Create a Community Garden
- By: Aurelia C. Scott
Photography by Randy Billmeier
Marjorie Stone, whose grandfather owned a dairy and vegetable farm in Alfred, has never met a vegetable she doesn’t like. She does have favorites, though, including, “just-picked corn or a Sungold cherry tomato fresh off the vine.” In 2003, when Stone took early retirement from hospital administration, she decided to channel her passion for vegetables into volunteering on a local organic farm as part of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) work share; she worked on the farm in exchange for a part of the harvest. That same year, her friend and neighbor, Gail Cinelli, was helping to found the Yarmouth Community Garden. In 2004, Cinelli asked Stone to coordinate the garden’s rental plots. Ever since, Stone has organized and matched gardeners to garden plots, monitored the gardens for disease and pests, and offered hands-on education. Along the way, she became a Cooperative Extension Master Gardener. And she still does that CSA work share. Gardening, says Stone, is “great.”
Let’s start with the basics. What is a community garden?
It’s a place that is gardened by a group of people. Sometimes they tend one piece of land together. Sometimes each person works his or her own plot while also doing chores that benefit the entire garden. At other times, people simply rent an individual plot without contributing extra labor. Whatever the differences, though, most community gardens have a set of principles — such as “be a good neighbor” and “use organically certified products” that members agree to follow.
Is the Yarmouth Community Garden typical of other community gardens?
Yes and no. Many community gardens offer one kind of experience, but our mission is three-fold. We provide education, mentoring, and a volunteer experience; we produce fresh vegetables and flowers to distribute to people in need; and we offer rental plots for individuals wishing to grow their own produce. To do all that, we incorporate three different kinds of gardens. We have a community plot, rental plots, and a children’s garden.
In addition to having an active volunteer steering committee, we pay for three part-time staff to manage the gardens: I coordinate the rental plots; Anna Hewitt plans and oversees the community plot; Christine Slader organizes the children’s garden.
Tell us a little about each garden.
The entire Yarmouth Community Garden covers three acres on East Main Street. The community plot is planted and harvested by volunteers under Anna’s direction. All of the produce from the plot is donated to local food pantries, senior housing, Meals-on-Wheels, and to Cumberland County Plant-a-Row for the Hungry. In our first year, we harvested and donated two hundred pounds of produce from the community plot. In 2010, we donated five thousand pounds!
Rental plots are what most people think of when they imagine a community garden. We started with twenty-five plots in 2003. We now have 140 plots that measure ten-feet-by-ten-feet. They cost twenty-five dollars per season for Yarmouth residents and thirty-five dollars for non-residents. Many community gardens have permanent rental plots that are maintained entirely by the renters. We do it differently. I break down the beds at the end of each season. In the spring, I spread compost and till the entire garden area, then prepare individual beds. That preparation is part of what renters pay for. Imagine arriving with your seeds and plants at the start of a season and finding beautiful, smooth, weed-free, loose soil just waiting for you to plant!
The children’s garden is our newest addition. It’s a formal summer program that offers four- and eight-week programs for children ages four through nine. Every year, the kids have a great opening celebration with a vegetable parade. They plant an ABC garden, a pizza garden, a cucumber tunnel — all kinds of things! They pick bouquets and take them to nursing homes. They make soup from the vegetables they grow and invite their families to a picnic. Any extra produce is donated to the community plot distribution. The goal is to teach community service while having the kids grow and eat different kinds of vegetables.
All this sounds wonderful. At the same time, why start a community garden in Maine, where many people have yards of their own?
Lots of reasons. Some of our members with yards have clay soil or thin soil over ledge or lots of shade — not good for vegetables. We also have quite a few members without yards. And we have a lot of older members who simply like to have their garden prepared for them. Actually, everyone loves that! Joining a community garden is also a low-risk way to try gardening for the first time. You’re surrounded by other gardeners who can give advice and inspire you. You might decide that gardening is more work than you realized, or — and this is what I always hope — you decide you love it. Actually, here’s a funny twist on learning to love gardening: Every year I’ll have a couple of members who ask to be taken off the rental-plot list because they’ve learned so much that they are going to dig up their yard and plant a vegetable garden. They may leave the Yarmouth Community Garden, but I still consider their time with us a great success. We also have many people who have home gardens, and who volunteer every year in the community plot. It’s their way of being an active member of the Yarmouth community.
Okay then. Let’s begin at the beginning. How do you start a community garden?
