Starting a Garden

 

Starting an effective community garden is not a simple task. But when passionate people come together with considerable organization, planning, cooperation, perseverance and resources, great success can be achieved. 

woman pointing to a map of a garden

As a first step, you are encouraged to contact the Community Garden Council for information and support in your journey to start a community garden. The Community Garden Council of Waterloo Region is an umbrella volunteer group that connects community gardens across Waterloo Region.  Additionally, by contacting the Community Garden Council, you can become a member the Community Garden Network, which is a collection of individuals, both garden coordinators and gardeners, from community gardens across Waterloo Region.  This membership gives you access to gardening information and support from other garden coordinators and network members. 

To get you started, please read below for information on how to start a community garden. 

General steps to starting a community garden, include : 

  1. Form a committee and develop a plan  
  2. Locate and evaluate potential garden sites
  3. Identify resources needed 
  4. Research grant, partnership, and sponsorship opportunities
  5. Determine land use agreement
  6. Develop a site plan
  7. Create a plan for garden coordination
  8. Develop gardener guidelines and application process
  9. Prepare and develop the garden site
  10. Celebrate your success and promote your garden 

Please read below for further details on each of these steps. 

1) Form a committee and develop a plan 

Get a group of enthusiasts together

Talk with friends, neighbours and local organizations – places of worship, community centres, libraries, etc. Take down names and contact information for those who are interested. If people express concern, take note of this and be sure to address these concerns at a later time. Some area municipalities set guidelines on the number of people needed to start a community garden, so be sure to visit the Municipal Policies section of the website for more information. Contact everyone who expressed interest and invite them to an initial meeting. You can also advertise in community newsletters or put up posters to promote the initial meeting. 

image of a woman and a man sitting at a picnic table with gardening supplies

Hold a first meeting with those interested 

Try to hold meetings in an accessible location in the community area you want to start a garden. Plan for a short initial meeting, about 45 minutes to 1 hour in length, so that it fits into people’s busy schedules. This first meeting should be used to determine if there is enough interest to start a garden and to begin brainstorming answers to some basic questions. These meetings do not need to be formal, but someone should take down notes and make these available to the group afterwards.

Some initial questions to answer include: 

  • What type of garden would we like? Individual plots or gardened collectively by the group.
  • Will there be a fee or deposit charged to gardeners to finance upgrades, tool replacements and unexpected repairs? 
  • How much gardening experience does the group have? Is anyone willing to teach others?
  • How much time do volunteers have available to commit to getting this garden started? And to maintaining it?
  • If the group has decided there is enough interest to move forward, start to create a work plan with steps to take. Prioritize the outlined steps and assign volunteers to specific tasks. 

 

The plan should include: 

  • Location of the garden. What land is available for the garden? Assign someone to look into land options. (see step 2 below for more information on land options)
  • Partnership development. What other community gardens can the group speak with to learn from? Assign someone to connect with other gardens. 
  • Equipment and storage needs. What resources do we need for the garden? Does anyone have any they could donate or know or somewhere to get free or lost cost resources? (see step 3 below for more information on resources)
  • Budget, fund raising and sponsorship. Assign volunteers to plan fund raising events or look into sponsorship opportunities. (See step 4 below for more on fundraising and donations)
  • Communication and promotion. Who is willing to serve on a garden leadership team? Have this person connect with the Community Garden Council. 

 

Divide the work evenly.  Avoid taking on too much! Decide what the best way is to stay in contact as a group and schedule the next meeting. Set-up regular meetings – make them casual and fun. Be sure to use a meeting place that is accessible and convenient for people. Have someone takes notes at each meeting for those who may be unable to attend. 

 

2) Locate and evaluate potential garden sites 

Finding land 

This is a great time to get active and explore your community. Set out on foot or on your bicycle to tour the neighbourhood looking for suitable land. Be sure to consider churches, non profit agencies, and local businesses who might be interested in partnering with you to develop a community garden. In addition to the actual location and availability of the site, physical characteristics will influence how suitable the land is for gardening in general. Although almost any physical characteristic can be improved or amended (e.g. building raised planter boxes and bringing in fresh soil), these changes can be costly.

image of garden land

If you are looking to use public or city land, you should first look up your city’s policy regarding community gardens. 

