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Sowing Seeds for a Community Garden

Advice from a California community garden founder on how to find land and raise funds, along with how to prepare for planting!

Part 1 of 2: Signing up gardeners, managing the garden and sharing the harvest!

Several dozen dirty gardening gloves are clipped to the wire fence with clothespins at the Lafayette Community Garden located in the San Francisco Bay Area. A few communally shared sun hats also dangle from the fence. Then, of course, there are many tools in the sheds and beds of abundant vegetables and flowers that the garden community works and harvests together.

The old adage “many hands make light work” certainly rings true when it comes to community gardens.

The Lafayette Community Garden and Outdoor Learning Center, located about 20 miles east of San Francisco in a suburban city along a freeway, is in its sixth year of operation. As the crisp morning air suggests autumn’s approach, members work on harvesting the last of the summer season’s bounty.

Summer’s harvest of tomatoes, squash, peppers, carrots, beets, turnips, okra and greens is winding down. Cooler weather crops, like beans, peas, broccoli, lettuce, bok choy, onions and garlic, will soon be planted in fall. Herbs, growing in spiral beds, plug away year-round.

“We love to grow flowers to attract pollinators and add to the beauty of the garden,” explains Janet Thomas, who helped found the garden. “We have a butterfly garden with mainly perennial flowers such as penstemon and sages, and a native garden with such plants as ceanothus and manzanita. And this year we grew many cut flowers, such as zinnias, sunflowers and cosmos.”

Since its inception, the garden has become an attractive, thriving space that, March through October each year, is home to 80 families who work collaboratively, growing vegetables, fruits, succulents and flowers. Classes are held here, and a space is made available for the surrounding community to enjoy.

ECOlunchbox asked Thomas to share how this successful community garden got started, and offer inspiration and practical advice to community members seeking to start gardens in their own cities. Here’s our Q&A with Thomas.

We’re so inspired by the flourishing community garden you were instrumental in starting. It must have taken a tremendous amount of volunteer work to get started. What inspired you to lead this effort?

It wasn’t just me starting the garden. Most of us were motivated by an interest in sustainable living – eating and growing in a mindful way, and having a healthy relationship with the natural world. But we were also motivated by an understanding that a sense of community and connectedness with others through work and constructive activities, like this garden, fulfill a basic human need and provide tremendous satisfaction.

We also saw an opportunity to educate the community about all sorts of things, including an understanding of the human and natural history of the area. For instance, we now have an outdoor classroom, a creekside nature trail with a guidebook and an area with model native Miwok shelters.

Janet Thomas led a team in founding the Lafayette Community Garden in California.

It’s fun to hear about the seeds of your inspiration. But what happened next? How did you take this dream and start to make it a reality, including finding a site and funding the project?

There was a core group of about 10 individuals who provided momentum for the development of the garden. This was a group that met regularly and enjoyed collaboration. Each member offered different skills and ideas. Finding a good site was a huge challenge, as there’s not a lot of open land in our suburban area. Raising seed money was another challenge, though we were very fortunate to find some thoughtful, generous local donors. We raised enough money to initially hire a garden manager for two years. She had a creative vision, experience growing and some great construction skills. This was very important in helping get us get started.

One of the things that the founding group of the garden discovered was that initial networking with community individuals and organizations is key. From 2008 to 2011, a group of community members searched Lafayette for a site to establish a garden and outdoor learning center. Our goal was to create a space where citizens of all ages could grow and share food collaboratively, and learn about sustainable gardening and Lafayette’s rich, beautiful local riparian habitat.

What were you looking for in an ideal site for your garden? Can you share with us a little more about your search and advice for community leaders seeking a site in their own cities?

There isn’t much open space or available land in our suburban community, so we went to the chief city planner, and she gave us a city map with possible sites. This was a starting point. We looked for a flat site that was centrally located. We appreciated the visibility of our site from a main road and have received much feedback from community members that they love driving by and seeing us work, or watching the changes that occur in the garden seasonally.

