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Growing Your Community Garden

A bird sculpture made from recycled plastic water bottles and other upcycled debris watches over the garden.

Practical advice from a founder of a community garden in the San Francisco Bay Area on how to organize leadership of the garden, involve community members and thrive!

Part 2: Signing up members, sharing the harvest and more tips!

ECOlunchbox asked Janet Thomas, a founder of the Lafayette Community Garden in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, to share with us how this successful community garden got started, and offer inspiration and practical advice to community members seeking to start gardens in their own neighborhoods. This is the second in a two-part series. The first part focused on establishing a volunteer committee to find the land and get the garden started.

With the location established, water and solar electricity installed for irrigation, garden beds built, and much more, it was time to start planting.

Wow, what a story of perseverance hearing about all the challenges you and the other founding members faced in finding your site and getting permissions from local authorities to use it for the garden. Read Sowing Seeds for a Community Garden – Near You! here.  I’d love to know who gets the privilege now of working in the garden. Can anyone do it, or do you have to be a master gardener?

Membership, capped at 80 families, is open to anyone, with preference given to those from Lafayette. You don’t have to have any gardening experience to join!

Application forms can be downloaded from the garden website. Dues are $100 per individual and $150 per family. Each season, about four free memberships are awarded based on need.

The money raised from membership dues is currently just about enough to cover operating expenses. Charging something for participation is a key part of our budget strategy. Our garden families enjoy participating in the community garden, and they share in the harvest of vegetables and flowers.

Located over an old roadbed, the garden is planted in raised beds.

Do the members get to pick a plot and plant what they want?

There are no individual plots. We work together, in teams or individually, but share in the produce. We use sustainable best practices, which include rotation of crops and planting of cover crops during the winter to improve the soil. We also have native plant and other educational gardens on-site, and beautiful natural oak and riparian displays of plants common to the area.

One of the main successes of the garden is that it has created a wonderful sense of community among its members and in the attractive, relaxing space it has created. We have taken care to have seating and signage available for those strolling through. From a working standpoint, we pride ourselves on being a “no guilt” garden, where folks help each other learn best practices. Excess produce goes to the subsidized senior living center in town.

We also encourage members to take on or build projects, and through a community process of approval make sure that the projects meet a need and fit in aesthetically. Most of our classes are member inspired, and many are led by members. We have a weekly “happy hour,” which has become a great way for many members to get to know one another. We have a sandbox and natural kids’ play area, and encourage families to come watch how food is cultivated.

It must have been pretty expensive to get started. How did you raise the money you needed for the initial infrastructure? We’re so curious: What advice would you give to others seeking to follow in your footsteps?

One of the things that the founding group of the garden discovered was that initial networking with community individuals and organizations is key. The support of businesses who give discounts and local foundations who helped finance some of our initial infrastructure was necessary for us to be fiscally sustainable. A local plumbing company donated the plumbing network. A construction firm donated a construction trailer and cut a curb.

To acquire additional funds, a local artist created and sold ceramic tiles and ceramic plates with garden themes. The names of these initial “pollinator” donors were written on our donor wall. In our initial phase of development, we had two fundraising house parties, where we showed a PowerPoint presentation describing our plans.

These campaigns allowed us to raise the $30,000 we needed to get started. To attract our initial cadre of member families, we put out hundreds of flyers on doorsteps of houses and apartments. Since then, to respond to demand, we have expanded our membership from 50 to 80 families, with a turnover of about 10 percent per year.

Tomoko Tominaga, who is a cowork director and crop leader, harvests cut flowers planted among vegetables and herbs to attract pollinators at the Lafayette Community Garden.

So who calls the shots at the garden? What’s the leadership structure, and would you recommend it to others?

The garden is sustained on a day-to-day basis by a cooperative community of members, all volunteer, who work under the direction of work leaders and committee heads.

We have a five-member board, representing the various aspects of the garden: edible gardening, communication, education, maintenance, member work days. Board meetings are held monthly.

A member newsletter is written each week by the garden director and sent to all members via email. The newsletter lists the tasks for the week, and classes and activities. Work hours are three days a week and are directed by designated work directors. All propagation and growing activities are coordinated by team leaders.

The organization of these teams has evolved over the past five years and is now at a point where teams work efficiently and effectively, and have learned to communicate to the garden community on a regular basis through monthly member meetings and weekly newsletters, so that all know what’s happening.  

The city did not donate land or money, but did defray the costs of our city permit applications and worked with us to make sure that our relationship with the water district was well-established. To adhere to county rules, we put in handicapped parking and expand our aisles between beds to allow for wheelchairs.

Also very helpful, our local nonprofit, Sustainable Lafayette, agreed to be our fiscal sponsor, as they had 501(c)(3) status. This allowed donations to be tax-deductible, and the garden didn’t need to seek legal nonprofit status. In return for serving as our fiscal sponsor, 7 percent of all money we raised was given to Sustainable Lafayette.

We think having a collaborative, cooperative community garden with many teams and shared control of crops and duties is extremely important and healthy for the long-term stability of the garden. Though we have a fairly stable membership, with about 10 percent of members leaving each year, it’s important that there are many vested stakeholders.

Would you recommend partnering with a nonprofit?

Partnering with a nonprofit allows donations to be tax-deductible. It also makes grant application easier in many cases. Our nonprofit fiscal sponsor also, as part of our contract, allowed us to use their insurance policy for liability and helped us establish an employment contract for our paid garden manager the first two years.

I’ve heard you mention the phrase “no guilt” garden. What does this mean?

One way that we establish satisfaction among members is to make the garden a “no guilt” place.  Members are asked to commit to six hours of work each month. We have a logbook to note hours worked, but we check the log mainly to find out if someone has been missing for a personal reason, and to see if we can help. We have another category of nonworking members who need not commit to work but can come when they’re able. When they do work, they are able to take home produce.

Folks have different interests and skills to offer. It’s important that members identify for themselves what these are, and that they are given the opportunity to try a role and change if it’s not a good fit. Asking folks to take more of a leadership role has been successful. Having backup members to take on roles when other members are sick or away is crucial. Ongoing maintenance of any garden is challenging due to the unpredictable nature of gardening itself, but each year, with members’ interests and needs more clearly identified, the process gets easier. The community of working members and the living oasis that’s been created are well worth our efforts.

If you have any questions about how we got started or how the garden now operates, visit the garden website at www.lafayettecommunitygarden.org, where we have a list of common questions and answers.  At the website, there is also a space where you can submit questions.

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