I thought it was just me and my interest in gardening in general that had me seeing community gardens everywhere I looked, but no. It's a fact. Metro-Atlanta now boasts more than 350 community gardens, many of them started in just the last few years. In short, you can hardly swing a stirrup hoe without hitting one. Community gardens have become the new hang-out at parks, schools, places of worship, previously-empty lots, and any other little swath of land that can be transformed into greenspace glory. Many community garden leaders intend their locations to be welcome havens for all, but achieving that in reality can sometimes be challenging. Here are some ways to ensure that all members of your community can enjoy your new community asset:
1. Make sure your location is easily-accessible. Okay, fine, you've already got your garden on the ground, so I'm not here to tell you to relocate. However, take a look and be sure that there are not some unintended barriers to accessing your location that can be easily reduced. Can you see the garden from the street or is it blocked by weeds or debris? Is there available parking, including a bike rack? Do you have signs letting people know that it is a community garden and that all are welcome to visit? If not, these are all easy, inexpensive fixes that might just mean clearing out and designating a little extra space to make your members and visitors a bit more welcome.
2. Accommodate those with disabilities. If you haven't thought about accessibility for people with disabilities, you'll probably think of it pretty quickly the first time someone who can't get up your wood-chipped path with his or her cane, walker, or wheelchair comes to visit. This is where a paved path, at least partially, and an extra-high raised bed that a wheelchair can slide under or beside come in handy, and many community gardens are incorporating these elements right from the get-go. Other niceties that take into consideration a wide range of abilities include shade areas, benches, convenient restrooms, and sensory integration elements such as herb gardens, wind chimes, art elements, water elements, food sampling areas, and other smell-hear-see-touch-taste features.
3. Maintain an open door (gate) policy. There comes a time, usually around the first tomato-snatching, when community garden leaders decide to lock their gardens to reduce the chances of theft. Best practices nationwide show proven strategies to achieve this goal without locking out the public. These include encouraging members to personalize their beds and harvest frequently to show that the food grown is valued, dedicating excess produce to a local food pantry to show commitment to those in need in the area, and offering a "thieves bed" where anyone can pick whatever's ready to be harvested to satisfy those who simply can't restrain themselves at the sight of such beautiful bounty. Also, keep finding ways to involve more parts of the community in the garden and you will increase the number of people who feel ownership and pride in it, and will thereby help protect it. Buddying up with your local police department is always a good idea, too.
4. Provide a welcoming atmosphere. Community garden leaders can set a good example for their members by always greeting visitors to the garden, engaging them in conversation, and inviting them to help or browse. People who linger, laugh, and learn together create a positive environment that is attractive to others. Some ways to know if you're a quart low on this attribute are: (a) if your garden members are simply running in, watering, and leaving, (b) if your garden members don't know each other's names, (c) if you don't have a steady stream of non-members coming by to check out the garden, and, of course, (d) if going to the garden is simply not fun.
I have had the privilege and honor of being involved or having my products used in many new community gardens (including being part of the master planning team for the Harvest Farm at White Street Park in Suwanee, pictured above--see abbreviated list of consulting projects here) and am always interested to hear about the challenges and joys of each garden's unique journey. Please feel free to share additional tips with your fellow metro-Atlanta community gardeners about making their gardens a place for all to enjoy.