By Katherine Adam, NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Today’s community gardens differ significantly in concept, planning, and implementation from the programmatic urban gardening of the past. This publication is intended for organizations supporting community-gardening development. It provides information on starting community gardens and points to further resources for establishing and managing them. It also looks at the history of community gardens. Many current community-gardening manuals downplay food production for its own sake and emphasize community-building goals. Community gardening is potentially an integral part of a local food system. Included is a manual on starting a community garden from the City of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Urban gardening, as a movement to transform the urban landscape and reconnect people to the land through specific programs, began in the United States about 1890. In the far less densely populated American towns and cities before that time, households raised much of their own food at home (Lothrop, 1871). As population centers became more and more crowded with an influx of immigrants from Europe, the earliest urban-garden programs, in the period from the 1890s to 1917, aimed to give the same opportunity for growing food to the newcomers. Many civic-betterment organizations hoped to relieve urban congestion by cultivating a taste for farming among new immigrants, encouraging them to move westward to sparsely settled areas.
Today, community gardening serves purposes other than providing most of a year-round food supply for participants (McKelvey, 2008). This can easily be demonstrated by the decrease in the size of allotments — from as much as one acre per household in 1890 to today’s average 4-foot by 15-foot plot (Lawson, 2005). As we shall see, organizers of many modern gardens have other community-building goals.
Community gardening now rests on the assumption, implicit in most manuals, that there is a pre-existing core of potential leaders in a defined urban area who will initiate community-garden organization and provide continuity over several years. Experience since 1890 has shown that community gardens organized in this way are more successful and last much longer than those instituted by government or agency representatives “from the top down.” However, grassroots leaders invariably need to enlist wider public support to secure land, funding, and volunteers. Such support waxes and wanes, depending on recurring crises of war or economic uncertainty to renew public interest (Lawson, 2005).
|Center for Civic Partnerships (CCP) emphasizes food production as a means to other goals
“Community food security is a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Pothukuchi et al., 2002). … One aspect of food security is that people can acquire food in socially acceptable ways, without having to resort to relying on emergency food supplies, scavenging or stealing.
CCP’s two top tenets:
The objectives of community gardening today go beyond food production. In fact, contemporary community-gardening manuals such as the American Community Gardening Association’s (ACGA) Growing Communities Curriculum often downplay food production for its own sake to emphasize activist organization of the projects as a means of community-building — of contributing to the just sharing of resources. Along with building a sense of community, the ACGA advocates major community-gardening goals of promoting health and developing aesthetically pleasing urban spaces.
Similarly, California’s Local Government Commission sees community gardens as integral to “creating healthy, livable neighborhoods.”
There is evidence that the public is in tune with such community-minded attitudes toward community gardens. For example, one survey found that the public visited community-garden areas of public parks much more than other areas in the parks (Lawson, 2005).
Most community gardens also contribute to meeting environmental objectives by setting aside natural areas and by mandating sustainable or organic growing methods. Several metro Atlanta community gardens, for example, preserve stream sides, native plants, and old-growth trees. An appreciation of nature is an implicit part of such environmental concerns.
Today’s gardens offer opportunities for education, as well. Dunbar Gardens in Little Rock, Arkansas, is a good example, holding regular classes for children in nearby schools and neighborhood teaching demonstrations on making compost, chicken husbandry, and wind power.
Some gardens such as Berkeley Youth Alternatives’ Garden Patch tout youth educational programs as their prime purpose (Lawson, 2005). This goal also was evident in the Hartford Food Project’s Holcomb Farm.
Public policy has long favored encouraging diversified farming on the outskirts of major population centers, as well as professionally managed market gardens within cities, as a means of reaching the goal of food security during times of insecurity and change. Even so, community gardening can be a minor, but significant, part of building local food systems — an “important non-market source” (Martinez et al., 2010). In order for local institutions to be supplied with local food, a major greenhouse industry will need to be reestablished in most parts of the country to supply the winter vegetables now shipped in from opposite-season parts of the world.
