Take 10 Steps to Create a Successful Community Garden at Your Site

Take 10 Steps to Create a Successful Community Garden at Your Site

By Carolyn Zezima, Esq.

The popularity of community gardens has exploded in recent years to over 5,000 community gardens nationwide. As part of a growing trend toward green building and sustainability in tax credit and other affordable housing, many tax credit sites see the benefits of having community gardening programs for residents and have started these programs at their sites. And many developers have included community gardens in the construction design of new sites, because a growing number of state housing finance agencies now include criteria for food access and resident gardening in their Qualified Allocation Plans (QAPs) for tax credits. Plus, owners often get other financing, zoning, and green design incentives for including resident community gardens at their sites, says Shaina Burkett, human services program specialist at the Denver Housing Authority, which oversees numerous public and tax credit sites with resident community gardens.

Low-income residents often have limited access to fresh, healthy food, and owners and managers of affordable housing sites are in a unique position to provide greater access, says Bomee Jung, deputy director at Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. in New York City. Enterprise’s Green Communities program is one of several third-party green building certification programs that state housing finance agencies reference in their QAPs. Enterprise recently developed healthy local food access guidelines that encourage resident community gardens at new and existing tax credit sites (see www.enterprisecommunity.com/resources/ResourceDetails?ID=74962.pdf).

We’ll give you the basics about community gardens, describe the benefits you’ll reap, and explain the steps to take to start and manage a community garden program at your tax credit site.

What Are Resident Community Gardens?

Resident community gardens are shared spaces at tax credit and other affordable housing sites where residents gather to garden and grow food. They can range in size from one communal raised bed, to hundreds or thousands of square feet of individual plots, to several acres. They can serve just a few residents or as many as 50 or more, and can serve special populations of residents, such as seniors, youth, or residents with disabilities.

Some sites have gardens that generate income to benefit the garden program or for residents themselves, and grow a diverse array of vegetables, flowers, and herbs for sale. Many sites use their gardens to teach classes, empower disabled residents, and train residents for employment.

Benefits of Community Gardens

Besides helping owners comply with green building and tax credit QAP criteria, community gardens provide numerous benefits to residents and to sites. Among the reasons our experts gave for creating community gardens at your site, community gardens:

  • Give residents access to fresh, healthy food;
  • Reduce residents’ monthly food costs;
  • Improve resident health;
  • Create social activities for isolated seniors;
  • Reduce crime and drug activity;
  • Teach residents self-reliance and vocational skills;
  • Empower youth and disabled residents;
  • Create income opportunities for residents;
  • Encourage water conservation, waste reduction, and recycling;
  • Beautify site grounds; and
  • Increase site and overall area property values.


The Insider consulted experts around the country who have started and managed resident community gardens at tax credit and other assisted sites. They gave us a list of 10 steps to take to start and manage a successful community garden program at your site:

Step #1: Assign Staff Member to Lead Program

Assign a point person from site staff to lead the planning process and oversee the gardening program. Many sites have specific positions, such as “sustainability coordinator,” which include gardening as part of the positions’ sustainability and energy conservation duties, or use their service coordinator staff, or even Americorps or Vista volunteers to do the major legwork.

The staff member’s involvement can range from direct planning and supervision of the garden to being a point of contact for residents and partner organizations who will actually plan and run the garden program. Make sure the staffer you’ve assigned knows he or she must stay involved throughout the planning process and the gardening season, regularly visit the garden, and communicate directly and regularly with residents, says Michael Harris, sustainability projects coordinator at Foundation Communities in Austin, Texas.

Step #2: Determine Resident Interest

Success of your site’s gardening program begins and ends with resident engagement and participation in the planning process, says Beth Keel, sustainability initiatives liaison for the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), who oversees 12 community gardens for residents of SAHA-regulated sites. It’s important to involve them from the beginning.

“Community gardens are 99 percent community, and 1 percent gardening,” says Harris. He recommends you survey your residents—along with your site’s staff--to gauge their interest in gardening and their desired level of participation. You can also use the survey to recruit resident garden leaders who will help you plan and manage the garden through the season and ensure important garden duties like watering and weeding are completed throughout the season.

