities that comprise and support them, but there are also several universal components to the experience. Everything starts as an idea and it’s important to dream long in advance of taking action. Once your community garden idea starts to take shape, you may want to reach out to nearby garden communities to discuss what worked and what didn’t for others who have already traveled this path. In fact, many Canadian cities have vast networks of gardeners, horticulturalists and permaculturalists that would be happy to connect.

Recently, I sat down with Carolyn Smith, one of the leaders of Wildwood Community Garden in Calgary. One of the original members of this community garden, Smith shares her experience of how her community began to plan their project. “I’d spoken with a few neighbourhood friends who were interested in starting a community garden. Around the same time, I attended a local plant exchange where I met some others and we loosely gathered and began doing some research. First we began by touring other existing community gardens. We reached out to some local experts and Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture came to our neighbourhood to do a walkabout and discuss different approaches. We decided we wanted to engage an expert to help us design a sustainable system including wicking beds, swales (to hold water), and a food forest. We wanted to build a space where people could garden together, have an area to gather, grow healthy, organic food for themselves and their families, and be able to share knowledge and ideas.”

The logistical aspect of planning a community garden is immense. The most obvious part of this process is procuring the land itself. If you plan to grow food at the garden, a comprehensive environmental study should be completed beforehand. On site water access and management is another essential component of a long term garden. Next, the necessary permits and permissions must be obtained and, before you dig, you must call to have the utilities mapped to prevent any damage to underground utility lines. There are often funding sources that can be accessed through municipalities, community associations, and/or grants. Smith noted that while the work done at the outset of the project was tremendous, to research, plan, build, and execute the garden, in subsequent years the logistical work shifted to the practical running and maintenance of the garden.

“When we were starting up, we were part of the Community Garden Resource Network, which was a great resource linking people from different gardens across the city. Typically, the leaders of each garden would assemble to share ideas, discuss their specific situations, assist others, and problem solve. It was interesting because we came to realize that regardless of the size of the garden, the particular setup or philosophical bent, we all struggled with similar things. This group allowed us to support each other and learn together, to take ideas back to our own communities, and try them out there. This group no longer exists, but it was a great resource while it lasted.”

The creation of a community garden can be as laborious or simple as that particular community wants. Some communities have 60 plus beds, others have a dozen. Some function collectively and others suit those seeking a more individualized experience, where members can rent a bed, show up to garden and that’s it. Smith and her community chose to build their garden on permaculture principles, intentionally designing what naturally works in accordance with their particular land. Understanding that the health of their soil is essential, they are proponents of no-till gardening, green manure, and chop and drop practices. They keep their soil covered, protecting it. What they take from where they grow, they return, an approximation of how soil health is retained in nature. Alongside earth care, another significant permaculture principle is that of people care, the relationship between the gardeners is considered to be just as important, and reviewed and cared for as necessary.

As anyone who has ever worked in a volunteer capacity knows, it can be difficult to maintain interest over the long term. Community groups can be tricky to manage due to disparate desires and outcomes, and conflict is bound to arise, but as Smith says, “we all have something to offer to the garden. Through the sharing of each gardener’s gifts, the community mimics the food forest. Some people attract pollinators, some people bring beauty, others grow food. Others still are communicators, like the mycelium underground connecting it all together; each person is a contributing piece of the working system. No one works in isolation.” When the community garden works, it is so much more than growing, it is the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. In a good season, the separation between humans and nature is lessened and we come to learn that there are no mistakes, only lessons leading us toward a greater understanding.

For more info, visit @wildwoodcommunitygarden on instagram

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