Can I plant some vegetables in the vacant lot nearby?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Aug. 5 2009 9:26 AM

Garden-Variety Activism

Can I plant some vegetables in the vacant lot nearby?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

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There's a vacant lot near my home that's been sitting empty for a long time. I'm interested in trying to start a community/co-op garden. It would be an attractive place instead of an empty lot. We could possibly get some local businesses to donate equipment and topsoil. People could grow their own organics and, if they sell some, put a percentage of the money back into the co-op. People without a cash investment can contribute their time instead. The city could add this to one of its "green" spaces. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to organize this, I'm relatively new to the community, and I grow nice houseplants but know almost zilch about farming.

I think it's possible to enlist the city and some local businesses, and I really don't think it would be difficult to sign up participants, but I'm not sure how to start. Any suggestions?

—Amy, San Francisco

Sandy:

Woman gardening.
Gardening can be a communitywide activity

First, a disclosure: I've been known to kill cacti. Office plants have been removed from my desk by caring colleagues. And I have a balcony's worth of dead succulents.

Still, even with my black thumb, I know that there's more to community gardens than the locavore hype. Studies show that every $1 invested in a community-garden plot yields $6 worth of produce. Community gardens can help raise property values, reduce crime rates, and improve the health of those who participate. They also help provide food for neighborhood residents and surplus produce that can be donated to local food banks and shelters.

You're lucky. San Francisco happens to be one of the very best places in the United States to start a community garden: There are apparently more than 5,000 vacant lots to choose from and a robust urban gardening community. The city manages 40 gardens (and that number is growing), while the American Community Gardening Association lists another 12. San Francisco even has a one-acre demonstration garden with free or low-cost classes on urban composting and gardening.

The city's Recreation and Parks Department has a one-page how-to sheet on how to start a community garden. It's specific to San Francisco, of course, but its basic advice applies to pretty much any urban area. It lists three necessary ingredients for success: space, funding, and interest.

Space
Assuming that you don't already know who owns the plot, check with City Hall before you start digging. If it's public property, you can apply to the Parks Department for approval. ACGA's helpful guide suggests that you make sure the site gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, consider past uses of land (in case there's a chance of contamination), and do a soil test. Also make sure that you have easy access to water and, especially if you plan to be a city-run garden, wheelchair access. If it is privately owned, your best bet is to identify the owner and ask for either a longer-term lease (preferably at least three years), or free, temporary use of the lot. For either, you will likely have to agree to assume all liability—and even then it might be a tough sell.

Funding
While the cost of your garden will depend on the size, design (Want ideas? Check out the White House garden plans), and how many in-kind donations you receive from local businesses, the Parks Department says to estimate $20 per square foot in construction costs. Urban Harvest, a community-garden nonprofit in Houston, provides a helpful list of items to include when planning your budget. If the cost becomes daunting, you can start looking for funding elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a competitive grant program for Community Food Projects, granting nonprofits approximately $5 million in 2009. And more funding may be on the way. The Community Gardens Act, a bill to provide additional funds for establishing community gardens, was introduced last month by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

Interest
Since there are already so many community gardens in the Bay Area, make sure that yours actually fills a need (and that people will help you!). Send flyers around your neighborhood and approach established groups, such as community centers or churches. Talk about your idea at a community meeting. Congress proclaimed August "National Community Gardening Awareness Month"; go ahead and use the publicity to help drum up support for your cause.

Starting a community garden is no easy task, so no one will fault you if this sounds like more than you bargained for. In that case, you can get involved with an existing community garden, such as Alemany Farm in southeastern San Francisco or Free Farm Stand, a volunteer-run organization that offers backyard produce free to the public (especially low-income residents of the Mission District). Or join a group that is harvesting and donating food from local fruit trees, such as Village Harvests or SF Glean.

Finally, if you have backyard space in addition to the ugly vacant lot you'd like planted, consider contacting MyFarm, one of the few for-profit urban gardening groups. MyFarm will design, plant, and maintain an organic vegetable garden in your own backyard for an installation cost and modest weekly charge. With that kind of service, not even I would be able to kill the tomatoes.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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