Depending on the type and size of your garden, you’ll need to recruit at least 10 active gardeners and two resident garden leaders to make your garden a success, says Burkett. For an example of a survey you can use, see our Model Form: Use Survey to Recruit Residents to Garden Program, at the end of the article.

Step #3: Identify Community Partners

Many sites with community gardens don’t plan and manage the garden program entirely by themselves. Instead, they partner with experienced community organizations to work with the site staff and residents to plan, fund, install, and/or manage the garden.

It’s important to partner with organizations that are truly based in the community and have existing relationships with other organizations that can support your garden program, says Mac Levine, founder and executive director of Concrete Safaris, an organization that runs gardening programs at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) sites involving thousands of residents and tens of thousands of square feet of growing space. You may want to partner with several organizations that can contribute to different aspects of the program, such as gardening supplies, soil and other resources, funding, technical assistance, access to volunteers, educational opportunities, and potential income or vocational training opportunities for residents. At least one of your partners should have local experience and expertise in gardening, soil health, and growing food in small spaces, says Levine.

Organizations you may want to consider contacting and recruiting as potential partners include:

  • Food access and urban farming organizations;
  • City departments of parks and recreation;
  • Community development organizations;
  • Botanic gardens;
  • Horticulture societies;
  • Green building councils;
  • Open lands organizations;
  • Mayors’ initiatives for food and fitness;
  • Churches;
  • Foundations;
  • Volunteer service organizations; and
  • Housing authorities’ garden or greening programs.

Step #4: Select Appropriate Location

The location and type of garden depends on a number of factors. Not all locations on your site are suitable for gardens, says NYCHA’s Garden & Greening program coordinator Robert Bennaton. Walk your site with landscape or other maintenance staff and knowledgeable partner organizations to assess the site for the following features:

Sunlight. Most vegetables need at least six hours of sun per day. Visit the site location at different times of day to see how many total hours of sun it gets each day.

Space. How large is the site? How many beds can you fit in the space? Is there room for other features, such as a shed, seating, and composting? Will the garden block any paths, doorways, or take away from an existing use?

Water. Water access is vital, and ideally, your site should have access to a spigot or other water source. If not, or as a water supplement and conservation measure, consider collecting rainwater from rooftops.

Soil. Plants grow best in soil that drains well and doesn’t dry out too quickly. Avoid areas where puddles form when it rains or are too sandy and dry. An ideal soil for direct planting has good fertility and good drainage, with no history of contamination or industrial use. If plants are currently growing in the area, make sure they are healthy.

Practical Pointer: Consider having your soil tested. Almost all states have an agriculture extension service or soil-testing lab where you can send soil samples for testing for fertility and the presence of contaminants and heavy metals such as lead or arsenic. Soil tests cost between $15 and $150, depending on what you request.

Slope. Locate your garden in a flat area with little slope.

Access. Make sure that the site has adequate access to deliver soil and other heavy supplies. If the area doesn’t have room for storage, do you have an existing accessible storage area for gardening equipment and tools? And be sure that disabled residents will have access into and around the garden area to avoid violating fair housing rules and the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessibility, says Keel.

Existing structures. Assess existing structures, fences, rocks, cement, shrubs, and trees to determine which you’ll need to move and which you can keep or reuse for the garden (for example, using a cement area for garden tables, or large trees as a shady area for resident gatherings). Determine if gas lines, water mains, or septic tanks exist below the area.

Step #5: Hold Planning Meeting(s) to Plan and Design Garden

Once you’ve chosen your garden’s location, hold planning meetings with partners, assigned staff, and resident leaders to: (1) spell out the vision and features for the garden; (2) design the space; and (3) assign planning, design, and construction tasks. You’ll probably have to hold more than one meeting to make sure everyone understands his role and responsibilities in garden planning, installation, and day-to-day management, says Levine. The garden team should create a plan that addresses the following topics:

Type of garden. The type of garden depends on who will be using the garden, the purpose of the garden, the amount of space you have, how much food you’ll want the garden to grow, the soil quality at your site, and resident preferences, says Keel. Two key factors to consider when planning the type of garden are:

