Community gardens can develop and build stronger communities. Learning about growing food is great fun and can pull different kinds of people of all ages, including children, together. Community gardeners can learn new skills, from how to make a raised bed to the techniques of permaculture.
Local residents can use a community garden to grow their own traditional food, which can’t easily be found in the big supermarkets. It also provides other participants with an opportunity to grow and try new produce that is not familiar to them.
Also, when communities work closely together to convert a derelict area of land into a beautiful, public open space, it has the potential to reduce neighbourhood crime and antisocial behaviour.
Helping the Environment
Community gardens encourage sustainable land management and improve the quality of the local environment, often by turning disused and even derelict sites into havens for food production and wildlife. Community gardens provide safe, recreational green spaces in urban areas and can help improve local air quality.
Many people may know of a neglected plot of land that could serve a practical use.
Gardens on Housing Land
There are many underused plots of land that belong to housing organisations. South Tyneside Homes have identified several plots of housing land, such as underused grassed areas, where residents can plan on growing plants or their own food.
There may also be underused private land that could be a good plot for growing food. So, if you know of a piece of derelict, run-down or underused land in the Borough, and think it would benefit from a transformation into a pleasant, public open space, then you should consider starting your own community garden. Here’s how.
Choose Your Site
A plot of land may have already caught your eye in your local neighbourhood or you might want to have a wander round your area to see if there are any potential sites.
Things to Consider When Selecting Your Site
Ensure it is within walking distance or a short journey from potential participants in the project. Check on the aspect of the plot – if you want your plants to grow well, you will need to be sure the site gets plenty of sun. Ideally, you will want to be located close to a water source.
The site should be reasonably flat and not contain very large pieces of concrete, as large amounts of rubble or debris can be difficult to shift and there could be a cost to have it cleared by machinery. Alternatively, if the area is paved, you can consider other ways to grow food such as the ‘vacant lot’ idea where you can use large builders’ bags to grow vegetables, or plants.
Before making plans, check the soil is suitable for growing flowers/vegetables and whether there has been any contamination. You can contact the Council to see if the land is on the Council’s register of contaminated land. If it is not, then you will still need to get the soil tested, or find alternative means of growing food such as in raised beds (guidance applies as to how these should be constructed) or in large builders’ bags.
Who Owns The Land?
Find out who owns the land, set up a lease agreement and check on insurance.
It is illegal to use land without obtaining the owner’s permission, so take the information you have about the location of the sites and as a first point of call, contact South Tyneside Council planning team. Id the land is not Council owned, you may then have to do your search via the Land Registry. Be sure to mention to the landowner the value of the garden to the community and the fact that your gardening group will be responsible for keeping the site clean and weed-free.
Prepare and negotiate a lease agreement and terms for use for the site. You should attempt to negotiate a lease agreement for at least three years. To operate a community garden, you should have public liability insurance cover to indemnify you against being held responsible for the injury, disability or death of people visiting or taking part in your activities.
Cover should be obtained for a minimum of £2million, however most groups are now insured for £5million.
You are legally responsible from the day you take over a site. It is strongly recommended that in order to protect your group from any mishaps on site, you take out public liability insurance before any site work is undertaken, even if it’s only temporary clearance work prior to signing an agreement.
If the land is Council-owned, you may be covered under the Council’s public liability insurance contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Land Registry can be contacted to identify who owns the land you may be interested in. Visit www.landregistry.gov.uk. There is a fee for this service.
Get your committee together and start making plans!
It is important when setting up a community garden that there is plenty of support for the project from the group, led by a well organised garden co-ordinator. It’s a good idea to start off with a small steering group to exchange ideas and if there is sufficient interest, you may then need to establish a more formal management committee to properly co-ordinate duties such as planning events and activities, applying for funding and carrying out legal responsibilities.
Things Your Committee Will Need To Consider
Determine if there really is a need and desire for a garden and, if so, what kind of garden would be most suitable – one that grows vegetables, flowers, trees, or a combination? Please note that in order to take part in the Capital Growth project and its benefits including support, your garden will need to grow food.
Who will the garden serve – young people, older people, families or those who just want an opportunity to improve their local environment?
What type of role will the garden play – food production, community building, environmental restoration, beautification or recreation? Who are the potential supporters of the garden – businesses, neighbours, local community groups, schools?
How will you go about recruiting members and keeping records of membership? This is particularly important if you are applying for funding.
Prepare and Develop the Site
The following is an outline of the main tasks in setting up the actual site.
Planning the Garden
Community members should be involved in the planning, design, and set-up of the garden. You should measure your site and make a simple site map, drawn to scale. Hold two or three garden design meetings at times when interested participants can attend.
Volunteers are a valuable resource and can assist in the development of a community garden in a number of ways, ranging from digging and planting, to leafleting, to carrying out committee duties. Volunteers come with a range of skills and expectations which need to be managed to benefit both parties.
