What Do Most Successful Community Gardens Have in Common?

Summer is right around the corner, which means that gardens have begun to flourish. Ripe tomatoes are starting to bud on the vine and heads of lettuce are peeking through the soil. The long summer months ahead are the perfect time to re-energize your community garden through public events, farmers markets, and guided tours. Whether you have a few neighborhood plots or are just starting to repurpose an empty lot,  here’s everything you need to known about cultivating a successful community garden. 

What is a community garden?

First, let’s start with the basics. Community gardens are shared spaces where people come together to grow fruits, vegetables, flowers, and more. In the past decade, they have become powerful forces of neighborhood revitalization, transforming empty lots or abandoned buildings into bustling sites of life. While all community gardens focus on growing food, the most successful ones are also hubs of community engagement. 

To learn more about the process of creating a garden in your neighborhood, check out ioby’s comprehensive guide to urban farming. You can also use successful ioby projects for inspiration like Slow Food NYC or the Zion Street Community Garden. (And once you have your idea,  reach out to ioby to help bring it to life!)

  1. Strong Leadership + Shared Vision. 

If you’re reading this, you are probably already passionate about ensuring your community garden is as successful as possible. Congrats — you’re already halfway there! To make a community garden successful, it is essential to have passionate leaders that champion the garden to public officials, create a clear structure for community participation, and are constantly looking for feedback to improve. Here are a few ideas to make that happen.

At the start of your community garden, determine a shared governance structure to ensure decision-making is transparent and fair. This can include in-person monthly meetings or virtual votes. Whatever you decide, make sure you communicate it clearly and consistently to members. When people feel valued and heard, they are more likely to remain engaged. Collaboration will also help prevent burnout, or the feeling that one person has to carry the entire project on their shoulders—no matter how passionate they are!

It is also extremely important to make sure you have a shared vision and goals for your garden. Do people want it to be a space for quiet reflection or public parties? What values will guide your approach to the environment? How will you deal with conflict if it arises? Having a written list of shared values will help serve as a north star when challenges inevitably occur. And remember, challenges aren’t a sign you a doing something wrong. They can be a powerful signal that you are building a different, more equitable world—and sometimes doing this differently can get a little messy. (Especially in a garden!)

  1. Clear Methods to Join + Active Participation. 

Starting a community garden is incredibly exciting. You’re identifying volunteers, raising funds, and beautifying your neighborhood each and every day. However, sustaining that success can be a little bit more difficult. Having consistent, clear ways for people to get involved — whether monthly clean-up events or a shed-building project— can make sure the garden stays fresh, collaborative, and dynamic year-round.

This may seem obvious, but a successful garden requires people who are…gardening! Life can get busy fast. We’ve all made commitments that we later don’t have capacity for. Come up with a plan to address people who have signed up for a plot but are no longer tending to it. This is especially important if you have a long wait list of people who would love to grow their own fruits and vegetables. 

  1. Community-Centric Events. 

All successful community gardens rely on the participation of neighboors, volunteers, family, and friends. In order to deepen community bonds, it can be helpful to host a series of events. Ideally, these would be open to the public and engage with their interests. Maybe you’re interested in hosting a workshop about the healing properties of plants or a book drive for elementary school students. Whatever you decide, make sure you hang flyers and post on social media to the word out a few weeks before the event. These events will be an opportunity for people to learn more about the garden—and hopefully expand your base of volunteers the next time you need a big group to conduct repairs or pull out weeds.  Remember to write down people’s names and emails so you can follow up later.

  1. Collaboration with Neighborhoood Partners.

While it can be extremely helpful to have events inside of a community gardens walls, most successful gardens also collaborate with neighborhood partners in the surrounding area like schools, city agencies, and local businesses. This can include hosting a seasonal farmers markets on a bustling block of your neighborhood, hosting monthly garden tours, and even skillsharing workshops about how to grow a certain crop. 

In addition to deepening social bonds, these collaborations can provide much-needed resources and local expertise to ensure the longevity of the garden. Perhaps the zoning laws in your neighborhood have changed or you are in the process of fundraising for a necessary but expensive water pipe. Deepening your relationship with neighborhood partners can help ensure your long-term success.

  1. Skill-sharing + culturally competent workshops. 

Creating opportunities for people to learn about gardening can be a powerful way to forge a sense of shared responsibility. Workshops are one easy way to do this. These classes should strive to be both culturally and ecologically competent. Maybe there is a woman who is growing crops because she can’t find them at her local grocery store, or someone who is passionate about growing low-water plants in a state experiencing drought. Highlighting the ways that the community garden can support individual as well as collective needs can be a powerful way of sustaining engagement. 

The Wyckoff Farmhouse team cultivates over 3,000 square-feet of growing space to provide produce for their local community in East Flatbush and Brownsville.
  1. Fun! 

At a simple level, human beings like spaces where they can have fun and be themselves. Most often, this sense of joy is cultivated through the day-to-day interactions. When someone joins the garden, make sure they are introduced to others and valued for their unique contributions. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone as you work side by side on your plot, or share the crop you have just harvested. By feeling like they are cared for when they enter the garden, people return again and again.

Additional Resources: 

  • The University of Minnesota has a comprehensive guide to starting a community garden, including developing bylines, determining your budget, and deciding what to plant. 
  • The American Horticultural Association can help you find a master gardener in your area, most ofen through a local university. They can support all aspects of your farms development, from soil health to harvest. 

ioby is a national crowdfunding nonprofit, but we’re much more than that. We help connect leaders (like you!) with one-on-one coaching and support to raise the money they need from their communities to make our neighborhoods safer, greener, more livable, and more fun.
Have a great idea to get good done in your neighborhood? We want to help! Share your idea with us and we can help get you started.