How a Community Garden Works

If you don't know much about community gardens, I think you will find this post helpful. Sorry it's a bit long. 

I will explain how a community garden typically works.

A community garden is usually run by a board or committee. They have established procedures for how the garden runs, including their administration of the property, how people become members, and how members conduct themselves. Sometimes the board/committee is part of a non-profit organization.

I won't get into detail about how boards are set up and how they elect members, etc. etc.  This post is for the gardeners (or members) themselves.

A note about this post - in most of the United States, there is a "growing season." Roughly it is the time period starting in the spring and ending in the fall. You can't grow much (or anything) in the winter months, and this is known as the "off season." The exact dates vary in different regions of the country. In the subtropical areas of states,like Florida, south Texas, and California, you can garden all year round. For gardeners in those subtropical regions, see your garden agreement for how its calendar works.

The Lease or Rental Agreement

Before the season starts, gardeners apply to use one or more of the plots in the garden. Often, returning gardeners enjoy preferred status. They get to sign up before applications are accepted from the general public, and they get to keep the same plot they had the previous year(s). Think about it -- if they invested their work into improving the soil in their plot, they would like probably like to reap the benefits of high quality soil. From the garden leadership team's perspective, if they had a good gardener, they definitely want them back!

You can usually find a copy of the agreement on the garden's website, or you can obtain a copy by asking the garden manager. Download it and read it!

The agreement lays out the terms. Depending on how it is set up, the agreement will have certain rules and requirements to which the gardeners must agree. Renting a plot usually involves a fee which is submitted with the application.

If you don't get a plot, your fee will be returned.

This is not a comprehensive list, but here are some examples of rules an agreement might have:

  • Gardeners must practice organic gardening only
  • Certain crops or types of plants are not allowed in the garden
    • Perennials (plants that come back year after year)
    • Invasive plants
    • Plants that require a special environment (e.g. rice paddies)
    • Illegal plants (cannabis in some states, poppies, for example)
  • Gardeners cannot sell their produce grown at the garden
  • Gardeners must contribute volunteer time to maintain the garden as a whole
  • Plots must be maintained:
    • They must be planted by a certain date
    • They must be kept (relatively) neat
    • They must be cleaned out at the end of the season, by the garden closing date
  • Rules governing use of shared tools, if available
  • Rules governing garden waste (weeds pulled from your plot, dead plant material, etc.)

Gardens usually start accepting applications at the beginning of the year, like January for February. 

Available plots tend to go quickly. Get your application in as early as you can!

Read your agreement before you sign it. Make sure you are willing and able to meet all requirements described in the agreement before committing to the garden.

Calendar of Activities

Once you are awarded a plot, the garden manager will communicate with you about when you can get started.

The garden manager oversees operation of the garden. He or she will communicate with the gardeners throughout the season. There may be pre-season work days to get the garden ready to be used for the growing season. There may be general announcements and reminders about the garden's rules. Some gardens may offer classes to help new gardeners get started. 

After the opening date, you are free to go to the garden during its open times to work on your plot. Remember, you might have rules about planting dates. For example, your plot needs to be planted by May 31, signaling your intent to use the plot. 

Near the end of the season, the garden manager may schedule garden closing activities. You are supposed to clean all plant material out of your plot by a certain date.

You might have some record-keeping and reporting responsibilities. If you are required to work a certain number of volunteer hours as part of your lease agreement, you will likely need to keep track of those hours (date, time, how long, what you did) and report to the garden manager. 

Stay in Good Standing

As I mentioned above, there are usually rules each gardener must follow to stay in good standing with the garden. If you follow all the rules, then you are usually invited back to garden next year and get preferential treatment to lease your same plot next year. Or, maybe you can suggest a plot you might prefer - maybe one closer to the water, for example.

If you don't meet all of your requirements as a member, the consequences vary. You might surrender your plot during the season and not get a refund. You might not be able to lease a plot again next year. 

Typically, though, the garden manager and the leadership understand that life happens. If you communicate with them when something goes sideways, you have a better chance of staying with the garden in the future. 

An example might be if you have an unexpected death in the family, and you suddenly need to be out of town for a month, in the middle of planting season. Let the garden manager know. They might ask all the gardeners to pitch in to keep your plot going while you're gone. By letting them know, they won't assume you've carelessly abandoned your plot.

Overall Goals

The goal of the garden manager and the leadership team is to run a successful garden. All garden members play a part in the success, plus members have an interest in everyone else running a successful garden. In short -

  • Play nice with others! 
  • Honor your agreement with the garden! 
  • Pitch in as required!
  • And finally, communicate!

The manager and the leaders are probably unpaid volunteers. They don't really want to be police for petty arguments among gardeners. They don't want to maintain the common areas of the garden all by themselves. They certainly don't want to clean up other people's messes! They are generous enough to give their time to make a community garden available, and all members should respect that commitment by doing their part. 

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