Such a change also implies building storage and handling facilities close to the point of sale — such as the once-ubiquitous climate-controlled apple cold-storage facilities — rather than the prevalent “just-in-time” shipping. And warehouses for local produce are indeed springing up in a number of states. Such a shift in policy may also entail changes in the public’s expectations of year-round availability and low prices for produce.
There are a number of challenges associated with starting and maintaining community gardens. Some of the more serious include ensuring security, being accepted by the wider community, co-existing with wildlife, ensuring land tenure, securing labor, addressing self-sufficiency, addressing zoning issues, and securing such gardening inputs as water, tools, garden supplies, and compost.
In the early days of urban gardens, police in many parts of the country actively patrolled in the areas around them to discourage theft and vandalism. More recently, however, garden security is of increasing concern, although the seriousness of the problem varies from place to place. Vandalism, for example, is endemic in some areas but barely a problem in others.
Community-garden organizers employ a wide range of security measures, from fencing to discourage vehicular traffic to approaches like those of the Dunbar and Felder community gardens in Little Rock, Arkansas, which seek to promote neighborhood “ownership” of the garden through a variety of programs.
Public support is crucial to most community-garden programs, especially when it comes to matters of land tenure, volunteers, and funding. Most parts of the U.S. have both a growing season and a dormant season, and the uncertain land tenure of community-garden sites discourages organizers from making permanent improvements and gardeners from choosing perennial plants. So organizers must take care to ensure that community gardens are presentable to the general public — especially during the off-season. Since contemporary gardeners do not depend on their plots for basic sustenance, untended and unharvested plots are not all that rare. When garden sites become unsightly, neighbors may have concerns about property values declining.
Many publications promoting community gardening make no mention of wildlife predation on unprotected gardens. However, burgeoning deer herds are a major problem in all kinds of agricultural production.
In 2009, for example, plots located in an Urbana, Illinois, community garden on city park land had to be fenced, along with receiving a liberal application of deer repellant.
Birds, rabbits, possums, turtles, rats, and raccoons also have a taste for fresh garden produce. Such predations, as well as insect pests and diseases, often discourage the effort needed for year-round garden-plot maintenance. They may account in part for the fact that many community garden plots are filled with damaged and unharvested produce in late summer. Such problems may also account for a shift toward ornamentals in community garden plots, and they may highlight the shift in focus in community-garden organizing toward nature preservation, education, and hosting public events.
Water is rarely free and must usually come from a public source. Often, a garden-plot fee must be charged to cover water use.
Tools, Seeds, Plants, Fertilizer, Compost
The need for tools, seeds, plants, fertilizer, compost, and other gardening inputs may be met in a variety of ways. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, provided Community Development Block Grant seed money to establish a funding mechanism for receiving donations and making small grants to gardeners. Also, organizers often solicit in-kind donations, and compost may be produced at the site by gardeners or volunteers.
Paid labor is usually needed — especially for administration. Also, gardeners themselves rarely meet the amount of general volunteer labor needed to maintain a community garden.
In Decatur, Georgia, the Oakhurst Community Garden Project employs just two part-time city workers — plus 650 civic-minded volunteers. Most of the California gardens cited by Lawson employ paid staff members, who spend much of their time on community-building programs associated with the garden (2005).
From Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, an International Development Research Centre (IDRC) document estimates land required the for average U.S. diet at 1.64 hectares (4.0525 acres) with meat production accounting for 56 percent (Lecki, 1997). Present-day community gardens cannot be counted on to provide produce for winter storage or canning. Lawson notes that one goal of early urban-garden programs was to give immigrant populations crowding into cities in the early 20th century an incentive to move to the country to achieve food self-sufficiency. However — including pastures, woodlots, garden, water supply, outbuildings, storage, potato field, hog pen, chicken yard, and possibly honeybees (or, more likely, sorghum) for a sweetener — a totally sufficient farmstead in the South that could be worked by the average family was traditionally 80 acres.
