When Planning a Community Garden, Think Beyond the Usual Raised Beds

Think imaginatively. Don't be constrained by what a typical community garden looks like.

community gardeners

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I have designed a number of community gardens around the world. Community gardens can enrich the lives of those around them in countless ways. But though I have seen many wonderful projects, I also feel that many of the people involved in establishing such spaces did not always grasp or effectively harness the full potential of a site. 

Community gardens can be more than just simple gardens with raised beds where annual crops and flowers are grown. They can be truly multi-functional spaces where you can not only gather as a community to grow your own, but form a hub for a huge range of different community enterprises. Thinking outside the box can make community gardeners true trailblazers. Here are some ideas that might inspire you to make more of your community garden project.

Beyond Raised Beds

Community gardens will often include at least some element of annual production. But filling the center of a site with a number of raised beds can sometimes limit the potential of the project. Food crops do not always have to be segregated into specific beds or growing areas. 

Edible landscaping and food forest schemes can turn a recreational park into a pick-your-own wonderland for local people, while also remaining an attractive and calming space to sit, picnic, walk, or perhaps even cycle and enjoy other outdoors recreation. 

You may have areas for annual crops, too, but do not overlook the addition of plenty of trees, shrubs, and other perennial plants for carbon sequestration, wildlife, and abundant yields. Even in paved areas, clever use of reclaimed materials and containers can allow the inclusion of small trees, shrubs, and other perennial plants in the scheme. 

Another important thing is to consider carefully the use of vertical as well as horizontal space. Vertical gardens, trellises, planting towers, hanging gardens, and more can make sure that every inch of the space is utilized to the fullest. Planting against walls or fences can also add to the sense that a community garden is a real oasis in the heart of a town or city. 

Considering Multiple Yields

A community garden is a space where a community can grow food together. But thinking beyond food production can help you see that a garden can also produce other yields—from herbs for natural medicine and wellbeing, to ingredients for natural health and beauty products, materials for crafting and DIY projects, and so much more.

Beyond these things, community gardens can be spaces where intangible yields can be "harvested". For example, a community garden builds community togetherness, provides joy and stress relief. It can be a place of learning, where skills can be honed—not just gardening but potentially other skills like plant lore, foraging, crafts, and perhaps even food prep, cooking, and food preservation. Consider how the garden can become an educational hub, welcoming a range of people from different walks of life.

Beyond Plants—Other Elements for a Community Garden

A community garden scheme may have the potential to add other elements. Some elements might be for the enjoyment of people—pergolas, gazebos or other structures, paths and trails, outdoors kitchens, wood-fired pizza ovens or barbecue spots, picnic tables, sports/gym facilities, play parks or den-building areas for kids. Even in relatively small areas, there are imaginative ways to make sure each element serves multiple functions. For example, in one community garden, a fence-like partition between two areas of the space doubles as an obstacle course for kids. 

These may also be plenty of local wildlife—not just the plants themselves, which should be chosen with wildlife in mind, but also features like wildlife ponds, wood piles, nesting boxes or feeders. In certain situations, a community garden might become a wildlife sanctuary, too. It might even become a community farm, and you could include some chickens, ducks, rabbits, or other livestock in your plans.

If there is space for a small building on site, this opens up many more options—community kitchens and/or communal dining spaces, community pop-up shops and swaps, and libraries (perhaps not only for books but also for tools and other items). It can be a hub for gatherings and events, lectures, lessons, and workshops. And it can be a center for other community projects like time banks, for example. The options are almost endless.

Ultimately, community gardens can be whatever the community wants them to be. But be sure to think imaginatively and don't be constrained by what a "typical" community garden might look like.