Planting beds. You’ll want to decide what type of planting beds works best for your garden—for example, planting in raised beds or planting directly into the ground. If your garden is primarily for elderly or disabled residents, for example, you’ll want to install raised beds that are wheelchair accessible and high enough so residents can reach from all sides without heavy bending, says Keel. She recommends making at least a portion of any garden accessible for residents with disabilities and to make all of it accessible if you manage sites specifically for or have a large percentage of elderly and disabled residents. Many of SAHA’s residents are elderly or disabled, so Keel uses ADA-compliant raised beds that are 24 inches high, with paths at least 36 inches wide, in all SAHA gardens.

But if your garden is for families or youth, and your soil is in good health, planting in beds directly in the ground is fine. Other options include planting using fences and other climbing gardens, or if your site has no open space on the ground, even rooftop container gardening.

Communal or individual plots. You’ll also want to decide if the garden spaces will be communal, meaning the residents share all the space and work on the garden together, or will consist of individual plots or raised beds, says Burkett. Communal gardens work well for smaller garden spaces so more residents can participate and learn together, but they won’t necessarily grow that much food for themselves. If your garden’s purpose is education, youth empowerment, community building, or therapy for older or disabled residents, you can use shared growing spaces that residents can plant and harvest together, says Sandra Gray of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. If the purpose is to give residents access to fresh, healthy food and lower their food budgets, you’ll need more space to give residents individual plots to grow their own food.

Types of plants. Decide what kinds of plants residents will grow in the garden. You don’t need to chose the varieties—leave that up to the resident gardeners to decide—just consider the types so you can better plan the overall design. Types of plants residents can grow in community gardens are:

  • Vegetables;
  • Herbs;
  • Grains;
  • Fruit and nut trees;
  • Flowers and flowering bushes;
  • Berry and other food bushes;
  • Native and medicinal plants;
  • Perennials and perimeter landscaping; and
  • Climbing plants for fences, trellises.

Editor’s Note: Some sites also have beehives to help pollinate the garden and create honey, and even animals such as chickens, at their site. But some municipalities bar the raising of bees, poultry, or other farm animals, and you can face fines if you don’t follow the law. If you’re considering having a beehive or raising chickens for eggs, be sure to consult your site’s attorney to find out what local laws govern these practices.

Structures and other features. Determine what structures and other features to your garden you want or need, and whether you’ll have to buy them, build them, or if any currently exist at the site that you could reuse in the garden. Common garden structures include:

  • Sitting areas with rain/shade shelter;
  • Fencing with lock;
  • Storage shed with lock;
  • Greenhouse to start plants;
  • Work table;
  • Water and irrigation systems;
  • Rainwater collection tanks;
  • Composting and vermiculture (worm composting) bins;
  • Educational signage and tools;
  • Bulletin board;
  • Fire pit/barbecue;
  • Children’s garden/play area; and
  • Public art.

Garden installation process. Decide the timeline for installing the garden and whether you’ll pay professionals or use volunteers to do the work, including cleaning the site, turning sod, building raised beds and structures, ordering soil, filling beds, ordering or starting plants, and setting up the watering system.

Educational and vocational activities. In addition to growing food for residents to use at home, many gardens have educational and vocational activities. For example, Village Gardens in Portland, Ore., creates gardens at public housing and tax credit sites for at-risk youth, who help plan, plant, harvest, and sell the garden’s vegetables at an area farmers market. The program pays the youth an hourly wage through a local grant, says Jason Skipton, community programs supervisor at Village Gardens. Village Gardens also runs resident gardens for families that include 15 hens for laying eggs, a kids gardening and cooking program, and a training program for community health workers using the garden to advocate for good resident health, says Skipton.

Skills of gardeners and training needs. Make a list of the gardening skills you’ll need to install and manage the garden during the season. Ask which of these skills your garden team currently has and find out where to get additional experts, technical assistance, and training for the skills the team doesn’t have. Skills you should look for or may want in gardeners include:

  • Analyzing and improving soil health;
  • Making compost;
  • Installing and operating irrigation;
  • Managing pests;
  • Starting plants;
  • Saving seeds;
  • Planning planting calendars; and
  • Cooking and preserving.