In addition to the amount of land available, other factors that may limit the canning and winter storage of food produced on community gardens include access by low-income gardeners to facilities for cooking and canning (including staple supplies, seasonings, and utensils); the availability of recipes and know-how for turning raw produce into complete meals; and whether community-garden participants have a tradition of cooking and sharing meals.
The ACGA is collecting examples of model community ordinances and posting them on its website. Ordinances are only one kind of authorization for community gardens; administrative decisions allowing them are probably more common. In some jurisdictions, administrators have wide latitude in determining specific land use within a community garden’s mandate.
The Cleveland, Ohio, zoning regulations for community gardens serve as a model for other localities.
Finding land for gardens — and then keeping the gardens on the land — has been an ongoing problem since the inception of programmatic urban gardening, particularly on the West Coast and in the Northeast.
Struggles to maintain permanent community gardens in Boston; New York City; Madison, Wisconsin; Seattle; and Los Angeles are well documented (Lawson, 2005).
Even so, a simple resolution of the city council in Seattle authorized its “Pea Patch” community gardens on unused public lands as well as on existing parkland. The gardens were not envisioned to be permanent, but rather as a short-term use of the land for up to five years. Many California community gardens allow on-site sales of produce as part of the gardening organization’s “civic purpose.”
Again, the effectiveness of the oversight of a garden’s planning committee and the amount of community trust the committee has been able to earn are of utmost importance to the success of a community garden.
|The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) grew out of a 1978 national conference in Chicago with 150 participants (Lawson, 2005). By 2010, the ACGA’s 31st conference reportedly attracted more than 400 participants to Atlanta (Wilson, 2010). The ACGA website recently began featuring a national map of community gardens. The ACGA provides many other services, including a five-page outline of steps necessary in starting a community garden. The ACGA also offers, both in print and on disc, a community organizing manual, the Growing Communities Curriculum.
The ACGA’s website and the University of Missouri Cooperative Extension (UMCE) (McKelvey, 2008) recommend steps for organizing community gardening:
In addition, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) offers Building Community Gardens in Montana (AERO, 2007), which includes sample forms and letters. It also describes how AmeriCorps workers began a community-garden program in Helena, Montana.
There are a number of examples of commercial sales from community gardening. In some cases, however, the sales are intended more as work training than as a major source of funding for the garden and its associated programs.
|The UMCE’s Toolkit (McKelvey, 2008) lists benefits of community gardening:
In the early 1990s, for example, University of California-Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project gardeners sold vegetables they raised in order to have pocket money. Los Angeles school gardens, often seen as a variation on community gardens, promoted “Food from the Hood” programs at about the same time. The programs recruited young single men, often former gang members, to raise and market food, using the money to support positive programs.
The Berkeley Youth Alternatives Community Garden Patch operated a showcase community-garden Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in Berkeley, California, but ultimately was able to meet only 1/7 of its annual budget (Lawson, 2005). Wages were the CSA’s largest expense because much of the paid staff’s time was devoted to training, administration, and other nongardening activities. To bring revenues more in line with expenses, the popular CSA program had to be discontinued in 2004 — although sales at the garden gate continued.
Whether marketing is feasible depends on a number of factors that vary across the country. In New York City, for example, several farmers markets have featured produce from community gardens (NPLAN webinar, 2010). However, the summer of 2010 saw the first season of the Bed-Stuy Farm Share in Brooklyn (Green Brooklyn, 2010). Bedford-Stuyvesant residents can now buy shares of organic crops from farms located outside the city and receive weekly supplies of vegetables.
Besides a CSA, marketing and distribution choices for produce from a community garden could include such options as donating to a food bank; donating food through a church, especially if the garden is on church land; having an on-site stand; trading with other gardeners or relatives; and selling to small grocery stores.
|Profile: Oakhurst Community Garden Project, Decatur, Georgia
The Oakhurst Community Garden Project (OCGP) is located at the corner of South McDonough Street and Oakview Road in Decatur, Georgia, just southwest of Agnes Scott College. The OCGP serves as a community garden, nature center, neighborhood meeting space, and wildlife habitat where visitors can experience the potential benefits of urban greenspace.
