Since it is now April, and because spring is (finally!) officially upon us up here in Minnesota in the United States, we’re about to start the next growing season in the community garden that I help to plan and coordinate for. For me, the garden absolutely comes with some excitement of yet another opportunity to grow our own food, to build community, and to get outside and spend some time in nature after being cooped up indoors all winter long.
However, it also comes with many of the responsibilities of management in the human realm. This is a level of management that I hadn’t really fully contemplated when I first got involved with the garden. I don’t really regret my involvement with the garden by any means, but there are many things that I’ve learned so far through my experience as a founding member of a community garden planning and coordinating team since it was established five years ago.
I would like to share just a few of the things that I have learned along the way in community garden planning and coordinating. I hope that by sharing my experiences about the community garden that I am involved with, it will help you if you are considering starting a community garden yourself.
Or perhaps if you are involved in a community garden primarily as a member who uses a community garden plot, you can gain a broader perspective about what it takes to make something like a community garden happen and be maintained.
1. Community gardens are about gardens, but they are also about community.
“Well, of course, isn’t that obvious?” you might be saying.
Well, for me, being an introvert by nature and as someone who is very passionate about local and sustainable food production, I must admit that at first, I was so focused on the idea of growing food and dreaming of having others join in that endeavor (and of course, everyone involved would see the importance of growing things organically and sustainably, right?), and I just knew that some sort of community would be occur and be involved in there somehow.
What I have come to understand since our garden’s founding is how much the human element of a community garden really matters. Much of what I have done in my role of managing the garden is:
– Managing communications to people through emails and by phone,
– Managing garden registrations of people,
– Planning our yearly orientation with and for people,
– Meetings with people,
– Coordinating events for people,
– Working through the conflicts of people,
– Convincing people to do their fair share of caring for the garden, and
– Working and meeting with people at our church to move forward on decisions that impact our garden (since our garden is on the church’s grounds).
Seeing a pattern? Yup, people! The human element of a community garden in many ways can far eclipse the actual gardening part. Not that there aren’t a lot of activities involving actually gardening itself, but if you are looking to start a community garden, the people emphasis is something that you must prepare yourself for.
2. Burnout can happen, even to community garden coordinators.
As with any other activity or group that we are a part of, we can get burned out by all of the activities and the responsibilities that go with it.
This is why it is so important to share the responsibilities of managing the garden with a large team. There are so many things to do each season that if those tasks continue to fall on the same people all of the time, they will quickly get burned out and probably eventually quit.
There must be a large enough leadership team to adequately share the management responsibilities, and you should recruit additional leaders from within your garden member community to help out when necessary. Perhaps you might have a rotating leadership schedule so that it is not all of the same folks doing all of the responsibilities all of the time.
It is also imperative that all garden community members understand that with their gardening participation comes the necessary responsibilities of not only the general upkeep of their plot, but also helping to maintain the community garden as a whole.
One of the biggest struggles that we have had in our community garden is that the gardeners who participate tend to get really excited at the beginning of the season to grow things, but then when the season is in full swing and people get really busy with their lives, many of them only end up taking care of their own plots, and in some cases, even their own plots suffer.
This phenomenon of having a lot of motivation at first for something but then not being so excited about all that is involved with it later is admittedly human nature, and we all have busy lives, but the gardeners must have a good understanding of what is involved with being a part of a community garden ahead of time.
Finding ways to increase the participation of helping out in the garden and with the garden’s tasks can be really challenging, but they are critical in helping the management of the garden to go more smoothly for everyone involved.
To hopefully improve this issue for our community garden this year, I decided to include a “Volunteer Interest Form” with our gardener registration. This hopefully gives garden members sufficient time to consider how they can be involved in helping to maintain our garden before we hold our yearly start of the season orientation meeting.
3. Because a community garden is a community of people with diverse views on gardening styles, they may or may not garden exactly the same way that you would.
You can establish rules for the garden that no chemicals are to be used, but beyond that, individual gardeners will likely differ in how they will manage their plots.
Not every gardener is going to approach the management of their garden plot from a permaculture perspective, and we as permaculture-minded gardening planners and coordinators need to be okay with that. For instance, some gardeners may prefer to till the soil within their plots, while others may not.
You ultimately have to learn to fight your battles of what is most important here, which is getting people outside to grow their own food, herbs, or flowers, and not using conventional agricultural chemicals to grow plants.
As with any plans in life, you may find that your original expectations will need to change and be scaled back. It is certainly important to have rules and expectations in place for all members of the community, and you can educate gardeners about the ways that you believe that approaching gardening will be best for the planet and for the plants themselves, but in the end, you have to let certain things go.
4. Coordinating a community garden can take a large commitment of your time.
To many, this point may be well understood. However, it is important to know that if you are coordinating and planning a community garden, the time commitment may be substantial given all of the administrative tasks involved, actually participating in caring for the garden, and the people communication and the people management aspects before, during, and after the gardening season.
It can really be a lot to manage if your community garden is entirely run by volunteers, as mine is, and you have lives outside of the garden (and who doesn’t?). This is especially why it is important to have a larger management team who can help you with all of these tasks, and to recruit other volunteers for leadership when necessary. By sharing the responsibilities, the time for each individual leadership team member should not be as overwhelming.
5. If they are willing, consider having your gardeners donate their extra produce to those in need.
Part of having a garden is deciding what to do with all of that extra produce that you may not use. In the case of a community garden, you may decide as a group that you would like to donate your extra produce to a community food shelf or to another organization that helps those in need.
Donating your extra produce will not only help to share the abundance of your harvest and prevent anything from hopefully going to waste, it will provide some really appreciated fresh produce to those who cannot afford to have some very often.
These things are just some of what I have learned over the last five years of managing a community garden. I hope that my experiences will help you as you consider your involvement in starting a community garden. Know that sometimes such an endeavor can be challenging, but know that it is well worth the effort, and you are making a difference in people’s lives and in your community simply by providing a place where others can grow food.
As permaculturists, we can help to educate people about some very important things in a community garden such as learning the importance of healthy soil and its role in nature, composting, helping pollinators, spending time outdoors when many of us now work and live our lives almost entirely indoors, and working together as a team. These experiences have the potential for some people to transform their outlook from being consumers to being producers and being a part of nature by participating in those processes.
And, let’s not forget that gardening can be a great way to reduce stress, get some exercise and eat some truly fresh, truly local, and truly nutrient dense foods, which are getting increasingly difficult to find in supermarkets today.
We can “be the change we wish to see” just by being good stewards of the soil underneath our feet and helping others to do the same.
Blessings, my permaculture friends!