How to Start, Organize, and Run a Successful Community Garden

I. Purpose and Plan

Before starting your garden, you need to determine your purpose.

The purpose of Growing Hope Garden is to connect church members with community members by growing food. We hope to be a positive influence to our community and to feed people.

Once you have your purpose, you will need to make a basic plan of what your garden will look like and what plants you want to grow.

II. Land and Water

The two biggest things you have to consider when starting a community garden is where it is going to be and what is your water source.

You need land that gets at least 8 hours of sunlight a day.

After you select your site, you will need to make sure that you have access to water.

A. Types of Growing Beds

When starting your community garden, you will decide what kind of growing beds you will have.

The two main options are raised beds or in-ground growing beds.

Your budget and growing site will determine what kinds of beds you use in your garden.

Raised beds are easier to maintain, but cost more to establish.

In-ground beds are less expensive, but take more labor to keep weed free.

Raised Beds

There are several different types of raised beds: wood, galvanized metal, and concrete block.

Most people make their raised beds 4ft x 8ft. This allows for easy reach to all areas of the raised bed.

Wood raised beds used to be the budget friendly option, but that has changed.

The most budget friendly at this time is concrete blocks.

Spacing of your raised beds:

Raised beds spaced close together can be mulched to keep away weeds.

If you cannot afford mulch, then consider placing your raised beds four to five feet apart so you can mow the path between them.

Remember to keep your paths wide enough to be able to move a wheel barrow through them.

Soil:

Use a good garden soil/raised bed soil growing medium in the beds.

Do not use anything labeled “top soil” for your raised beds.

Call your local nursery or landscape center to see if you can purchase garden soil in bulk.

If you purchase a soil medium with fertilizer already in it, know that you will have to amend your soil the next growing season. Chemical fertilizers wash out of your soil after 6 months.

Watering:

Your raised beds will dry out faster than in-ground growing areas.

If you have your raised beds on concrete, know that you will need to water more often.

Watering any garden area is either a morning or evening chore.

Potato crop 2021. We ended up harvesting 775lbs of potatoes from this patch.

In-Ground Beds

In ground growing is the cheaper alternative.

You will need to have access to a tiller or bring in large loads of compost or garden soil.

In ground growing will involve rocks (so many rocks) and weeds.

In ground growing is more difficult for those with limited mobility.

Amending your soil:

There are many different types of soil:

Clay (black and red)

Rocky

Loam

Depending on your soil, you may have to make amendments to it.

Soil tests can be done at the MU Extension office in Carthage.

Compost can be added at any time, but it is best to add manure in the fall.

Till or No-till:

As the gardener, you will have to decide if you are going to till your in-ground beds on a regular basis or if you are going to use the no-till method.

Tilling will cut down on the amount of weeding you will have to do in your garden space.

No-till gardening uses thick layers of mulch (mulch, straw, or cut grass) to keep weeds at bay and hold in moisture for plants.

B. Water

Once you have water on the site, consider getting a frost-free water pump that you can keep locked.

Limit the number of people with a water key.

Water 2-3 times a week if it is hot and it hasn’t rained at least an inch during the week.

The hotter it is, the more you will have to water.

Watering is best done in the morning or evening.

III. Types of Garden Spaces

In our garden, we have several types of garden spaces.

We have one large in-ground bed (around 1200 sq. ft.) where we grow our potatoes in the spring/early summer and green beans in the summer/fall.

There is one 40ft row of raspberries and one 40ft row of blackberries joined into this space.

We also have raised beds for rental and raised beds for community use.

Unique to our garden is that we have a wildflower meadow.

A. Rental Beds

Growing Hope Garden has a dozen raised beds that are available to rent for the growing season. These beds are numbered 1-12.

These beds are 4ft x 8ft and rent out for $10 a growing season (March-October).

Renters are responsible for planting their own produce, harvesting, and weeding the bed.

Anything they grow is theirs to keep.

B. Community Beds

We also have three community beds (and two other growing spaces) that are available to the community.