Begun in 1992 as a small private garden, the current community garden dates from 1997. The OCGP now covers two acres of City of Decatur and privately donated land.
Through a wisteria-covered gate, visitors enter the grounds, which feature well-tended raised beds about 4 feet by 8 feet in size. The beds go for $60 per year plus 16 hours of service in the community garden. The garden’s growing season starts about March 1.
By August, the plots mostly have peppers, squash and trellised tomatoes — interspersed with flowering plants. A children’s play area includes a cob house; a house originally on the site of the OCGP is now a community center.
The OCGP is located in a flood plain by a small stream. Water for the garden, however, comes from rain barrels and the city water system, not from the stream. Two small open sections near the stream in a natural area at the back of the property are the scenes of Rent-a-Garden events such as weddings and parties. Right by the stream are rustic tables and benches — an outdoor classroom dedicated in 2009 as a memorial to a mother and daughter.
The garden boasts a spring plant sale, and the OCGP garden group has its own greenhouse space for vegetable starts. The sale, operated in a self-service style, keeps going until all the plants are taken.
Some “urban chickens” cooped at the back of the garden — and free-ranging at certain times of the year — star in presentations at local schools. They are cared for by neighbors on “Team Chicken” and fed donated vegetable scraps and grains. The other side of the garden features tithonia and native swamp biscuit, as well as beehives.
The OCGP’s staff consists of one part-time gardener and one part-time administrator, both paid at least in part by the city. There are also 650 volunteers involved, and the City of Decatur and the Decatur Preservation Alliance (DPA) provide strong support.
“Tons of planning” goes into maintaining this garden and its programs — including extensive fund-raising efforts featuring an annual Garden Tour. The OCGP is a wonderful example of a successful community-public-private partnership with heavy local participation and commitment.
City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, Laura J. Lawson’s dissertation on the history of “urban garden programs” (now called community gardening), notes three waves of national interest, each with its own characteristics, but sharing common themes. Lawson’s work is based on exhaustive analysis of original documents from public archives and extensive profiles of East Coast and West Coast gardens.
A common denominator for each rediscovery of community gardening has been economic uncertainty and social change. In the U.S., each wave has emphasized somewhat different goals. Most recently, among other purposes, urban gardening has taken on the role of promoting healthier eating habits, especially in children, aimed at addressing health conditions related to obesity.
First Wave: Subsistence Gardens
The first wave, which encompassed the period from 1890 to 1917, saw the emergence of three types of urban-garden programs:
- Cultivation of vacant city lots
- Children’s school gardens
- The civic garden campaign
|There are a number of common community-gardening themes:
In the first wave, assigned plots on vacant urban land ranged from an acre down to 1/8 of an acre — enough for a family to have food all during the growing season and put up a winter food supply. New York City provided one-acre plots; Minneapolis and Detroit provided 1/3 to 1/4 acre; and Brooklyn provided 1/8 acre (Lawson, 2005). One-eighth of an acre equals a single city lot in most jurisdictions, equivalent to 60 feet by 85 feet. This was ample space to supply most food needs year-round at a subsistence level — depending on the size of the household. Participants grew a wide variety of such storable produce as beans and peas (which can be dried), cabbages, carrots, turnips, onions, and potatoes, as well as radishes and lettuce for summer salads (Lawson, 2005).
Detroit in 1890 required gardeners to plant potatoes on half of their 11,000- to 14,000- square-foot allotments (Lawson, 2005), hence the name “Potato Patch Movement” (Cornell, 2006). Gardeners were encouraged to sell some of their production for cash.
Second Wave: War and Relief Gardens
The second wave, from 1917 to 1945, was the era of the war gardens of World War I (Liberty Gardens) and World War II (Victory Gardens), along with the gardens of the Great Depression (Relief Gardens) (Cornell, 2006). The second wave had its own emphases:
- Patriotic volunteerism
- Job training and work relief
|Growing up during World War II
Food rationing in the U.S. during World War II meant that Victory Gardens became a major food source for many Americans, given enough land and farming skill. Meat, sugar, canned goods, and gasoline were strictly rationed from 1941 through 1945. Margarine was substituted for butter, which was unavailable because fewer households could afford to keep a cow.
