Permaculture puts forward the idea that working in harmony with nature and maximizing the possibilities for growing our own food can have a transformative effect on someone’s life. By extending the ideas and principles that underscore permaculture garden design into the realm of society and how people live together, it can impact upon whole communities as well. Community gardens are one way for people to feel more connected to their neighborhoods – both to the land and the other people who live there – to feel more in control of the food they eat, to collaborate in ways that bypass the competition-based capitalist economies of the developed world, and to reduce their impact upon the Earth by reducing their energy consumption (by buying less imported food, for example).
Community gardens can be a practical way for those who do not own land to get involved with permaculture, but they are also beneficial to those who may already be cultivating food on their own plot. Community gardens provide a network of like-minded individuals, who can share techniques and advice, as well as pool resources in schemes such as tool sharing, so each individual does not need to purchase their own version of every tool. Community gardens are also good ways to start seed banks, which help to preserve native species and provide unadulterated seeds for all permaculture gardeners to use. Such locations can also allow gardeners to experience cultivating species that they may not have space or suitable conditions to grow on their own plots. And, of course, community gardens can provide a sense of . . . community. They can become focal points in a neighborhood, somewhere to socialize and where disparate groups can come together and interact. In times of financial restriction, when public services and facilities seem to be reducing all the time, promoting inclusiveness and togetherness is an important role the community garden can play.
Start by organizing a meeting of interested people in the neighborhood. This will help establish whether there is the enthusiasm for such a venture, and if there are enough interested parties for it to become a viable project. Such a meeting could also include visitors from other community gardens or horticultural bodies to offer advice on the practicalities, as well as community organizations who could benefit from the garden, such as schools who could use it for teaching children, and care facilities, for whom a garden could provide rehabilitative qualities to those under their care. They also help establish what people want from a garden in their community – do they just want to grow vegetables, or are flowers important as well? How about keeping livestock? Such meetings can be facilitated by one or more individuals, but should provide an equal forum for the exchange of ideas – the form of garden, or even whether a garden should be started at all, is not to be imposed on a community.
Community meetings are also a good way to start working out the resources that will be available to make the garden a reality. Who has which skills that will help? Some people may have significant experience in growing crops already, while others may be more adept at tasks such as administration or organizing work groups. Everyone who wants to be involved will have something to contribute. You should also contact local authorities to see what services they can provide. They may be able to supply grass clipping taken from the maintenance of municipal areas, or a service to take away material from the site that can be recycled, for example.
Your local authority will also be able to advise on any regulations and restrictions that may apply to the community garden. These may include restrictions on kinds of livestock and their stocking density, the disposal of material from the site and the use of water.
The ordinances of your local authority will also impact upon the sites within the neighborhood that might be available for restructuring as a community garden. However, local authorities often have several plots that they lack the resources to maintain, and may be willing to allow the garden in an area in return for the upkeep and maintenance of it. Local landowners may also have locations they would be willing to ‘lease’ to the community. Ensure that any site can be secured for at least three years in the first instance, as this will give enough time for the garden to get established and produce all its crops.
Just as a permaculture gardener would when designing his or her own property, a comprehensive analysis of the site should be conducted before implementing any changes. This analysis will take into account any different aspects. These will include: the availability of water, the state of the soil and the possible pollutants it may contain, the amount of sunlight and shade the site receives (it will need at least some direct sunlight during the summer to set crops) and access to the site. Ideally, the garden should be accessible to all those who want to be involved via public transport – minimizing emissions and not excluding those who don’t have a car.
Plan the site to meet the needs of all involved parties. Besides planning the location of garden beds and buildings, you will typically also want to incorporate an area for children to both be involved in the process of food cultivation, but also to play when their minds wander. You will need to think about storage areas for everything from tools and compost to livestock feed (if keeping animals) and harvested crops. Remember permaculture design principles such as maximizing the edge and avoiding straight planting lines when planning the site.
You are likely to need to prepare the site before it can be planted. Organize groups to help clear and clean the land, to source materials and plants, to work on the arrangement and assignment of plots, as well as things like improving the soil with organic matter and digging ponds. Once the site is ready you can begin planting your crops, moving in your livestock and enjoying the garden!
Communication is an important part of a community garden, so try to establish several different forms, from a waterproof bulletin board at the site to an online discussion board where members can swap ideas and information. It is also important to organize regular get-togethers for people to not only discuss any changes or problems with the garden, but also to celebrate the successes.