Community garden idea. Need some experienced insight.

TrpnBils(6B)January 27, 2014

So here's some background, before I get to my questions. I apologize if this turns into a novel:

I'm a science teacher at our town's high school. Among other things, I teach biology and experimental design, and we've been working in the experimental design class this year on some non-traditional gardening methods (that's just a small part of it). I have a garden at my house and we do well enough with it that we typically start the growing season off with plenty of stuff still canned from the year before. My wife and I have been talking about the idea of starting a community garden, and I mentioned the idea to my students a few weeks ago and they won't stop talking about it now!

Our county is large and rural. We are the only high school in the county, and over 65% of our students live below the poverty line. The elementary school down the street from us has a 93% poverty rate among their students. On the other hand, there are a lot of people in the county that have very progressive agricultural methods. For example, I've worked at a large, hydroponic greenhouse in town for the past two summers. It's interesting for sure, but he only sells commercially and not to the public with the exception of farmers' markets (which we have May - November). The problem there is that everything for sale at the farmers' market is so expensive, so a lot of people (myself included) don't shop there because we can't afford it when there's a grocery store a mile down the road with produce half the price. Like a lot of places, people might like the IDEA of locally-grown, organic produce, but can't necessarily afford it. I see a lot of families that have the choice of spending what little money they do have on groceries for an entire meal versus the same amount on a couple of tomatoes at the farmers' market....I get why they don't do it.

There are clear relationships between socioeconomic level and nutrition. It's obvious here, looking at the kind of crap some of these kids eat because it's all their parents can afford. Right now we're growing greens in our school's greenhouse (which is costing an arm and a leg to heat, so I doubt I'll be able to do this next year except during Fall and Spring) and I've got kids that have never wanted to contribute to anything in class excited over watching lettuce grow because they can't wait til the day comes when they can eat it. In the meantime they're asking if we can plant X, Y, and Z too because it's stuff they like (strawberries, peas, etc).

There's a good chance if we go forward with this that we can get some land donated to the cause and probably some materials too. I've got no idea if it would be usable land or if it'll be a parking lot somewhere. In looking around, I'm seeing that most community gardens are built with raised beds. IDEALLY, from what we've been talking about, I think it would be awesome to be able to use the community garden to help get some affordable (read "free") nutrition to families that need it if they want it.

Here's my question: Is that too much wishful thinking? It seems like most of the ones I've seen involve plots "rented out" or "assigned to" individual families to take care of their own thing. I think that would limit the scope of what we could potentially do with this because we'd only be doing something for, say, a dozen families (probably most of which would be my students anyway).

Is there a way to do this sort of thing on a bigger scale? I get why you'd want "assigned" plots per family...I mean if one family or person decides halfway through the year they don't care anymore, only their crop suffers and you don't get one dedicated person stuck doing all of the work for the entire garden. On the other hand, it seems limiting that way.... I dunno.

Sorry for the rambling thoughts...just trying to figure some stuff out.

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Hi, I have been involved with community gardens in three different cities over the past 15 year. While the standard definition of a community garden usually involves separate plots or boxes, it does not have too. A community garden could be one garden that is cared for by members of the community.

Start small and expand as the skills and abilities of the gardeners grow. Anything is doable.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2014 at 1:14PM
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Good luck. My community garden has plots that are rented, but there is also a section of beds that have volunteers that grow for donation, but also for low income families that can't afford the rental fee. I think a sense of ownership is important to cultivate, too.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 11:37AM
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Okay, I shouldn't even be responding because I have zero experience with community gardening (having been on our local waiting list for three years now!), so take everything I say with a huge grain of salt, but... to echo what rlewing says, I'd recommend that you start small! I'd imagine that, like anything else, a brand new community garden program will have a huge learning curve for everyone involved, as you figure out what does and doesn't work for your school and community. You will probably want to look at the next few years as being a bit of a pilot project and for a while, you will probably have a big list of "lessons learned" after each new season.

Remember, you won't be able to feed the whole community or even the whole school right away, so I'd recommend setting aside (for now) your initial worries about not being able to accommodate the whole community. Arguably, it's better in the long run to slowly and methodologically develop a well-operating program, even if it means that fewer people can participate in the short term.

Sounds like, first off, you'll need to find some land (preferably where you can start small and later expand) and the necessary materials. What about creating a gardening club among your students, to start with? Perhaps they'd be willing to solicit donations of money and materials, while you investigate the property aspect? They might also be able to provide input on whether they'd rather work the whole garden together as a club, and split the produce, or create and assign separate plots to individuals? Then, when the garden is up and running for a few years, perhaps new plots can be created and provided to the community on an individual rental basis, with your garden club volunteers growing additional crops for charity or just generally running the garden? Or plot renters can be either required to donate a certain percentage of their harvest, or asked to voluntarily donate a certain percentage of their harvest (although you'd need a system in place, practically speaking, for them to do so). Or there could be a procedure for waiving rental fees where appropriate. Or the garden club could do an annual fundraising event to fund the garden without the need for rental fees-- there are lots of ways to approach the matter, but I think it will really depend on what works in your community, which is something you'll only be able to learn once the program is up and running--hence my recommendation for an initial "pilot program" for the first year or two.

Just a few ideas--they may or may not be practical in your situation, but I would definitely recommend considering creating a gardening club of interested students so that you have a core group of hopefully dedicated kids who can share the work and have the opportunity for input. Do you have a local 4H club? If so, it might be worth talking with those club leaders to see whether there are any interesting opportunities there. The fact that your county is rural but some growers are using progressive agricultural methods makes me think that there have to be people in the area that would great contacts and may be willing to donate materials or even just time to help get this program off the ground.

I also agree with DirtandYarn that fostering a sense of ownership among the students (or other gardeners) will likely be important, especially to keep people interested and inspired when the initial excitement wears off. Let's face it--cleaning up beds for the winter and turning compost in the summer heat are a lot less fun than picking tomatoes. In my opinion, a program that starts out too big, with too many people who may not currently fully appreciate the work that will be involved, runs the risk of losing steam in the long run. Starting small, on the other hand, allows you to expand to meet demand once you have an established program.

Just my uninformed two cents, in rambling multi-paragraph form! And knock on wood for me that I'll get my own community garden plot next year! Then I might actually have a leg to stand on when I post on this forum. ;)

    Bookmark   March 25, 2014 at 10:57AM
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