How to Start a Community Garden

A great place to start is by visiting NeighborSpace's website. NeighborSpace is a non-profit organization that has been providing assistance in Chicago for communities to develop and maintain their gardens. NeighborSpace is one of the first stops for any City of Chicago group looking to start their community garden. They have a great program and process for acquiring suitable land for community gardens, urban farms (new!), and other green spaces.

Upon review of the various resources, there are other key local groups that will help to further understand the process of starting a garden, defining your garden and the various rules and regulations to ensuring the longevity of the garden, and last but not least, helping to understand the needs a garden takes to continue year after year successfully.

Local Organizational Resources
  • City of Chicago's Park District have more information on available plots with the parks district to start gardens.
  • Chicago Botanic Gardens offers program about community gardening on their website and provide some technical assistance through their various programs like Windy City Harvest, a 9 month urban agricultural certification and Green Youth Farm, empowering young people to engage and experience agriculture.
  • City of Chicago's Sustainable Backyards Program provides rebates for native plants, trees and rain barrels.

For information on detailed start-up guides please refer to both the American Community Garden Association and University of Califorina's Cooperative Extension Program dedicated to creating community gardens and education. Both guides provide extensive step-by-step recommendations that will be required of each community garden leader to ensure they are taking. Below are some of the top items to consider when starting a garden and linked resources for Chicago.

  1. Is there a strong local community interest in starting a garden?
    See this City of Chicago map of all documented community gardens. It is important to know what other gardens are in your area and what they are growing.

  2. Community gardens need to have strong community buy-in, it is important to identify the potential for longevity and growth after the first year. How can you ensure your garden will continue successfully?
    Include community partners to add value and provide financial, marketing and public support. Consider bringing in the alderman of your ward, your local faith organization, schools and community action groups. After these traditional partners are engaged, consider reaching out to your local public organizations, libraries, parks, health centers, and talking with the local hardware store, florists, nurseries and landscaping companies.

  3. Find an expert, as many as possible, to assist with development and design of the garden.
    Finding someone with substantial knowledge about growing food or flowers and other plants is an important resource to understanding the ebb and flow of the growing season and steps that are necessary to ensure a positive harvest or beautify the garden. There are many gardens and not enough experts to go around, so it is important to make connections with city programs and other organizations like Chicago Botanic Garden's Windy City Harvest, Growing Home, NeighborSpace, OpenLands, U of I Extension's Horticulture Program, Earth Team and garden clubs, to find your local garden club, go here. And consider taking advantage of the power of volunteers and taking advantage of innovative volunteer websites like One Brick Chicago.

  4. Understand the finances around what you will be growing and determine a budget as soon as possible. Finding creative resources to continue to fund your garden is always a lot more complicated after the first year.
    Financing a garden long term can be difficult, but knowing where to locate the resources is half the battle. It is important that you and your community are pitching in to keep the garden going, and by potentially partnering with a not-for-profit, school, community action group or faith based organization can provide your garden a broader range of financing opportunities. Here are a few to begin researching.
    America the Beautiful Fund - Provides seeds and some resources to varying projects.
    Captain Planet Foundation - Provides grants for schools and community projects that provide education and environmental impact.
    Midwest Gardening Grant - For schools, and community groups centered around children. American Community Garden Association - ACGA created a funding list of opportunities.Lot to Green - Provides technical assistance to communities to facilitate their vacant lots and other urban properties for community gardens and farms, water management, mitigation and open space.

  5. Lists of funding opportunities
    Rebel Tomato - A blog by ACGA for community gardens to access and resource. A second list of funding opportunities.
    Garden ABC's- A forum for parents, educators and community members seeking guidance, resources, fundraising, networking and teaching support to start and maintain learning gardens.

  6. Be aware of city ordinances.
    City of Chicago Urban Agriculture FAQ, City of Chicago reports by OpenLands