Social Centers, Community Spaces, and Squats

Community Gardens

What is a community garden?

Community gardens transform empty lots into green, living spaces. They are collaborative projects created by members of the community; residents share in both the maintenance and rewards of the garden. There are an estimated 10,000 community gardens within U.S. Cities.

Why create a garden?

The simple act of planting a garden can create positive environmental, economic, and social impacts on a neighborhood. Community gardens foster cultural understanding and an awareness of the environment around us.

Finding a site for the garden can be a long search, but once the garden is in place, there is always a waiting list of people who want to join. Gardeners share common space, fertilizer, tools, a tool shed, and sometimes the cost of buying plants. Grants usually help to cover other expenses such as the cost of metered water and public liability insurance. Gardeners meet several times over the growing season, once for a formal start-up, then a few times over the summer for informal pot luck dinners and an annual open house.

[From Urban Community Gardens]

This fact sheet is designed to give many different groups the basic information they need to get their gardening project off the ground. These lists are in no way meant to be complete. Each main idea will probably trigger more questions, so an assortment of ways to carry out that idea are presented; pick and choose those that seem to apply to your own situation.

Form a Planning Committee

  • What kind of garden--vegetable, flower, trees, a combination?

  • Who will the garden serve--youth, seniors, special populations, people who just want an alternative to trash, everyone?

  • If the project is meant to benefit a particular group or neighborhood, it is essential that the group be involved in all phases.

  • Organize a meeting of interested people.

  • Form committees to accomplish tasks: Funding; Youth Activities; Construction; Communication.

  • Consider Approaching a sponsor. A sponsor is an individual or organization that supports a community garden. Site sponsorship can be a tremendous asset. Contributions of land, tools, seeds, fencing, soil improvements or money are all vital to a successful community garden. Some community gardens can provide most of their provisions through fees charged to the membership; but for many, a garden sponsor is essential.

  • Churches, schools, citizens groups, local businesses, local parks and recreation departments are all potential supporters.

  • Community Development Block Grants are sometimes available through your municipality.

  • Make a list of what needs to be done.

  • Find a garden site.

  • Obtain lease or agreement from owner.

  • Decide on a mailing address and central telephone number(s).

  • Try to have at least 3 people who are very familiar with all pertinent information. Form a telephone tree.

  • If your community garden has a budget, keep administration in the hands of several people.

  • Choose a name for the garden.

Choose a Site

  • Identify the owner of the land.

  • Make sure the site gets at least 6 full hours of sunlight daily (for vegetables).

  • Do a soil test in the fall for nutrients & heavy metals.

  • Consider availability of water.

  • Try and get a lease or agreement which allows the space to be used at least for 3 years.

  • Consider past uses of the land. Is there any contamination?

  • Is insurance something you need to consider?

Prepare and Develop the Site

  • Clean the site.

  • Develop your design.

  • Gather your resources--try to gather free materials.

  • Organize volunteer work crews.

  • Plan your work day.

  • Decide on plot sizes, mark plots clearly with gardeners names

  • Include plans for a storage area for tools and other equipment, as well as a compost area.

  • Have a rain-proof bulletin board for announcing garden events and messages.

  • Arrange for land preparation--plowing, etc. -- or let gardeners do their own prep.

  • Will the garden be organic?

  • Lay out garden to place flower or shrub beds around the visible perimeter. This helps to promote good will with non-gardening neighbors, passersby, and municipal authorities.

Organize the Garden

  • Are there conditions for membership (residence, dues, agreement with rules)?

  • If plots are assigned, how will they be assigned (by family size, by residency, by need, by group-- i.e., youth, elderly, etc.)? Or will all land be worked in common?

  • If plots are assigned, how large should plots be (or should there be several sizes based on family size or other factors?

  • If plots are assigned, how should plots be laid out?

  • If the group charges dues, how will the money be used? What services, if any, will be provided to gardeners in return?

  • Will the group do certain things cooperatively (such as turning in soil in the spring, planting cover crops, or composting)? Or will they do everything cooperatively?

  • If plots are assigned, when someone leaves a plot, how will the next tenant be chosen?

  • How will the group deal with possible vandalism?

  • Will there be a children's plot?

  • Will the gardeners meet regularly? If so, how often and for what purposes?

  • Will gardeners share tools, hoses, and other such items?

  • How will minimum maintenance (especially weeding) be handled both inside plots and in common areas (such as along fences, in flower beds, and in sitting areas)?

  • Will there be a set of written rules which gardeners are expected to uphold? If so, how will they be enforced?

  • Should your group incorporate and consider eventually owning your garden site?


It is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain leases from landowners without public liability insurance. Garden insurance is a new thing for many insurance carriers and their underwriters are reluctant to cover community gardens. It helps if you know what you want before you start talking to agents. Two tips: you should probably be working with an agent from a firm which deals with many different carriers (so you can get the best policy for your needs) and you will probably have better success with one of the ten largest insurance carriers, rather than smaller ones.


Vandalism is a common fear among community gardeners. However, the fear tends to be much greater than the actual incidence. Try these proven methods to deter vandalism:

  • Invite everyone in the neighborhood to participate from the very beginning. Persons excluded from the garden are potential vandals.

  • Make a sign for the garden. Let people know to whom the garden belongs and that it is a neighborhood project.

  • Plant a "vandal's garden" at the entrance. Mark it with a sign: "If you need to take food, please take it from here."

  • Involve the neighborhood children in learning gardens. They can be the garden's best protectors. (see below.)

  • Create a shady meeting or meditation area in the garden and spend time there.

  • Make friends with neighbors whose window overlook the garden. Trade them flowers and vegetables for a protective eye.

  • Plant raspberries, roses or other thorny plants along the fence as a barrier to fence climbers.

  • Harvest all ripe fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. Red tomatoes falling from the vines invite trouble.

  • Plant potatoes, other root crops or a less popular vegetable such as kohlrabi along the side walk or fence.

Children's Plots

  • Children included in the garden process become champions of the cause rather than vandals of the garden. Therefore your garden may want to allocate some plots specifically for children. The "children's garden" can help present your idea to local day cares, foster grandparent programs, church groups, etc.

  • Consider offering free small plots in the children's garden to children whose parents already have a plot in the garden.

People Problems and Solutions

Angry neighbors and bad gardeners pose problems for a community garden. Usually the two are related. Neighbors complain to municipal governments about messy, unkempt gardens or rowdy behavior; most gardens can ill afford poor relations with neighbors. Therefore, choose your member guidelines carefully so you have procedures to follow when members fail to keep their plots clean or cause problems. A well-organized garden with committed members can overcome almost any obstacle.

[From "Starting a Community Garden" with modifications by the editor.]

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