Begin by gathering a group of people who share a passion for making a garden happen. You need passion because getting started is work — inspiring, yes, but work. Ask yourselves who the garden is for and, therefore, what form you want the garden to take. Is it a shared-service garden like our community plot? Is it a place for people who want to grow their own produce? Does it have a children’s component? Will it accommodate gardeners with special needs? Will it be organic-only? The answer to each of those will define what the garden will need and what it will look like. Remember, you don’t have to know everything at the start; you can always add components, the way we added the children’s garden. But you do have to have at least one purpose clearly defined.
After that, pull in key people in the community to help guide the creation of the garden.
It’s really important to include a range of interested and affected people with a mix of skills and connections in the community. The initial steering committee for the Yarmouth Community Garden included local educators, gardeners, and business people. Tom Estabrook, of Estabrook’s Garden Center, for example, provided essential advice and he helped reassure others in town that we could actually carry out our plan.
I also advise meeting early with key government people. Include them in the process. Our founders met with Yarmouth’s town manager at the beginning to let him know what was being discussed, and then came back to him once they had the first part of the plan.
So, people and a plan. What’s next?
Land! Knowing what you want your garden to be will help you locate the right piece of land. Want to involve lots of kids? Look for places near schools. Want to help individual, low-income families? Look for land near housing developments. Want to make sure that lots of people use it? Look for land that’s convenient to get to.
Work with your community government to find the right piece of land. For the average community garden in a Maine town, former farmland is perfect because the soil quality is often good. It should be sunny and, ideally, not too windy. If it’s visible and accessible to the rest of the community, so much the better. You want the garden to be part of the community. We have a pavilion — it was built by an Eagle Scout as a project — and picnic tables beside the Yarmouth Community Garden. Those encourage non-members to visit and enjoy the beauty. In addition to good soil, your garden needs a water source. We use town of Yarmouth water. And you need parking. So. . . high-quality, sunny land that is visible, has easy water, and parking.
Are there other issues to consider about the location?
Meet the neighbors. It’s very important to talk early to the people who live around your proposed site. Think ahead about what their concerns might be and figure out how you’ll address them. Abutters are most often worried about increased traffic, noise, strangers in their neighborhood, maybe damage to landscape or the water table. Those are all important issues to be dealt with, even if the neighbors don’t raise them.
Once you have a potential location and a plan supported by the neighbors, you present everything to your town’s planning board and town council. Hopefully, you are approved!
When does fund-raising enter the picture?
Immediately. Part of developing a detailed plan is figuring out how you’ll support the garden financially. Community gardens are non-profits, but that doesn’t mean they’re free. Every aspect of the garden vision has a potential cost. Will you be all-volunteer, or will you pay stipends to part-time staff? Even in an all-volunteer garden, you will need initial supplies and services, including deer fencing, soil testing, and tilling. You need water every year and, ideally, you should add fresh compost every year. Who will provide it and how will it be paid for?
If you have a community garden plot instead of, or in addition to, rental plots, how will you get seeds and seedlings for it? Will they be donated from nurseries? Will you buy them? Will volunteers provide them? How will you pay for on-going maintenance and repairs?
In Yarmouth, we applied for grants to help pay our start-up costs. We pay for ongoing costs with a mix of fees, donations, and fund-raising. We charge for the rental plots and the children’s programs. We host an annual harvest dinner, which includes a raffle and auction. We also receive contributions from individuals and businesses.
Is it important to publicize the garden?
In the beginning, yes. We placed articles and notices in our two local newspapers and put posters all around town. We had a big sign on the town bridge inviting people to an orientation meeting. At the end of the first year, we put up a photo display in the library. Now we have a Web site.
And we’re included in the Yarmouth Community Services’ brochures, which are mailed to every Yarmouth household.
So, you’re affiliated with town government?
We are not a branch of the town of Yarmouth, but the town has been very helpful and supportive. Yarmouth Community Services handles our rental-plot registration for us, for example. The town also holds our funds for us, although we make our own financial decisions and are expected to be financially self-sustaining.
Once a community garden has gotten off the ground, what are some of the ongoing issues?
Education is the big one. That’s part of why the Yarmouth Community Garden decided to hire part-time staff. While the three of us paid staff get the gardens ready for the gardeners every spring, most of what we do is teach — and encourage the gardeners to teach each other! We talk about pests, disease, growing techniques, coping with the climate. In Yarmouth, for example, June can often be cold and wet; August too dry; autumn frost might come early.
How do you educate the gardeners?
