Community Gardens: Definition, Benefits, Rules & Best Practices

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will talk about community gardens, what they are, how they benefit the people and the environment, some helpful rules for ensuring success, and the research-based best practices that will help you get your community garden started.

What are Community Gardens?

A community garden is a shared, semi public space where people in the surrounding neighborhood share the work and harvest of maintaining a garden space for growing fruits, vegetables, flowers or even livestock. The way a community garden is set up and maintained can vary greatly from one to the next.

For example, one community garden can consist of several raised beds on an empty lot and neighbors can come by each day to attend the plants and pick food to eat. A different community garden can be in the yard of a house of worship, and the harvest supplies the soup kitchen and food bank. In urban communities with limited available land, several raised beds in a lot can be rented out to community members, so each renter has their own gardening space. Yet another community garden can grow on privately owned lawn behind a house, and the gardener can distribute the produce to the neighbors as it's harvested in exchange for volunteer labor. As you can see, there are multiple ways to identify a community garden as such, but the common element among them all is that more than one family or household both contribute to the work and benefits from the produce.

Benefits

Community gardens have several benefits to the people and the environment. These gardens create a sense of community among neighbors who are increasingly disconnected with each other. They create opportunities to provide healthy options in neighborhoods that are often food scarce. For example, in some remote rural areas, the nearest grocery store is prohibitively far away, and many residents rely on pre-packaged food from the gas stations and convenience stores. In these communities, such a garden is critical to the survival of the people in providing a well-rounded diet.

The people working in the garden benefit from exercise and sunshine, as well as the therapeutic benefits of working in a garden. Weeding a garden is particularly effective in stress relief and provides mental health benefits to participants. Learning about the ways plants grow and the best conditions to help them thrive can provide the mental and intellectual stimulation of cultivating a new skill. Also, a community garden can change the culture of a neighborhood by providing a shared interest and activity that brings people together.

One of the biggest benefits to a community garden is in creating a culture of self-sustainability. In a low-income neighborhood, a community garden may mean saving enough on groceries to provide for other household needs. People have become more and more separated from traditional food ways, and community gardens can replace the kind of independent living we once knew when everyone had their own backyard garden.

Environmental benefits may be the increase of pollinator plants that can improve conditions for bees and other endangered pollinators. Plants also reduce the overall temperature compared to paved spaces, so these gardens are especially beneficial in urban areas. The environment of a community is improved by having an element of natural beauty so that rather than empty lots in some neighborhoods, the space between buildings can be filled with flowers or even food.

Rules

Because the community garden is an individualized structure, the 'rules' are entirely dependent on each individual garden space and determined by the organizer, or committee creating the gardens. It is important to get feedback from garden participants because the nature of a community garden is collective and their voices should be included. Once a garden space or location has been established, it may help to identify the population the garden hopes to serve.

For example, a community garden located in a low-income neighborhood may be intended to serve the residents of that neighborhood. The community garden connected to a food bank or soup kitchen might serve the clients who need those services. A community garden may also serve to provide income potential to participants by providing a space where they can grow produce to sell at a farmer's market, or flowers to sell in bars and restaurants downtown. A community center or after-school group may create a community garden specifically catered to teaching youth about healthy eating and growing plants.

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