Clean the Site
Schedule community workdays to clean up the site. How many work days you need will depend on the size of the site, and how much and what kind of debris is on site. You will then need to organise volunteer work crews and plan your work day. Please remember to dispose of any waste legally.
If your garden is large, include plans for a storage area for tools and other equipment, as well as a compost area. Finally, a rainproof bulletin board is handy for announcing garden events and messages.
Organise the Garden
You may need to consider conditions for membership such as fees and agreement with rules. If there is to be a membership fee, consider how much you should charge for membership, as these fees could help to cover some of the costs of running the garden. What will active members receive in return for their membership? You will also need to organise how often gardeners will meet, what tasks they will be responsible for and how tools will be distributed.
How will regular maintenance, in particular weeding, be handled both inside plots and in common areas such as along fences, in raised vegetable beds and in seating areas?
For large groups it is advisable to have a set of written rules so that users know what is expected of them and what standards they should adhere to.
If you are considering dividing your land into plots, think about how they will be assigned, i.e. by family size, by residential areas, by need, by age groups etc.
How large should each plot be and how will they be laid out?
Different users will have different requirements and your planning should incorporate this.
Most community gardens are ideal locations for hosting a variety of social events such as barbeques, harvest suppers, picnics and games, discos and community celebrations.
These can be valuable publicity opportunities, and by charging an entrance fee, or by adding some other fundraising element to the event, you can generate income for your garden. You may also eventually be able to sell surplus plants, cuttings and produce from the garden, like jams, honey and crops as well as home-made bird feeders or window boxes.
As a constituted group you will be able to apply for funding via charitable organisations. There is always competition for this kind of funding. If you expect others to fund your activities and help develop your garden, then it is important that you offer good value for money and can prove that your group is well managed.
Think through a range of potential fundraising channels and critically consider which are likely to be successful for your group, and only apply for funds that are included in your group’s overall development plan. It is also advisable to seek to develop a relationship with existing and potential funders. You can also apply for a CAF grant.
Health and Safety
When operating a community garden, the health and safety of all users is paramount.
Common hazards in community gardens are as follows:
- poisonous plants
- pathways and walkways
- use of wheelbarrows
- use of garden tools
- use of power and electrical tools
- compost heaps
To ensure the safety of the users of the garden you are advised to:
- have a health and safety policy
- carry out regular inspections of the site and its facilities, and act on any problems that may arise
- provide good health and safety information, training and supervision provide preventative advice and appropriate first aid
- provide appropriate amenities, such as clean washing and toilet facilities
- investigate and record information on any accidents
- have procedures for the safe use, handling, storage and transportation of articles and substances.
How to Manage Your Garden
A high quality, sustainable community garden programme entails much more than just planting seeds and watering at the right time of year. Good management and organisational techniques are essential.
Having written rules is very important when establishing a new garden, as they spell out exactly what is expected of a gardener and make it much easier to deal with challenges as they arise. Some suggested issues that you might like to highlight in your rules and guidelines could be as follows:
- a set fee to help cover garden expenses
- information on what vegetables need to be planted when, and
- keeping a weekly/monthly maintenance calendar if a member is unable to commit to the planned work schedule, notification must be given in good time
- a commitment from each member to keep weeds to a minimum, regularly water and maintain the areas they are responsible for
- a commitment to clear any rubbish on site responsibly a code of conduct outlining expected behaviour and respect for neighbouring residents and tenants on and around the site
Jobs To Do
Looking after a community garden is a large undertaking and there will be many jobs that need to be done.
General Maintenance and Upkeep
A few general chores might be as follows:
- collection of any litter/debris
- sweeping or raking up stray leaves on walkways and paths
- trimming or mowing any areas of turf
- keeping walkway edges clean
- raking gravel paths
- upkeep of fences, sheds, etc.
- through the occasional coat of fresh paint
- clearing moss from stone or brick walkways, which could become slippery harvesting and storing vegetables.
If you are starting a new garden, particularly in an urban area, you may find that your garden has only a small layer of rich topsoil, if any at all, and the soil underneath may be unsuitable for cultivating vegetables.
In addition to this, continuously growing vegetables in the same soil will eventually deplete its nutrients. As a result, you may have to consider adding some fertilizer to maintain the health of your soils and keep your vegetables at their best.
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:
- Make a sign for the garden.
- Let people know to whom the garden belongs and that it is a neighbourhood project. Fences can be made of almost any material. They serve as much to mark possession of a property as to prevent entry.
- Create a shady meeting area in the garden and spend time there. Invite everyone in the neighborhood to participate from the very beginning. Persons excluded from the garden are potential vandals.
- Involve the neighbourhood children in ‘learning gardens’. They can be the garden’s best protectors. Plant raspberries, climbing roses or other thorny plants along the fence as a barrier to fence climbers.
- Make friends with neighbours whose windows overlook the garden. Trade them flowers and vegetables for a protective eye.