Sustainability. A garden is a great place to grow food, but you can also use the garden as a living classroom for your residents to learn about other sustainability and conservation practices. Many state housing finance agencies encourage owners and managers to take steps to reduce their site’s energy and water usage and to educate residents on making the site a greener, more sustainable place to live. Incorporating sustainable growing practices into your garden could help reduce water, energy, and waste costs at your site in the long run. Consider whether your garden will:

  • Be organic and avoid chemical pesticide and herbicide use;
  • Create biodiversity through planting native and rare seeds and plants;
  • Reduce water consumption by using rainwater tanks, mulching, efficient irrigation, and low-water plants; and
  • Reduce waste by composting, mulching, and using recycled materials.

Troubleshooting. Discuss ways to prevent problems with:

  • Vandalism;
  • Pests;
  • Animals;
  • Cleanliness; and
  • Nonresident access.

Practical Pointer: If you tested your soil, the test results can affect what type of beds you choose. All soil can be improved with compost, but if your soil has poor fertility or has a history of contamination, raised beds with new soil will be a much safer option than planting directly into the ground.

Step #6: Create Garden Budget

Garden programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars to create, but smaller gardens don’t have to be that expensive, says Harris. He has installed gardens at his sites for as little as $2,000 to $4,000 each for gardens with four to eight raised beds. The initial costs of planning and installing can be high, but ongoing maintenance costs are modest, and the cost of starting up each subsequent season is far less than the first year.

Before starting your garden, create a budget to know how much the garden will cost to install and where you’ll get the funds to pay for the garden materials and labor. Grants and donations from partner and other organizations, in-kind donation of materials, and volunteer labor will reduce actual cash outlays to pay for the garden. (For a list of funding sources and Web sites with more information about starting your garden program, see Gardening and Funding Resources, below.)

Planning and installation costs. These may include labor, such as landscape consultants, designers, and gardening and construction labor, and materials, such as:

  • Materials to build raised beds;
  • Soil and soil testing;
  • Machine rentals;
  • Mulch, compost and bin;
  • Fencing;
  • Storage;
  • Path materials;
  • Wheelbarrow;
  • Large and small tools;
  • Watering and irrigation supplies;
  • Trellises and bamboo poles;
  • Lights; and
  • Tables, chairs, and benches.

Annual gardening and maintenance costs. These are the costs to plant and maintain the garden each year. These include:

  • Plants, seeds, bulbs, and flowers;
  • Mulch;
  • Compost;
  • Fertilizer;
  • Replacement tools;
  • Repair costs;
  • Training costs; and
  • Additional liability insurance (find out if your current liability insurance covers resident gardening and if not, whether you can put a rider on the policy to cover any potential liability from resident injuries in the garden).

Step #7: Hold Launch Meeting, Create Garden Rules

Present the garden plan to all interested residents before you begin installing the garden to get them excited about the program and to enlist their help in installing the garden. At this meeting, ask the residents to help draft garden rules that will work for your garden and your site. Don’t leave residents out of the rule-making process, says Burkett. Having residents create rules will keep them invested in the garden throughout the season and empower them to help prevent problems later.

Rules residents can create. Residents who’ll be using the garden should come to an agreement about rules for:

  • Garden opening and closing dates and times;
  • Plot assignment procedure;
  • Minimum garden use requirements;
  • Garden bed neglect and abandonment;
  • Communal vs. individual activities;
  • Watering instructions;
  • Composting instructions;
  • Prohibited plants, pesticides, and fertilizers;
  • Complaint procedure and communication with management;
  • Volunteer requirements, such as number of hours and tasks; and
  • Procedures for the storage and use of tools, seeds, and plants.

Rules management should create. To make sure that any problems that arise in the garden don’t spill over into the rest of your site, create some garden rules of your own and add them to the residents’ suggested garden rules. You can adapt our Model Rules: Set Garden Rules for Residents (see link at end of article), which cover the following:

> Security and keys. Require residents to lock up the garden when they leave. Tell residents that they must not give their key to any other person and that doing so will result in them losing their key privileges [Rules, par. 1].