As just one example, in 1941 the military bought up the entire output of the Johnson and Steele canning facility in Springdale, Arkansas. Citizens of northwest Arkansas were then on their own to raise and can the winter food supply for their households. Home freezers became available only in the late 1950s, and there was little long-term warehouse storage available for food.
Between the wars, gardening was promoted as a means of coping with the Great Depression of the 1930s and its wholesale unemployment. There actually were farm surpluses at the time, but transportation links were undeveloped, and an unemployed and destitute urban population could not afford to buy shipped-in farm products. (In the 1920s, perishable produce was first successfully shipped across the continent — by train in “reefer” boxcars refreshed along the way with ice — and sold as a luxury item. It was not until the 1960s that fast, reliable, worldwide transportation links were in place to move quantities of goods, and home freezers became popular.)
Depression-era urban gardens, a form of work-relief, were a substitute for dependence on charity. The programs provided seeds, potato sets, land, and water. Households supplied the labor, but participants were not encouraged to sell what they grew. Lawson’s chapter title is telling: “An Antidote for Idleness.” This time period also saw the rise of company gardens and railroad gardens, which continued during World War II.
Sizes of urban community-garden allotments differed by locality, but most were much larger than today’s typical community-garden plot. A 1941 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency (USDA FSA) had initially concluded that farm gardens and large suburban gardens should be promoted as the most efficient means of increasing the civilian food supply, but planning for the war eventually led to the establishment of urban community gardens. The final goal was six million farm gardens and 12 million non-farm gardens, often on public lands or industrial parcels (Lawson, 2005). Some were for demonstration purposes, which continues today, as seen in the USDA’s “People’s Gardens” at federal facilities.
Third Wave: Gardening for Community
Community gardens of today have been affected by demographic change. Household size has steadily decreased since the early 20th Century, and “householders” have become more mobile and more diverse, according to the latest available census (Hobbs and Stoops, 2002). Fewer than half of all households now consist of a married couple with their children. According to the 2000 census, the majority of households consist of one, two, or three persons — rather than “more than five” majority identified by the 1910 census. Forty-two percent of food dollars are currently being spent on food consumed away from home at restaurants, schools, churches, businesses, drugstores, convenience stores, bookstores, supermarkets, vending machines, sports and cultural events, and parks and recreation centers.(Farmer, 2005; Todd et al., 2010)
Although some World War II Victory gardens continued during the 1950s and 1960s, many were lost to the post-war building boom. Younger families moved to the suburbs, where the backyard garden was popular.
The post-war era eventually saw the rise of “gardening for community,” rather than for food production or as an antidote to idleness. Today’s programmatic urban gardening aims to build social ties among individuals, with a view toward joint community action and promoting such wider goals as encouraging healthier eating habits through gardening, beautifying public spaces, providing access to nature, and exercising.
By the 1970s a second great tide of immigration had begun — this time from the rural South to northern urban centers. With the advent of machinery in southern row cropping, more than a million former tenant farmers (sharecroppers) were idled and forced off the land. Many headed north, most hoping to secure good-paying jobs in industry. U.S. industrial production had peaked, however, in 1960. Meanwhile, with flight to the suburbs accelerating, alleviating poverty and combating urban blight in inner-city neighborhoods became major social concerns by the end of the 1970s (Schukoske, 2000). Food co-ops and bulk-buying clubs were organized in some parts of the country; many organizations constructed greenhouses to cut heating bills and to extend the season for food production in the North.
The modern form of “community gardening” began about 1973 in the red-lined South Bronx neighborhood of New York City (Debord, 2002). A severe economic downturn was occurring, coupled with inflation that had government bonds paying 16% interest by the end of the decade. Economists called it “stagflation.” The flight of industry, leaving jobless pockets of urban poverty, created food deserts. To alleviate suffering in impoverished urban communities, and to combat crime and unrest, citizen groups arose to persuade municipalities to encourage gardening on abandoned vacant lots. An early community-gardening organizer in the South Bronx was Karen Washington, who helped organize the Green Thumb program to secure land. The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs (OAC) published People Power — a self-help manual for “groups tackling food, housing, health care, and energy problems” in the face of inflation (Peterson et al., 1979).
