Want a community garden? Start now for 2012

About this time each year, the lush variety of produce in the farmers markets does a strange thing to me: It makes me want to have even more. As much as I love the farm stands stocked with tender salad greens and crunchy carrots, peppery radishes and arugula, sweet peas and earthy beets, it never seems like quite enough to grab it by the armful. I want to pull it from the earth with my own two hands.

Gardening is the ultimate expression of “eating local.” What could be more local than one’s own backyard? Gardening satisfies the basic need that is powering the entire local food movement: the urge to reconnect with our food at its roots.

So if you’re like me, you probably wish you had a garden. No matter what your circumstances, it can be done.

Regardless of your personal property situation, there’s likely to be a sunny spot near you that would make a great community garden. If you think it might be nice to be tending your own vegetables by next spring, now’s a good time to get started.   

Sure, you might get a community garden up and running in just a couple of months. But chances are pretty good it’s going to take you longer than that to rally the folks around you, sell the idea to your neighborhood association or the property owner, form committees, write proposals, raise money, coordinate workdays. And did I mention the bylaws? Ugh, the bylaws.

It sounds like a lot of work, I know. But I can tell you that, in my personal experience, it was well, well worth the effort.

I spent a year or two eyeing a mostly ignored corner of land in the little townhouse community where I live, wishing someone would start a garden there. In early 2010, I finally broke down and put out a mass e-mail to the neighborhood, inviting anyone who was interested in discussing the idea to come to a meeting.  

Close to 20 neighbors showed up. Ultimately, their combined talents – planners and organizers, artists and administrators, carpenters and engineers, lifelong gardeners and hard-working novices – were all we needed to get the job done. Eight months later, we were planting in our very own garden plots, in time for a late autumn harvest.

Here’s what I’ve learned since:
•    I’m not a very good gardener. But some of my neighbors are great at it. And they’re happy to share their wisdom.
•    If it weren’t for the garden, I would have never met many of those neighbors.
•    I like those neighbors a whole lot. Aphids, though, I’m not so crazy about.

In case you’re interested in getting started now on your own community garden, here are a few great resources we discovered along the way:

•    American Community Gardening Association: This nonprofit organization’s website is loaded with helpful how-to information, including the suggested steps to start a community garden and sample forms and startup guides.
•    Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Community Garden project: More specifically, Fred Conrad. As the food bank’s community garden coordinator, Conrad’s mission is to help folks throughout metro Atlanta start gardens in their communities. He’s a true gem, offering advice and encouragement, connecting newbies with successful startups, coordinating volunteers, even operating the heavy machinery himself. He says he’s been in about 300 community gardens in metro Atlanta, and new ones are popping up all the time.
•    Plant a Row for the Hungry: The Atlanta Community Food Bank makes it easy to participate in this national initiative by providing a list of designated local drop-off sites. You don’t even have to “plant a row” in your garden; just ask everyone to contribute a portion of their harvest when they can. Our garden makes a monthly run to the United Methodist Children’s Home in Decatur, and we’re always surprised by how much produce we have to share. (Our Plant a Row committee chairperson came up with the ingenious plan to piggyback harvest day onto our monthly garden cocktail party. Now we can do Good Works while sipping on a mojito.)

Images: Fred Conrad gets us started; build day; fresh dirt; the finished project.