> Damage to garden structures. Require residents to pay for any damage to the garden’s structures, fences, and other site property contained within the garden [Rules, par. 2].

> Guest policy. Spell out residents’ responsibility to supervise the behavior of nonresident guests [Rules, par. 3].

> Prohibited behavior. Spell out prohibited behavior, such as use of drugs, alcohol, firearms, tobacco, fireworks, and open fires (other than barbecue) [Rules, par. 4].

> Use of major garden equipment. Require that all major garden equipment, such as rototillers, lawn mowers, power trimmers, and saws be used only by maintenance staff or by specified trained individuals over the age of 16 [Rules, par. 5].

> Fees. If your garden plan is funded in part by garden membership fees, spell out the fee policy, as well as any additional fees for items like replacement keys [Rules, par. 6].

Editor's Note: If your garden is part of your site’s common area, such as on the rooftop or patio, you cannot charge a fee to any resident, even your market-rate residents. Improperly charging fees for the use of the garden could lead to the denial of tax credits relating to that area. The IRS specifically bars you from charging households a separate fee to use common areas. Common areas must be equally available and provided without charge to all residents at the site, including residents that are not low income. Be sure to run any fees by your attorney before you start charging them to residents who use the garden.

> Warning and termination. State written warning notice and termination procedures for not complying with garden rules. Some sites give residents oral notice first, followed by a written notice with time to remedy the violation, and then terminate residents’ gardening privileges if they don’t comply or after two written notices [Rules, par. 7].

After you install the garden, laminate and post the complete rules on a bulletin board in the garden so all residents and their guests can see them, says Erika Slaymaker, environmental sustainability coordinator at Project H.O.M.E. in Philadelphia.

Step #8: Have Participating Residents Sign Garden Agreement

Have each resident who wants to participate in the garden complete and sign a garden agreement before they’re assigned a bed or gets a set of keys. Ask for basic resident contact information and gardening experience, and then incorporate your garden rules into the agreement so residents will know what the rules are when they apply and agree to comply. Make sure residents know where to get the agreement and post it on your site’s Web site with other resident documents, says Levine. Your agreement will vary based on the rules you’ve created. Sign the agreement and give one copy to the resident, another to the resident garden leader(s), and keep the original in your site’s files.

If more residents apply than there are available individual beds, take their agreements anyway, and put their names on a waiting list. Then give the agreements and the waiting list to the resident garden leader(s), and they can monitor garden availability. Depending on the garden program, waitlisted residents still may participate in communal activities. Plus, a few garden spots usually open up during the season if gardeners abandon their site or violate the rules, and the garden leaders can contact the waitlisted residents to see if they’re still interested in gardening.

Include indemnification clause. Be sure to add an indemnification clause to any garden agreement to avoid liability for injuries and damage caused by residents. Show the clause and the agreement to your site’s attorney before using it. Here’s a sample clause you can use:

Model Language

To the extent permitted by law, Resident shall indemnify and hold harmless ABC Apartments, its managing agent, and its respective officers, directors, beneficiaries, shareholders, partners, agents, and employees from and against all fines, suits, damages, claims, demands, losses, and actions (including attorney’s fees) arising out of, or relating to, all acts, failures, omissions, and negligence of Resident, his or her agents, employees, visitors, guests, invitees, and contractors, arising out of or in any way relating to Resident’s use of the garden. This indemnification shall apply to both claims of third parties and claims of the resident or any guest of the resident.

Step #9: Hold Regular Garden Meetings

Holding regular meetings will keep residents involved in the garden and ensure that any problems that arise are solved quickly. Residents with gardening experience can share knowledge of garden practices with inexperienced gardeners. Use meeting times to:

  • Fine tune garden rules;
  • Troubleshoot problems like pests, noise, and vandalism;
  • Hold training and educational programs;
  • Conduct group activities, such as soil preparation, communal planting, composting, weeding, and harvesting; and
  • Get resident feedback to aid in next season’s planning.