In 2009, the Regional Official Plan was adopted by Region of Waterloo Council and for the first time, included food system policies. More specifically, the Plan recognizes the important role community gardens play in creating healthy neighbourhoods and directs municipalities to establish policies in their official plans that encourage community gardens. The area municipalities have all done this. City of Kitchener and City of Cambridge have community garden policies in place outlining the roles the cities have in promoting community gardens and the type of support they are willing to provide. The City of Waterloo has a “Partners in Parks” program where community gardens are listed as an eligible activity for use of city green space. 

For more information on these municipal policies, visit the Municipal Policies page.

Here are some things to think about when looking for land: 

Access and safety

  • Site must be accessible, - Ideally within the neighbourhood. Is the area accessible by public transportation, walking and biking paths? Can the site be accessed by differently-abled individuals?
  • Site should be visible and in an area where people feel safe.

 

 image of woman and a man in wheelchairs on a paved path in a garden

Site history 

  • How was the site used in the past? Check into previous land use history to identify potential contamination.  Ask city or township planners if the land was ever used for industrial or landfill purposes.
  • Condition of the Soil - Is the soil suitable for what you want in the garden?  Ask the landowner about the type of soil or whether salt from snow removal might be an issue.
  • If you are suspicious of the land history or soil quality, ask for a sample the soil before entering into any land agreements. Soil testing should be considered if the history of land use is suspicious or if the land is next to a busy highway, rail corridor or gas station.
  • Underground lines - Are there any underground tiles, hydro or telephone lines? Call Ontario One (1-800-400-2255) who coordinates locating all underground lines before doing any digging.
  • Can you determine who owns the land? Legalities - Landowners may ask you to sign a lease or land-use agreement, or liability waivers.  (See step 5 for more information on land use agreements)

 

Physical characteristics

  • Does the site have access to water? Locate a source of water or plant drought resistant plants.  Some businesses will donate water tanks and some organizations will donate access to water.
  • How big is the site? Is there enough room to accommodate the number of interested gardeners you’ve identified as well as additional gardeners who may want a plot?
  • Does the site get direct sunlight during the spring, summer, and fall? Most vegetable and fruit plants require full or partial sun four-eight hrs/day.  Garden plots with less than four hours of sun will require shade tolerant plants.
  • Is there space for structures like storage units, compost bins, water barrels, picnic tables, etc.? Take advantage of shady areas for locating sheds or picnic tables.

image of rain barrels beside a garden shed 

3) Identify resources needed 

Current prices for most tools and equipment from major retailers are available online.  It is always useful to look for quality used equipment as it is more affordable and better for the environment. Don’t be afraid to get creative by asking neighbours for unused items that can be re-used or re-fashioned. Try placing a request for donated tools in local churches, community centres, and libraries or advertise in a community newspaper or on a free website. This can result in donations from people who are downsizing or may have extra items.  It may also be useful to investigate sharing large, expensive items that are used sporadically, such as lawn mowers or rototillers with neighbours or other community gardens to cut costs. Gardeners themselves may also be able to supply some tools, equipment and materials themselves.

image of the inside of a garden shed with tools on a shelf

So what resources should you be looking for or asking for as donations?

Immediate needs

  • equipment/tools to clear the site and prepare the soil 
  • basic garden tools (spades, hoes, garden forks, garden rakes) 
  • basic hand tools (resin tools are best)
  • water tanks or rain barrel, watering cans, hose and reel 
  • seeds, seedlings, bulbs, bedding plants, cover crop seeds 
  • topsoil, compost, manure
  • mulching materials such as shredded leaves, hay, shredded bark, wood chips
  • compost bins (can be made free with wooden pallets)
  • garden shed with lock and keys for all gardeners (some gardeners choose to source used sheds) 

 

Long term needs (i.e. highly desirable but not absolutely necessary) 

  • gates and fencing 
  • wheelbarrow or garden cart
  • benches and picnic tables
  • wood for building raised beds
  • garden sign, bulletin board
 

image of two women holding a wheelbarrow beside a garden

 

4) Research grant, partnership, and sponsorship opportunities

Starting your community garden will be easier if you form local partnerships and get sponsorship for your garden.  Finding support for your garden requires a well laid plan, an idea of the cost of your project, who will be involved and how you will promote it.  But it also involves enthusiastic champions who are willing to talk about the project to potential sponsors and partners.  There are a variety of places to look for resources and support for your garden start-up such as the following:  

Municipalities: Municipalities may provide land use and bylaw information.  They may have land available for a garden site.  Some municipalities may have special environmental or social grants that you may apply for. Contact your Ward Councillor for support before applying for these.  

