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A Winning Strategy

On the outside, community food gardens may seem like Hollywood Squares - you see an orderly grid of raised beds or plots and it is quickly recognizable as a garden. But, in reality, community gardens are much more about what you don’t see. They’re more like the subtlety of Match Game where you have to find the right fit between the community’s wants and needs. And, like Match Game, you’ll have lots of personalities (hello, Charles Nelson Riley!) who want to be heard and have an impact on the garden... focusing on the people part of the community garden, while less visible than the garden itself, is the real game winning strategy.

Your Association has Scored Some Big Points Already

There is a real benefit for community associations that want to put in community food gardens. Many of the key questions, that are hurdles to other groups, have already been addressed. This includes tangible (land) and intangible (community) questions. For example, if you’re pondering a garden, you probably already have the land or space available so you don’t have to contact outside resources to gain access or permission. Insurance, water, security and other tangible concerns may also be streamlined or non- existent because you’re already in control of the “place” where the garden will exist. A second huge benefit is that you also know who the would-be gardening community is, as you’re probably considering the garden as a benefit for your existing residents. Since your organization is member- driven with a governing board, you already understand the importance of hearing and including everyone’s opinions and desires. You probably have the negotiating skills to make sure that dialogue occurs so that differing opinions may reach consensus. These are major obstacles for many groups, so lucky you! You’re already way ahead in the game.

It’s a Marathon; Not a Sprint

That being said, while you do have a lot of the major questions answered, developing a community garden takes forethought and planning to make it sustainable for the long haul. A garden lives on past the initial excitement of building it and the first spring plantings. No doubt the aesthetic appeal of your garden will be important if your community has guidelines about appearances. A community garden without a community is just a big garden that a few enthusiastic people probably can’t tend all by themselves. Figuring out the “people” part of the equation

is key to making sure the garden will meet the physical requirements for the long run. More importantly, that the garden continues to be a positive attribute in keeping your overall community strong, connected and cohesive.

Important Questions

First, you’ll need to work with your community to answer some fundamental questions: Who are you growing the food for, and how will it be grown? For many people, when they hear the words “community garden” it means food grown to be given away to others. Many gardens grow food exclusively to donate to a food pantry or other food- based service organizations. Some gardens, like the eight in the Peterson Garden Project in Chicago, are set up for educational purposes; to teach people how to grow their own food. Our gardeners do what they want with the food they grow. We do have a donation component to our gardens. Our Grow2Give Program gave away over a ton of food in 2014. Your garden can be a combination of both too. It is up to your community to decide, and answering this fundamental question, collectively, is key to success and, ultimately, the actual design of the physical garden.

There’s an old proverb “where there is no vision, the people perish.” While a little dramatic, the axiom holds true for your garden. The question of why you’re growing food, how you’ll grow it and a bunch of other important principles can be encapsulated in the mission for your garden. The process of collectively developing a mission ensures everyone is playing by the same rules and will set a strong foundation for the longevity of your garden. Outlining this important process is too much for this article, but my book, Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook, can help you identify and work through these fundamental steps.

Food Growing Frenzy

It seems that in the last decade people went from not knowing (or caring much) where their food comes from to wanting desperately to grow their own. It is nearly impossible for a family of four in an urban or suburban setting to grow all their own produce. But people still are very interested in growing at least a part of it, and they want to do it for a lot of different reasons. For some people, it is economic; they can save money on things that are expensive at the grocery store (like herbs or heirloom tomatoes). For many, it is nutrition; they want to improve the quality of their life with access to fresh, organic produce. For others, it is educational; they want their kids to know where food comes from or they want to learn the lifelong skill of food gardening. Some gardeners may just enjoy a sense of well being; they like being outside or it reminds them of happy times being taught to garden as a child. Those are just a few of the myriad reasons people are in love with the idea of growing their own food. The motivation doesn’t really

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