Step #10: Document and Publicize Progress and Successes

Document the progress and successes in the garden with photos and updates in site newsletters or on its Web site. Doing this can help create a favorable “buzz” about the garden and enhanced image for the site, while helping to reduce opposition from staff, nongardening residents, or neighbors in the area. Plus, funders love to see photos of gardeners in action and hear about bottom-line successes, like the total pounds of produce grown or the amount of money residents saved in food costs throughout the season, says Slaymaker.

Gardening and Funding Resources

Most funding for gardening programs comes from relationships with local organizations and businesses, but there are some national organizations that fund gardening programs. Here are examples of sources that you can use to fund the garden:

  • Grants from partners, local government, and gardening, educational, and environmental organizations;
  • Private and corporate donations;
  • In-kind donations of materials, tools, and volunteer labor;
  • Membership or operating fees (be sure to check with your attorney before charging residents or an outside garden program operator fees to use the garden to avoid violating tax credit rules. If you charge your residents or operators for use of the garden without knowing the rules, the owner may lose tax credits on a portion of the site and possibly prompt the IRS to recapture credits claimed as far back as year one);
  • Sales of produce;
  • Fundraising events; and
  • HUD grants (the HUD Web site provides a frequently updated list of funding opportunities at: www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/mfh/nnw/fundingopps/fundingopps.cfm).

Here’s a list of Web sites with more information about starting your garden program, including where to find funding, technical assistance, volunteers, and supplies:

About the Author

This Special Issue of the Insider was written by Carolyn Zezima, Esq., who is the president of NYC Foodscape (www.nycfoodscape.com), and a consultant with a track record of grass-rooting and managing organizations in the nonprofit sector. She has worked with food and farming enterprises and food policy organizations in Chicago and New York to promote urban agriculture and regional farming, including founding The Talking Farm, “The Farm with Something to Say,” an urban farming and educational enterprise in Evanston, Ill.

While in Illinois, Ms. Zezima also served as director of Chicago’s Green City Market and on several food policy councils that helped to create new community farmers markets and draft and pass legislation, such as the Illinois Food, Farm and Jobs Act.

Ms. Zezima recently joined American Farmland Trust’s Farmland Advisors program, and serves on several food-related committees and boards, including Harvest Home Farmers Markets, Partnership for a Healthier Manhattan, and NYC Food and Farm Bill Coalition. She is currently co-chair of the Food Systems Network NYC policy committee and has co-drafted several food policy and sustainability proposals, including food policy recommendations to include in the revised PlaNYC2030, and the recently released Recipe for the Future of Food in New York City.

Ms. Zezima also practiced law after graduating from Duke University School of Law, and is a licensed member of the New York, California, and Illinois bars. She can be reached at nycfoodscape@ gmail.com or (847) 507-1785. She thanks the following experts for contributing their comments to this article:

Robert Bennaton: Coordinator, Department of Resident Engagement, New York City Housing Authority, 90 Church St., New York, NY 10007; www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/community/garden.shtml.

Shaina Burkett: Human Services Program Specialist, Denver Housing Authority, CONNECTIONS @Mariposa, 1089 Osage St., Denver, CO 80204; www.denverhousing.org.

Sandra Gray: Associate Director, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, 2550 W. North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647; www.bickerdike.org.

Michael Harris: Sustainable Projects Coordinator, Foundation Communities, 3036 S. 1st Street, Austin, TX 78704; www.Foundcom.org.

Bomee Jung, MCP BPI-MFBA: Deputy Director, New York Office, Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., One Whitehall Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10004 www.enterprisecommunity.org.

L. Beth Keel, M.A.: Sustainability Initiatives Liaison, San Antonio Housing Authority, 818 S. Flores, San Antonio, TX 78204; www.saha.org/NewhousingM/housingmatters11/health.html.

Mac Levine, MPH: Founder & Executive Director, Concrete Safaris, 315 East 113th Street, New York, NY 10029; www.concretesafaris.org.

Jason Skipton: Community Programs Supervisor, Village Gardens, 8652 N. Swift Way, Portland, OR 97203; www.villagegardens.org.

Erika Slaymaker: Environmental Sustainability Coordinator, Project H.O.M.E., 1515 Market Street, Ste. 1428, Philadelphia, PA 19102; www.projecthome.org.