Businesses: Try asking for donations from local garden centres or stores.  Some retailers may donate items like tool sheds, tools, and seeds. It is a good idea to create a wish list before you ask.

Corporations: Some companies will provide corporate funding and sponsorship in exchange for publicity.  Offer to post signage in exchange for sponsorship.

Politicians: Call your ward councillor and arrange a face to face meeting to promote your plan.  Ask for advice regarding road blocks you might be experiencing in the community and invite them to a committee meeting. 

Service clubs: Some clubs may provide start-up funds and may ask you to give a presentation to their group.  Have a work plan and budget plan ready. 

Neighbourhood centres and places of faith: Some of these community organizations will sponsor your garden or donate the use of land, water, and other in-kind services like administrative support and meeting places.   Partnering with these organizations may also give you charitable status for grant applications

Foundations: Several local foundations exist that may consider funding your garden as well as new projects you may want to start in the garden like a children’s garden program.

Granting Agencies: Some banks and larger groups have grant programs for environmental and community programs. 

For available local garden grant opportunities please view the Community Gardens Grant Opportunties table.

 

5) Determine land use agreements 

If establishing a garden on private land, it is in the best interest of all parties involved to develop a written agreement that outlines your group’s and the landlord’s obligations and responsibilities. It is advisable to include a clause that states the landlord is not responsible for any injuries that might be accrued on the property. If possible, try to negotiate a lease that enables your group to use the land for at least three years.

If you are establishing a community garden on city owned land, each area municipality has rules and regulations including waiver forms. Please visit the Municipal Policies page for more information and for sample waiver forms. 

The garden should also establish a waiver form for all gardeners to sign stating that they understand the potential risks involved and waive liability should an injury occur. A garden plot agreement and waiver of liability should be signed by each gardener.  Please see the Sample Forms page for more information.

 

6) Develop a site plan

Developing a garden site plan will take some preparation and team work.  Consider visiting other successful community gardens to see how they are laid out or visit your local library to read up on garden plans. Your site plan does not need to be professional; it should just be legible and clear if you are submitting to the City or the landowner for review. Things to think about are the preparation of the land, garden size and space and garden design.  Simple soil testing kits are available at Home Hardware.

two women standing beside a garden that is being constructed with workmen in the background

Preparing the land 

Soil type: Soil type depends on the amounts of ground clay, sand and silt.  Test the soil by filling a glass jar with one third soil and fill the rest of the jar with water.  Close the jar and shake.  Let it settle overnight.  Sand sinks to the bottom, then silt, and clay settles on top – organics will float on top.  An even mixture of each type is preferable. In cases where the prior land use is unclear or there may be contaminates, more in-depth testing is necessary. 

pH level: Most garden plants like a slightly acidic to a neutral soil (6.2 – 7.0 pH).  Extremes of acidity or alkalinity may interfere with growth or kill the plants. Testing kits are available at many local garden centres. For too acidic soil, add bone-meal and egg shells; too alkaline, add pine needles or garden sulphur.

Soil nutrients: Plants will make their best response to a balanced feeding program. The key nutrients are Nitrates, Phosphate, Potash and Calcium. Testing kits are available at many local garden centres. Composting and adding organic fertilizers will help feed your garden.

Weeds: Barriers like cardboard, black plastic or old woollen carpets (synthetics contaminate soil), mulch, hand weeding and corn meal gluten are all natural ways to control weeds and to prepare the land for your community garden.

