How to: start a community garden in D.C.
|July 10, 2012||Posted by Josh Singer under Opinion, Print Issues, Stories, Volume 2, Issue 4 (July/August 2012)|
The first step in creating any community garden is to identify a vacant lot. Once a spot is identified, research who owns the land. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the District Department of the Environment, Parks and Recreation, and the National Park Service have access to a database of each lot in D.C., its ownership, and its jurisdiction. This step was especially hard because our lot “fell through the cracks” and didn’t have a parcel or lot number.
A week of research at the Office of Surveyors revealed that the land was passed from the Soldiers Home to the Washington Hospital Center and finally to the Federal Highway Administration, who leases the land to DDOT. Once you know what agency has jurisdiction over the land, you will want to talk to someone in charge of permits to find out which kind you need. The DDOT did not have a community garden construction permit, so we had to apply as a “rain garden” instead.
Next, we needed to raise community support for the garden. We did a lot of outreach via blogs, listservs, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meetings, community meetings, flyering, and so on. The most important outreach we did was knock on each door in the neighborhood because there are many residents who do not use the Internet, have time to read fliers, or attend ANC meetings. If you want your garden to be supported by long-term residents and serve people who need a cheap and sustainable food source, you have to go door-to-door.
Community meetings are essential to gain as much input from as many people as you can. Your garden should be a reflection of the community’s needs and not a reflection of your ego. One of the items on our initial site plan was a limited dog park. After several community meetings, the majority of people did not want to confine their dogs to a small section of the garden. Now, we allow dogs to run loose all over the park. Incidentally, this has probably helped with rat and squirrel problems.
It’s important to put a lot of thought and detail into your site plan because some agencies will not allow any deviations without additional permits. Once you have finalized your site plan, you can begin begging for, borrowing, repurposing, and buying supplies. A survey of cheap and free services in DC is available on the “resources” page at the Field to Fork Network website. And finally, I can’t express how amazing a pallet fence can be for your garden and bank account.
To fund your garden, there are a lot of grants in D.C. Many are listed on the linked website above but most require a 501(c)3 non-profit status, which takes a lot of time and money. An easier solution is to find a 501(c)3 environmental non-profit that would want to be your fiscal agent. This will give you the benefits of a 501(c)3 status.
Other things to remember are to test your soil quality; if it’s contaminated you’ll need to build raised beds. Visit missutility.net for information about water pipes to tap into if you don’t have a clear source. You can also rent a hydrant adapter from DC Water which taps into the nearest fire hydrant, so you can fill your cistern. And when it comes to cisterns, bigger is better, since it means fewer taps and refills.
Wangari Gardens, the community garden started by the author, is dedicated to late Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathi. Wangari Gardens is a 3-acre community garden built this spring to spread Prof. Maathi’s message of using green public space for the non-commercial benefit of the surrounding community.
Constructed in Park View next to the Washington Hospital Center, the garden is divided into two parts: rented family plots and a space left open for community recreation. The first section, comprising 60 raised bed family plots, is the focal point of the park. A plot rents for $50 a year to anyone residing within a mile and a half radius of the park and financial assistance is available. There are also accessible plots available for people with disabilities.
The “edible fence” around the family plots is part of the public garden that is open for anyone to care for and harvest from. Due to a shortage of funds and our love of repurposing, we constructed the fence from wooden pallets salvaged throughout D.C. Growing along each pallet is a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables. The garden includes:
- blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and strawberries
- a “Three Sisters” garden (Native American mix of corn, squash, and beans)
- a sunflower garden
- an herb garden
- a solidarity garden dedicated to displaced Colombian farmers.
- a butterfly garden
- an educational garden
- and a 40-fruit orchard forest garden with figs, pawpaws, mulberries and jujubes.
All of these gardens are open to the public. We just ask that people take only a little, pick only when ripe, and don’t pull any roots out.
Depending on a D.C. Department of the Environment (DDOE) grant, Wangari may construct a rain garden which would purify rainwater into an underground cistern and use solar power pumps to water the garden. In theory, it could sustain the entire project, which would then be completely off the grid.
Wangari’s education garden fuels community partnerships with local schools, hospitals and after-school programs. They hope to offer a variety of garden workshops to the public. Plans for the future include additional family plots every season, a medicinal forest garden, and a wheelchair path.