From Grassy Wasteland to Community Garden

The Fauna Garden: a suburban backyard turned community garden.

The Fauna Garden: a suburban backyard turned community garden.

Do you have a large, grassy backyard that demands frequent watering and mowing, and you just don’t know what to do with it? You’re not alone, but rest assured that there is more potential there than you might think.

It wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I gazed out at our backyard to expansive grassy nothingness. We loathed looking at a bunch of useless grass, knowing it was taking up potential food-growing space. The idea of removing all that sod by ourselves and starting a garden, however, was tremendously daunting. Plus, we thought, what could we possibly do with that much produce?

We talked to some of our friends about our dilemma, and ultimately, the Fauna Community Garden was born. If you find yourself in a similar position and would like to turn your grassy wasteland into a fruit-and-veggie Eden, check out these tips on starting a community garden in your own yard.

Throw the Idea Around with Friends

It’s amazing what you can achieve when you pool your resources. Many of our friends were renters, didn’t have enough yard space to garden, or knew nothing about organic gardening and wanted to learn. The closer you live to one another, the better this works. There have been times when distance has made it more difficult to get garden members together for meetings and work parties, and it’s better for the environment if members don’t have to jump in a car to go work in their garden or harvest veggies.

Start a Facebook Group

As much as technology can sometimes be a burden, it’s also amazing at helping us connect with each other. We started a Facebook group to bring members and potential members together, and used Facebook events to announce work parties, potlucks, and garden news. However, emailing and word-of-mouth also work well.

Fauna Garden's first work party: Members get started removing 2,000 square feet of sod.

Fauna Garden's first work party: Members get started removing 2,000 square feet of sod.

Plan Your First Work Party

Removing a yard full of sod is a lot of work, but doing it with a group makes it go much faster and turns work into fun.

Once you’ve got your gardening group formed, collectively choose a day that works best for the majority of the members (we found that Sundays worked best for our group). Then, pick a date and schedule your “ground-breaking” party! Really talk it up and have fun with it. We had friends who came and helped with the initial work just for fun. They weren’t interested in being an ongoing garden member, but they were keen to hang out, lend a hand to the effort, and get their hands dirty.

Be sure to have lots of tools handy and ask people to bring tools they may have available. Also, have snacks and refreshments available for all your hard workers. An initial game plan of what needs to be done is helpful, but discuss what you want to accomplish that day with the group at your first meeting.

Gather Materials and Resources

Since there are so many free or low-cost resources out there, there’s no need to raid your savings account to start a garden. You just have to talk to people and get the word out. Share with friends and acquaintances your specific needs: tools, seeds, stakes, etc. Speak to local businesses. Put an ad on Freecycle and your local Craigslist. Don’t be afraid to dumpster dive or go "curb shopping". We were able to get compost and soil amendments from local organic farms, rocks and tools from Freecyclers, and free mulch from a local tree-trimming company, Asplundh. A seed and cutting swap is also a great idea if you only have a few seeds or know others who might like to share seeds and/or cuttings.

For information, there are tons of resources available locally and contained in gardening how-to books. Be sure to check out local farmer Peter Burkard’s ongoing gardening column, and feel free to ask questions. Also, here is a roundup of useful books for the backyard gardener.

Seedlings await planting at the Fauna Garden.

Seedlings await planting at the Fauna Garden.

Set Goals and a Planting Schedule

As a group, set realistic goals for the garden. Do you want to grow using only heirloom seeds? How much food would you like to produce? How will costs be shared? How much labor is each member expected to contribute?

Find an online gardening guide and decide what to plant. You don’t have to start out growing every vegetable from A to Z. Start with just a few of your favorites or veggies everyone likes. Talk to experienced gardeners about what grows best in your area. This is especially important in Florida.

Check out the UF/IFAS Vegetable Gardening Guide. If you don’t have many seeds, plan a seed swap or decide what seeds you want to acquire and where to get them. If you are looking for heirloom seeds, there are some great companies with beautiful catalogs: Baker Creek Heirloom SeedsSeed Savers Exchange, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Do the Math

Donated and recycled materials will save you money, but realistically, you will have some expenses. Discuss this upfront with garden members and keep track of what needs to be purchased or what individuals buy for the garden, and divide up the costs among members. Some members may not be able to contribute as much financially, but will be able to attend work parties more often. It usually all balances out in the end.

Keep the Momentum Going

Continue to have work parties, even if there’s not much to be done but weeding and deciding what to plant. It’s an excuse to bring friends together! Send out regular notices when items need to be planted, harvested, or weeded. If you have too much produce, take some to your local farmers' market, share with your neighbors, or donate to All Faiths Food Bank. This is a great way to get more involved with your community!

Have Realistic Expectations

Don’t expect to become an organic farmer overnight. It’s a learning process. You’ll experience incredible satisfaction when you bite into your first radish or green bean. Remember, you are building community and helping others learn how to grow their own food. Even if you don’t want to do something on this scale, at least plant a few seeds and see how rewarding it is to eat something you grew.

One of our hopes in creating a backyard community garden was that it would create a trickle-down effect and inspire people to start their own gardens or do something crazy like dig up their backyards, too! Then they would inspire others, and so on... until everyone has some food growing in their backyard, or maybe even out front!