Insects and worms: When preparing the land remember that insects are beneficial to your garden. Insects like lady bugs, spiders and praying mantises eat and control the number of pesky insects. Worms aerate the soil, eat dead plant matter and help to distribute nutrients to the root zone. Try not to disturb the insects and worms by overworking the soil, rototilling or using chemicals on your soil. 

image of a woman standing in a garden using a garden hoe to turn soil
 

Garden size, space and design

 

Gardens can be grown in communal or individual plots.  Some gardens set aside a plot to donate food for local soup kitchens or food banks while other gardens create accessible plots with raised garden beds or plots for children, elderly and people with disabilities. These are some items for your planning group to consider when developing a garden site plan: 

  • size of communal or individual plots.  Individual plots are often 305cm x 305cm (10ft x 10ft)  
  • size of the garden pathways: about (2-3 ft)  across, covered with mulch
  • an area to place the compost bins and water containers
  • use shaded areas not used for gardening to locate the tool shed 
  • find a location for the water source
  • if available, find space to provide a bench or a seating area in the shade for gardeners to rest 
 

image of a garden shed and picnic tables on a brick patio

Work with your environment to develop the best design for your community garden. This may include incorporating existing trees by planting shade-tolerant plants and/or incorporating hill slopes by making creative rock gardens or finding other solutions that work with the existing natural surroundings.

You will also want to plan for a suitable space to hold community events, meetings and workshops. If holding these events at the garden, you may want to invest in an outdoor tent that can be used for shade and shelter from rain. Alternatively, you could partner with a comunity centre or church where you would use their space to hold events.  

Designing barrier-free gardens

Barrier free gardens are gardens that are designed in such a way that all people in your neighborhood can participate.  Barrier–free gardens may have accessible places for wheelchairs, and/or features for the visually or hearing impaired. Installing these features can help eliminate physical barriers in gardening. Please visit the Accesible Gardens page for more information on designing barrier-free gardens. 

image of a man in a wheelchair turning soil in a raised garden bed
 

7) Create a plan for garden coordination 

As a garden coordinator or committee, you will want everyone to contribute so that the garden gets up and running smoothly and continues to function well each season.  To do this, you need to engage your gardeners. Host a meeting with your prospective gardeners to lay out a plan for the garden creation and maintenance each year. Let gardeners volunteer for specific roles they are interested in first, and then assign remaining roles as needed. 

 
As a group make sure you have reached consensus on the following points: 
  • determine how plots will be distributed and set up a reliable and fair waiting list system that is renewed on an annual basis
  • determine cost per individual plot or other cost recovery ideas
  • create an annual work calendar for garden tasks, including season start up and putting the garden to rest
  • indicate each gardener’s responsibility for plot and overall garden maintenance
  • set how materials and tools will be kept and shared
  • set any planting restrictions that the group would like
  • set rules for what materials may and may not be composted
  • draft a set of gardener guidelines and create a gardener agreement form (see step 8 for more details)
  • set standards for what happens if garden rules are violated
  • set plan to hold garden events like barbeques or potlucks
  • set up a communication system (email, Facebook account, etc.)
  • inform of the Community Garden Council and Network so that gardeners are aware of resources and can connect with the broader garden community
 

Create a specific work plan for the initial build of the garden and seek volunteers for specific tasks. Depending on how much work is required, the group may want to schedule several regular workdays to take care of things like initial tilling, trimming, and building projects. If possible have a volunteer lead each of these different main tasks so that they can organize equipment, supplies, and volunteers. If there is a lot of work to be done to prepare the site, consider advertising in local schools, churches, libraries and community centres for extra volunteers to help out on scheduled workdays. All high school students must collect 40 volunteer hours to graduate, so contact your local high school to recruit volunteers.  

 

8) Develop gardener guidelines and application process

During the planning stage and the first season, these documents will likely stay in a draft format and will be revised as a group after the first gardening season is complete. However, after the first season you should have these documents in place to explain how your garden operates and how gardeners can be involved. See the Sample Forms page for an example garden plot agreement and sample gardener guidelines/rules.

 

9) Prepare and develop the garden site  

Now it’s time to do the physical work of preparing the land and building your community garden! Have the assigned volunteer leads for the different tasks (tilling, trimming, and building projects) set up a plan for the day. Find something that all volunteers can participate in that meets their skill level and abilities. Try to make it a fun day; you could even invite a local musician to donate their time.

image of 7 people standing in the middle of a garden what is being built with bricks around it

 

10) Celebrate your success and promote your garden 

It’s important to take a step back and recognize the hard work of everyone involved in starting your community garden. Consider holding a grand opening or a garden party to showcase your garden and introduce yourselves to the larger community. Invite the neighbours and local business and organizations. Be sure to thank those who donated materials, finances, and time to the project. Show off the garden and talk about future plans. This is a great way to gain support for your community garden and find more interested gardeners and volunteers.  Be sure to plan for future fun events like potlucks and garden workshops to continue to bring gardeners together to build a sense of community. 