Money for the plants/seeds in these beds is donated by a garden member.

Anyone who visits the garden is welcomed to harvest whatever is growing in the community spaces.

Providing a place for neighbors to harvest has greatly reduced the amount of produce loss (theft) from the rented raised beds.

IV. Volunteers

Before you start your garden, have a community meeting to determine if a garden is something people want.

If you have community interest in the garden, you can then start to assemble your volunteers.

You will need 2-4 dedicated people who have experience growing food.

Contact the extension office to find a master gardener to help you get started or to work alongside you in your garden if you have volunteers with limited experience.

Your first few years, you may only have a small handful of volunteers who help carry on the work of the garden.

A. Two types of Volunteers

You will find that you have two different types of volunteers in your garden:

Volunteers with experience

Volunteers with enthusiasm

Volunteers with experience are great to have around. Learn from their knowledge.

Volunteers with experience generally work well with others and will share whatever tricks they have picked up along the way.

Volunteers with enthusiasm are a great help in the garden.

They are great to help start the work for the growing season and can be teachable and willing to learn.

Many times these individuals become less involved when it gets hot or the produce starts to come in too heavy.

Encourage/mentor these gardeners and help them have success.

Many times they will be proud of the work they are doing in the garden, even if their “help” actually hurts your garden.

You can be internally frustrated with the enthusiastic gardener, but externally encouraging to them.

Point out mistakes as learning opportunities and show how it could be done a different way in the future.

All gardeners make mistakes, so learn how to laugh at things that could frustrate you.

V. What to Plant and Where to Buy

If you live in Southwest Missouri, Southeast Kansas, Northeast Oklahoma, or Northwest Arkansas then you are either in zone 6b or 7a.

I will list SOME of the types of plants that grow well in this area, but feel free to do a Google search to figure out more of what is available to you.

A. What to Plant

Lettuce, spinach, radishes, corn, beans (green, yellow, purple, and dried), squash (all varieties), cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, greens, okra, cantaloupe, watermelon, etc.

B. Where to Buy

My favorite store for vegetable seeds is Mid-West Ag Supply in Carthage.

Most of their seed packet prices range from $.40 to $1.

You can buy your seed potatoes by the pound (in 2021 they were $.79 per pound) and your bulk seed by the pound.

Onion bulbs and onion sets are inexpensive as well.

They also have bedding plants (tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) for sale in the spring.

If you are just buying bedding plants and don’t mind them being small, then make sure you go to Southerlands. You may have to keep them inside to grow until it is warm enough to plant, but you get a good deal on the plants.

If you are wanting different varieties of plants than you can find at your local big box stores, make a drive to Mt. Vernon and visit Mt. Vernon Greenhouse. They may be small, but have a great selection of different plants (especially tomato varieties).

VI. When to Plant / Weather

There are cool season crops and summer crops. If you want certain vegetables, you need to plant them accordingly to make sure you get a good harvest.

You also need to know your frost dates in order to make sure your plants have their best shot at making it.

Cool: potatoes, onions, radishes, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, and beets

Summer: beans (all kinds), tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), corn, squash, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, okra, and herbs.

A. When to plant

Valentine’s Day: Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and radishes. You can plant these in semi-frozen soil and they will come up when they have the right soil conditions.

St. Patrick’s Day: Potatoes, onions, and beets

Late March/ Early April: bedding plants: broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage

Mother’s Day:  bedding plants: tomatoes and peppers. Seeds: squash, beans, corn, pumpkin,

Labor Day: You can re-plant cool season crops for fall harvest (lettuce, spinach, and radish)

B. Weather

It is important to know your first and last average frost dates.

In our area, the last average frost is April 20th.

Even if the weather is beautiful, don’t plant your tomatoes, peppers, or tender plants until 2 weeks AFTER that date.

The first average frost is October 20th. Plan to have finished your harvests for your tender vegetation before then.

VII. The Importance of Flowers

Flowers add not only beauty to your garden, but also attract pollinators to your garden.

