How to cultivate a community

25 May 2016

By Shadforth Financial Group

Community gardens not only offer valuable green space in urban pockets, they promote good health, social interaction and the opportunity to learn more about food.

A garden may become a social focal point of the community with people volunteering to help according to their available time and abilities. The social ties that develop by working together also helps to raise the overall levels of wellbeing in the community.  In this article we look at some of the practical aspects to consider if you want to get a community garden started in your area.

Russ Grayson from the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network is a keen advocate of community gardens and says, “They give individuals and families access to fresh, nutritious food, all the while promoting physical fitness and health.”

Grayson then says, "But what people really talk about is how it gives them the chance to meet their neighbours — it’s that social aspect of getting together, learning new skills, and working as a team to produce something for the community that people really enjoy.”

Many towns and cities across Australia now have community gardens. To find out if there is one near you, then your local council is the best place to start. Some councils, like City of Sydney  and City of Melbourne, have gardens already up and running but they also have useful online information on how you can set one up.

Putting down roots

Once up and running, a community garden can really begin to put down roots by establishing broader social programs. Some may introduce playgroups among the fruit trees, others can offer a place to gather and provide food to the homeless.

1. Management matters

While finding an appropriate piece of land and designing the site seems to be the obvious first steps to establishing a community garden, the best place to begin is actually with the people who are going to be involved.

“One person is not a community. So once you have a group in place, the real starting point is dealing with the organisational side of the garden. It’s relatively easy to grow fruit and vegetables, but it can be a great deal harder to grow the social relations and decision-making processes that underpin successful community gardening,” says Russ.

A management team will generally include a president, a public officer and a treasurer, who will then establish a schedule for group meetings and an appropriate decision-making process. Big decisions like whether to go organic, managing drainage and runoff, sourcing materials, dealing with waste and allocating plots is usually put to a vote.

2. Lay of the land

From there, you need land. Convincing council to hand over a vacant plot is where the real challenges can begin, however, many are now developing processes to help community gardens start out on the right foot.

“They need to see a community garden group as being capable and credible before giving them land. Some may even ask for evidence of how the group makes decisions and deals with organisational matters — which makes that first step of establishing the management group all the more crucial,” says Russ.

3. Design decisions

Council will also need a good understanding of what you intend to do with the space, so having some illustrations and photographs of other gardens and what they’ve done can help.

“Deciding what you want to plant depends on the type of land you’re allocated and the quality of the soil. For instance, you might get spot contamination from lead paint on an old house nearby, so this can affect the type of garden you choose to establish”.

You may want to consider above-ground planters for vegetable patches, as this will allow the feeder roots to grow above any spot contamination. If fruit trees are on the cards, different species have varying uptake rates with different chemicals, so again knowing the lie of the land will lead you towards the best garden design for your community.

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