 

Continuing to promote your garden to the neighbourhood is an important step in community involvement.  Many people will welcome a garden; however a few folks may be resistant to the idea.  Don’t be discouraged; be ready to offer the benefits a garden may bring, such as: 

  • improving health by providing low cost healthy food and by getting people more physically active
  • helping the environment by attracting a variety of friendly organisms, improving soil, helping pollinators and by reducing waste.
  • connecting people together by reducing social isolation and improving mental wellness
  • making the neighbourhood safer as people know each other and their community better and the presence of gardeners in underutilized areas can deter those with criminal intent  
  • increasing property values by improving the physical appearance of the neighbourhood
 

image of a garden surrounded by a white picket fence

 

Community gardens provide all residents in a neighbourhood with a place to come together and learn from each other, regardless of race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or level of physical ability. In Waterloo Region, there are several gardens that involve people from a variety of cultures and incomes.  You will want to promote your garden in an inclusive way.  

Here are some ideas that will help you connect to people as you go: 

  • Offer to meet with neighborhood groups to promote the garden to their members.
  • Deliver invitations door-to-door and get to know people in the neighbourhood.  Look for garden experiences that you may have in common.
  • Post notices about the community garden in public areas like grocery stores, public libraries, playgrounds.  Use plain language and pictures when possible.
  • Post community garden notices in community newsletters e.g. faith organization bulletins, neighborhood centre or school newsletters.
  • Inform nearby community gardens about your plans so that they can redirect people who live closer to your garden or who are on their waiting list.
  • Set up a table or booth at community events such as festivals and fairs.
  • Ask gardeners to promote the garden to their friends and family.
  • Notify community leaders who are well connected and respected.  They may mobilize other people on your behalf.

 

A poster or postcard is a great way to get the word out about your community garden and to attract new gardeners. Use simple colour schemes, with colours that are easy on the eyes in order to keep your notice clear, and legible. To keep printing costs low, you can try using black ink on coloured paper. Make sure that the colour of the paper is light enough so the words can be seen. Use simple, clear language and fonts. Use simple clip art or clear pictures that complement the message of the poster. 

Designing a poster/postcard 

Posters should include: 

  • The date and time of the event
  • The name of the event
  • The name of the garden
  • Contact info, including phone number, e-mail address, and best contact times
  • Your garden’s logo, if available
  • A map to the garden
  • How to find out more, such as web site links
 
 

References  

Berman, L. (1997) How does our garden grow? A Guide to Community Garden Success. FoodShare Metro Toronto

Burkholder, G., Ng, P., Niu, J., Solanki, A. (2007). Growing Gardens. Vancouver, Ontario: Urban Agriculture Site Development Group. 

Feldt, Barbara Hobens (2005).Garden your city. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 

Macdonald S., & Newton, G. (2000) Building Community Gardens: Good Work, Good Food, Community Spirit.  Sponsored by the Working Centre, Funded by the City of Kitchener, Community Infrastructure Program

McKay, T.  Empty Spaces, Dangerous Places, downloaded February 23, 2015 from the World Wide Web at  http://www.peelpolice.ca/en/crimeprevention/resources/emptyspacesdangero...

McKelvey, B. (2009). Community Gardening Toolkit: A resource for planning, enhancing and sustaining your community gardening project. University of Missouri Extension, downloaded March 2, 2015 from the World Wide Web at http://extension.missouri.edu/p/MP906 

Payne, K. & Fryman, D., (2001) Cultivating Community: Principles and Practices for Community Gardening as a Community-Building Tool.  American Community Garden Association

Project Read, Network Waterloo-Wellington, downloaded February 27, 2009 from the World Wide Web at http://www.projectread.ca/facts.html

Ross, K., Popovic C. (2011) Barrier-Free Community Gardening in Waterloo Region, Region of Waterloo Public Health, Waterloo ON.

Rothert, G. (1994) The enabling garden: a guide to lifelong gardening.  Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company.

Rubin, C. (1989) The organic approaches to home gardening. Friends of the Earth-Canada.