Some flowers, like bachelor buttons, nasturtium, and marigolds help keep away garden pests.

Flowers such as zinnias and sunflowers are easy to start from seed and add color to your garden all season.

VIII. Perennial Plants, Bushes, and Trees

A. Plants

You need patience to plant things that will take years to get a harvest.

Asparagus takes about 3-5 years before you get a good harvest. Do your research on how many plants you will need and how much space you need to give them.

Strawberries: they require quite a bit of maintenance and will take 3-5 years before they start bearing you lots of fruit. Personal experience shows that they grow best in ground as opposed to in raised beds.

B. Bushes

Blackberries: Buy thornless, free standing varieties. They will need 2 years before they start producing and then require regular maintenance. They spread through their roots, so make sure you have room for them to grow.

Raspberries: there are no thornless varieties. These will need to be staked. Some varieties will produce on 1st and 2nd year canes. They require pruning of 3rd year canes.

Both of these can get out of control in a hurry. Make sure you have room for them to spread.

C. Fruit Trees

Not all community gardens have room for an orchard. If you have the time to invest into them, start off your garden with fruit trees.

Fruit trees take 4-5 years before they mature enough to produce a good harvest.

They will require regular deep watering for their first 2 years as they develop their root systems. Use 5 gallon buckets with holes in them to water weekly.

You will need to look for and treat them for fungus, bugs, and nutrient deficiencies.

IX. What to do When Things Go Wrong

You will face many different struggles in your community garden. They will come from people, bugs, and weather.

People can cause some of your worst damage in your garden. It can come through theft and vandalism.

Both of these can be heartbreaking to you as you start your garden.

Yes, we have called the police due to damage to our property and for illegal drug activity.

A. Theft and Vandalism

You can prevent theft and vandalism in your garden by putting a wall or a fence around your garden.

Personally, we wanted our garden to be a place where people are welcome to walk around and spend time in nature, so we chose to take the risk.

To help combat theft, we made “community” beds that are marked with a “C” where anyone in the community can harvest items grown there.

Being in the garden and talking with community members has helped the most to deal with theft and vandalism.

B. Bugs (organic or chemical treatment)

You will have to decide what ways you want to combat bugs in your garden.

Here are some of the biggest pests we have faced in the garden:

Potato bugs (organic options)

Knock off into a cup of soapy water

Look under leaves for eggs and squish them

Spray with soapy water

Dust with diatomaceous earth

Squash bugs: (Organic or Chemical)

Knock off bugs into a cup of soapy water. (organic)

Find eggs and squish them (organic)

Dust just around the base (stem) of the plant with 8 dust (chemical)

Don’t plant squash for 3 years

Squash bugs are incredibly hard to get rid of in your garden.

Japanese Beetles: (organic and chemical traps)

Knock off bugs into a cup of soapy water

Attractant traps – place beetle traps on the farthest part of your garden away from your plants. You will attract more bugs, but they will all end up dying.

Web worms in trees: (organic)

Cut out nests from trees

Break apart webs and dust liberally with diatomaceous earth.

C. Weather

Late frosts can cause damage to your garden as well.

Since I have been keeping records (2016), we have had at least one hard freeze after our last average frost date.

Last year’s hard winter killed the blooms for the peach trees. Then the late frost killed all of the blooms on our pear and plumb trees.

The peach trees didn’t bloom this year. It was too cold in February of 2021. All of the blooms froze and died.

A hard winter and late frost can kill fruit trees and there is little you can do to prevent it.

Too much water or too little water can cause damage to your garden. Know that you can only control so much to help your plants be successful.

X. Final Thoughts

All the research I have read says that community gardens will either make it or fail within 3 years.

It will be hard work, and often times it will be done alone. Know, however, that people in your community are watching and noticing what you are doing.

Gardens have the power to shape the communities around them. It just takes time.

Tool List

Frost free water pump                5-gallon buckets            Shovels                        Rakes

Lock                                         Wheel barrow                Spades                         Garden clippers

Garden hose                             Pocket knife                  Garden gloves

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