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A Beginner's Guide to Building a Community Garden

Building a community garden can be a fun and rewarding way to connect with our food, with nature, and with the people living around us. Growing food not only provides us with fresh vegetables and fruit to eat, but it gets us outdoors, can help feed and shelter local wildlife, and for people in marginalized communities, it can give back some control over our food systems. While starting a community garden can seem like a huge project, it doesn’t have to be when we work together with our neighbors to make it happen!

First, you have to consider what kind of space you have to work with. Vacant grassy lots are excellent sites for community gardens. For those who live in areas that lack grassy areas, like apartments with only balconies or windows, gardening in containers or garden boxes will probably be a better fit.

Next, you should start to gather the materials that you will use to create your garden beds. Store-bought soil and compost can get pricey depending on the size of the garden, but you can save money by utilizing a gardening method called no-till or “lasagna gardening” that turns organic materials like grass clippings, plant trimmings, leaves newspaper and brown cardboard (not the color or glossy stuff) into rich, nutrient-dense compost.

To assemble a no-till garden bed, put down a thick layer of wet cardboard or newspaper and top with alternating layers of “browns” (shredded newspaper, shredded leaves) and “greens” (chemical-free grass clippings, seed-free plant trimmings, compost, vegetable scraps) and wet each layer thoroughly with water. Repeat until the bed is about a foot high. The “brown” layers should be twice as thick as “green” layers. If desired, you can make a surrounding wall around the garden bed from stones, wood, or even cinder blocks.

If you’re making the bed in the fall, top everything with a layer of wet newspaper and let it rest until spring. If you’re making the bed in the spring to plant in immediately, place a top layer of compost and sow seeds or plant seedlings directly into the soil.

For container gardening, layer the bottom of your containers with cardboard and place a layer of rocks or gravel at the bottom two inches to assist with draining. Create green and brown layers, wetting with water, until the container is two-thirds full, and then top with potting soil. Sow seeds or plant seedlings directly.

Important information about what to plant in your area and when can be found by looking up your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. Once you know what zone you live in, you can find a variety of planting schedules and calendars online for your specific region by googling the planting schedule for your zone. These can tell you when to plant by seed or by young seedling, when to harvest, and in some cases, when to replant in late summer or fall.

Some of the easiest and most satisfying things to grow are greens like kale, chard, and collards; root vegetables like beets, radishes, turnips, and sweet potatoes; vining plants like cucumbers, pumpkins, and peas; and staked plants like tomatoes, peppers, and beans.

Most people who've built a garden in their community will tell you that it takes research, some trial and error and a lot of physical labor, but the results of all that work is well worth all the time you put into it!

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