I send out a weekly educational e-mail, and I spend a lot of time in the garden showing people how to spot late blight or powdery mildew, and what to do if such things appear. I show them how to protect their crops against cold nights and wet soil; how to spot damage from pests such as — yuck! — tomato hornworms.
Now you don’t need paid staff to do all that, but it’s good to have some way to teach and share information. We organize a spring orientation for all new renters, which is partially a meet-and greet. We host potlucks at the garden so that people can meet fellow gardeners. I sometimes arrange for experienced gardeners to mentor newer gardeners.
You might have a bulletin board, an Internet forum, even a weekly or monthly meeting in the garden. There is also loads of information available for free from the Maine Cooperative Extension Service for individual gardeners and people who want to start a community garden.
Is theft from the garden ever a problem?
In the autumn, when the crops are ready and tempting, it can happen. Being located in a visible place is a two-edged sword. It encourages the community to notice and visit the garden, but it can also invite those who steal. We don’t lock the garden. Instead, we have a beautiful place that is full of people who feel a sense of ownership and pride. In a way, that protects the entire garden.
How about problems between gardeners?
Gardening in a community means that everyone in that community needs to be respectful of each other. We haven’t had too many problems, in part because we developed a list of “gardeners’ rules” early on. I’d advise doing the same thing. In Yarmouth, we ask rental-plot gardeners to read and sign our rules. We also have a list of acceptable products for an organic garden; we ask members to sign that, too. We remind people of the rules, such as “loud music only through earphones” and “no pets.” It is important to let members know what is expected.
A couple of years after we started, we began to ask renters to do six hours of community service to benefit the entire garden. It made a tremendous difference to the generosity with which people treat each other and to our physical upkeep. I’d encourage new community gardens to think about doing that from the very beginning.
In addition to the “gardeners’ rules” and the formal community service hours, we ask gardeners to be good and generous stewards of the entire garden, to think about how their piece of it affects their neighbor’s. For example, planting corn that will shade someone else’s tomatoes isn’t thoughtful, but planting tall beans so they will shade cool-loving crops like spinach could be. Talk to each other and work together. That’s the challenge and the benefit of gardening among others!
It’s work, isn’t it? Is it work for just one season a year?
We — the steering committee and staff — start meeting in February and we finish putting the garden “to bed” at the end of October. That’s why I say that you need passion for a project like this.
Given the challenges, what makes a community garden worth the effort?
Quite simply, the community. Having people walk around, look at others’ gardens, and share what they know. People ask questions: What plant is that? How do you do this? Planting and harvesting in a community garden fosters a sense of connectedness, helps people feel that they belong to a society that cares about them — and, of course, it helps them become more knowledgeable gardeners.
It’s all about nurturing people and plants. I know I started this conversation saying, “it’s great.”
That’s what it is: great.
Sources of Community Garden How-To Information
You’ll find plenty of information scattered around Maine and the Internet to help you plan a community garden.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension publication #4300 Organizing Your Community Garden: http://extension.umaine.edu/
American Community Gardening Association: www.communitygarden.org
A Survey of Community Garden Models: www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED439862.pdf
TLC How To Start a Community Garden: http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/community-garden.htm
Community Gardening. Ellen Kirby and Elizabeth Peters, editors. Brooklyn Botanic Garden Press Handbook #190, 2008
Sources of Start-Up Funding
Support exists for starting a garden. Here are some places to look.
Maine Community Foundation: www.mainecf.org
National Gardening Association: www.garden.org
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov/enviroed/grants.html
Stonyfield Farm Profits for the Planet Program: www.stonyfield.com/about_us/stonyfield_profits_for_planet/
U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education: http://nesare.org/get
Some of Maine’s Community Gardens
These half-dozen gardens are a tasty source of inspiration.
Yarmouth Community Garden, Yarmouth. 207-846-2406. www.yarmouthcommunitygarden.org
Maine Audubon, Gisland Farm, Falmouth. 207-781-2330. ww.maineaudubon.org/explore/centers/gilsland3.shtml
Saco Community Garden. 207-283-1025. www.sacomaine.org/departments/parksrec/community_garden.shtml
Lots to Gardens, Lewiston. 207-513-3844. www.stmarysmaine.com/Nutrition-Center-of-Maine/lots-to-gardens.html
Portland Community Garden, Portland. Joan Perkins, Community Garden Coordinator. 207-874-8872. http://publicworks.portlandmaine.gov/communitygarden.asp
Houlton Community Garden, Houlton. 207-523-3071. http://vitalpathways.org/projects/community-garden
- By: Aurelia C. Scott