Modern community gardens look very different from those of earlier eras. On a standard city lot, the most popular individual plot size has become the 4-foot by 15-foot raised bed. One commenter on the website GardenWeb recently posed the central question: “Is the purpose of your (community garden) primarily food production? Or community development?”
Current Economic Value of Community Gardens
A recent report by the USDA Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) includes community gardening as an important “non-market source,” along with home gardens and shared gardens, for providing households with access to local food. The report cites a 2009 ACGA survey in estimating that one million of the 43 million U.S. households growing their own produce in 2009 were growing food in community gardens. Food gardening in 2008 was valued at $2.5 billion, while an estimated $2.8 billion was spent on gardening inputs, suggesting that economic benefits were not the only benefits being considered by gardeners (Martinez et al., 2010).
|Approximately 40 percent of the country’s food budget is now spent on food that is eaten outside the home, according to a recent study by the USDA Economic Research Service (Todd et al., 2010). The study also notes that food eaten outside the home tends to be less nutritious than food prepared at home, which makes it important for maintaining health that consumers carefully consider their choices wherever they are eating. The researchers found that most Americans eat too few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and they consume too much saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
Community-garden organizers no longer rely on social and institutional conditions of the past when conceptualizing, planning, and implementing today’s programmatic community gardening. Lawson defines food security as supplementing household food expenses by allowing “people without private land to use shared land for food production.” Lawson’s City Bountiful concludes that, while community gardens are not the ultimate solution to food security, they provide one piece of a more comprehensive strategy.
For additional resources, visit ATTRA’s Local Food Systems page.
The city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has developed a manual for residents who are interested in organizing community gardens. Although specific to Fayetteville, it provides insight for organizing community gardens anywhere in the country.
Starting a Community Garden
By permission of the Fayetteville, Arkansas, Parks Department
2010 Manual for Community Garden Development
Step 1. Forming a Garden Group
We recommend that residents of Fayetteville who would like to develop a Community Garden in their neighborhood park organize themselves as an official garden group (Group). As a public agency, the City of Fayetteville policy requires inclusiveness; anyone interested in joining the Group is to be fairly considered.
Step 2. Selecting the Location
First, check with the Park Horticulturist to see if an area has been identified suitable for a community garden. Consider these factors which must be used in identifying and defining a site for a proposed Community Garden:
Step 3. Application
Upon completion of Steps One and Two, submit an Application Form to:
Parks and Recreation Dept.
Please keep in mind that not all parks are available for community gardening.
All application forms received will be responded to within 30 days.
The Group’s liaison will then receive an Application Approval Letter from the Parks and Recreation Department directing you to proceed to Step 4 or a request for more information.
Step 4. Community Support and Proposal
Community consent and support is vital in obtaining the Parks and Recreation Department’s approval for a successful community garden. After receiving your Application Letter, complete the following:
Site and Usage Survey
Letters of Support
A Public Neighborhood Meeting
Submit the Paperwork
Step 5. Letter of Commitment
The most important aspect of successful community gardening in a park is on-going community support and communication between the community and the [City] Parks and Recreation Department. Listed below are the responsibilities and guidelines the Group must adhere to, and the community must support.
Soil Testing and Organic Practices
Pest and Disease Control with Chemicals
Structures and Sizable Landscape Material
Monitoring the Community Garden
Liability and Code of Conduct
Step 6. Annual Lease Agreement
Each year an Annual Lease Agreement must be read and signed by all new and existing Garden Groups.
Finish: Installation of the Garden
You have raised all the community support and commitment needed for a successful Community Garden. This is a big responsibility, and we are pleased to be in this venture together and wish your group great success.
Republished by permission, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Parks and Recreation Department.
By Katherine L. Adam
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published January 2011
This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development.