What is community gardening?
When we talk about the quality of life in our community, one of the first things we highlight is the importance of knowing our neighbors. Much of neighborhood organizing focuses on how to get people out of their houses to engage with their neighbors.
One of the most popular forms of building neighborhood engagement is community gardening. Community gardening involves working with others in your community to grow food together. It’s a great way to get people outdoors and working as a team to accomplish a goal with tangible (and delicious) results.
The benefits of community gardens include the following:
- Creating a gathering space for residents
- Offering opportunities for neighbors to meet new people
- Engaging residents in an accessible form of light exercise
- Increasing access to nutritious foods
- Building culture for neighborhoods by encouraging recipe swaps or creating community events around harvesting and processing produce
Community gardens can range from a couple of boxed beds on a vacant lot with some flowers and tomatoes to intensely cultivated 40-foot-long garden beds featuring drip tubing and low tunnels that can turn out thousands of pounds of produce each season. All types of community gardens are important to building and maintaining thriving neighborhoods.
How to Start a Community Garden
To start a community garden, you will need to consider ten aspects:
- The method of community gardening you will practice
- Seeds and plants
- Water access
- Mulch and compost
- Tools and harvest supplies
- Communication methods
- Plans for what to do with the things you produce
The classic community garden model involves people working their individual plots on a lot. There are shared tools, compost, water access, and some areas that all members work on together. But each individual is responsible for their own patch, including ensuring it’s watered, weeded, and harvested.
A different model has been more popular in recent years – collective gardening. In this model, a group of people plan out and care for a space together. There are no individual patches, but rather the group tends the entire lot together and shares the harvest among themselves or distributes it with other community members. Some local groups like Free Farm use this method, and City Sprouts has recently transitioned from the classic to the collective model.
Each model has its pros and cons. Choosing the model that works for your group and its capacity is best. The individual model allows folks to do experiments and grow interesting varieties. The collective model enables groups to produce larger quantities of food and requires less daily work from any one member.
A community garden doesn’t have to be big to be impactful, but you will need at least a little space.
If a resident in your neighborhood has a large yard or other growing space they wouldn’t mind sharing, that could be a location for a community garden. If you have a neighborhood where the backyards abut each other and don’t have fences, you could have gardens on different residential lots. Even coordinating what each neighbor grows in their own personal garden and sharing that bounty could be a creative way to approach space for community gardens.
There are also vacant lots available in the city for groups that want to garden. The City of Omaha has a vacant lot tool kit. You can contact Lisa Smith to inquire about available vacant lots for gardening. You can also ask the Omaha Land Bank about their Ambassador and Clean & Green programs.
Boxed beds vs. in-ground
Whether you want to build boxed beds for your community garden will depend on a few factors, such as the contamination levels of the soil and the aesthetic you are trying to achieve. If you test the soil where you want to have an in-ground garden and it has high lead levels, you may wish to install boxed beds.
However, boxed beds are expensive, deteriorate quickly (usually needing to be replaced after five years), and require adding soil yearly. If you test your soil and the lead levels are low, start your garden in-ground. In-ground gardens allow you to improve soil quality over time and will require fewer inputs as the garden matures. You can learn more about lead testing from the City of Omaha Planning Department.
People are the most important aspect! Community gardening is about bringing people together to grow food to feed people! It’s also a lot of (rewarding and super fun) work. So you want to make sure that you start with a group of committed folks. Your team could be residents of an apartment complex, neighbors from three or four blocks around, gardening enthusiasts from throughout the city, or a mix of all these types of people. You’ll want to start with a core group of at least three people for a successful community garden.
Seeds and Plants
You can get locally saved seeds and naturally grown plants from gardening organizations in Omaha. The Blazing Star Seed Cooperative is a collective of growers in and around Omaha that work together to grow, process, and distribute seed. You can email them if you’re interested in getting some seeds. The Omaha Sunflower Cooperative sells seedlings grown from Blazing Star Co-op seed and hosts pop-up plant sales at Fabric Lab during the growing season.
When you look for space for your garden, ensure it has easy water access. While we want to grow drought-tolerant plants (as drought worsens in our area), adequately watering your plants can differentiate between a deflating season and too many tomatoes to know what to do with. Water access will need to come from a nearby building — if you’re lucky enough, you might come across a lot with a hose spigot. Make sure you are clear on water access before you plant, as the first two weeks of a plant or a seed’s life is the most critical time for watering.
It is unlikely that the city or a fire department will come to fill a large water container regularly. The best course of action is to confirm a nearby neighbor will let you use their water. You could factor in $100-400 a season to pay the neighbor for water usage, depending on the size of your garden. Installing water on a vacant lot is also an option. Still, it can be expensive (around $5,000) and is only recommended if you own the lot and intend to use it for the long term.
Mulch and Compost
Sustainable gardening practices are a good idea. You can use a mulch to reduce watering needs and keep down weeds, or try compost instead of synthetic materials.
Straw mulch is best for annual vegetables, and wood chip mulch works for shrubs, perennials, and fruit trees. You can get mulch at most garden supply stores. Miller-Dohrmann farms are a local source of straw mulch. Soil Dynamic is a great local source of compost and wood chips. You can also consider using ChipDrop to receive (a LOT) of woodchips or call around to tree trimming companies to see if they will drop wood chips at your lot. If a tree trimming company drops you wood chips, they will probably drop about five yards of woodchips at once, so make a plan for that!
Tools and Harvest Supplies
For essential gardening tools, you will want:
- Hard rakes
Additional tools to consider are the hori hori garden knife and the broad fork.
Having the right tools to harvest is necessary, too. Good tools for harvesting are:
- Three totes for triple washing leafy greens and root crops
- A hose sprayer
- A salad spinner
- Trays for harvesting tomatoes and peppers
- A wooden table with a wire mesh cover on it for spraying down root crops
Once your group is solidified, you need to have a way to stay in touch. Decide on communication methods that fit the needs of the group. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it works for you. It could be text messages, emails, or phone calls, as long as it works for all members.
Choose a dedicated date and time for workdays to advertise to others who may want to get involved. It helps to create a schedule for who is responsible for which garden tasks and when. Write that schedule out and share it with each other, adjusting as necessary.
Community gardening takes consistency and effort to be successful. Choose a few days throughout the year to engage many people in the garden. How you do this will depend on your space and what you’re growing. For example, invite people to celebrate the apple harvest if you have an apple tree!
A Plan for What to Do With the Things You Produce
Depending on the style of a community garden you are running, the plan might be that everyone grows their own vegetables in their allotted plots. They then get to decide what to do with what they produce. If you ever grow too much of something, you can take it to Free Farm and swap it out for the produce you need. You can also start your own produce distribution throughout your neighborhood or the wider community.
This blog was written by Alex O’Hanlon, One Omaha’s engagement manager.
Places to Get Involved
- City Sprouts
- Free Farm Syndicate
- Omaha Sunflower Cooperative
- Blazing Star Seed Cooperative
- Dahlman Garden Club
- Brown Park Neighborhood Service Organization
- Healing Roots
- Global Leadership Group
- Change of Omaha