We are also within walking distance for some of the apartment dwellers we were trying to attract, who might not have had garden access. Our site was a construction staging area, not very attractive, built on an old road bed. But we could see its potential. There are huge oak trees and other native plants on the property, and a beautiful creek on one of its borders.

The site is owned by the water utility. So we met with the site manager and utilities real estate head, and they agreed to lease the land not to us, an unknown entity, but to the city. We then wrote a contract with the city, with an agreement to sublease through our fiscal sponsor. We pay the lease fee to the utility ($2,000/year) and write an annual summary of activities to the city and utility. Our lease is renewable every five years. The city has not helped us financially but has waived permit fees, which has been very helpful. We had to abide by county rules, installing parking for disabled and wheelchair access.

Finding a suitable site took time and patience, but we were thrilled with the location we ended up with!

So once you had a site, were you ready to start planting?

No, there was lots more to do before we could get to the gardening!. There was no electricity or water, which was a challenge. Getting a water hookup was prohibitively expensive at about $32,000. Looking into options, we found we could buy a 3,800-gallon water tank, two pumps and a set of solar panels to establish a watering system. This cost about $7,000. We applied for a foundation grant to help cover these expenses.

We contracted to have a local water supplier deliver water in a tanker truck on a bimonthly basis. A local plumbing company with whom we made contact at a Rotary Club meeting donated labor, digging trenches and putting in pipes to allow us to have a number of faucets on the land with pressure from the solar pumps. There were challenging times when the clouds didn’t allow solar-powered pumping, or water delivery was postponed and our tank emptied. So we learned to be patient and expect some challenges. These uncertainties certainly increased our empathy for farmers who grow food for a living!

After two years of operation, we responded to a request from local Boy Scouts to share our parking lot with them. They had lost the property on which their annual Christmas tree lot was located. For two months of the year, they now use our large trailer in the parking lot as an office and have hundreds of trees delivered, which they sell as a fundraising activity for their troop. They found they needed lights, so one of the Boy Scout dads, an electrician, filed a permit, put in a pole and established a connection to the garden.

We share the electrical costs with the scouts. This allowed us to install automatic drip irrigation, which has been instrumental in our continued success, as we’ve increased the number of beds. Drip irrigation is also a much more efficient way of watering plants than hand watering.

To bring conventional water to the garden, we raised enough money four years ago to dig a tunnel under the street to a median strip, connecting to a line used by a neighboring athletic club. We now have a submeter and pay a monthly fee for water that replaces that trucked in to the garden. We sold our solar panels, pump and tank. Change takes time, money and patience. We’ve been lucky to have the cooperation of many local resources to help us in each step.

It must have been a lot of work to get the garden established on the bare plot of land. How did you manage construction of the beds, fences and toolsheds?

Yet another challenge of the site was that our garden sits above an old road bed, so we had to construct raised beds throughout the space to get started. We love our site, but land that’s available at a minimal cost to a community organization often comes with challenges.

Fifty inaugural member families, along with Boy and Girl Scouts, a church group, and other volunteers, enjoyed a sense of camaraderie as they built a greenhouse, shed and original garden beds from a variety of recycled materials.

The work lasted eight months, from April to November 2012. Then we were finally ready to plant! A number of different crops were grown and shared during the season.

A series of educational workshops, open to the public, was successful in providing information about gardening and natural history of the area to those who attended. We hosted an annual Fall Harvest Festival as an end of the season celebration, with music, games, garden tours and classes open to community members.

Since 2012, the garden has continued with these activities. Also, with the help of funding from local foundations and garden clubs, private donations, and a number of Eagle Scout project completions, the greenhouse has been replaced, and 35 redwood and stucco garden beds grace the site.

To read more about how the Lafayette Community Garden has taken root, including how it selects its membership families and how it’s governed, please continue to Part 2 of this story.



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