Rosemary's Blog

Top tips for starting a community garden

Tangmere Community Garden, as seen on Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites on BBC2, is in its 6th year. It was established to grow friendships as much as food on Parish Council land in our rapidly expanding village. These tips might help you to start something similar where you live: it’s definitely the best thing that I have ever done!

  • Negotiate a decent lease for your land - we have a 7 year lease. There was a community garden on a new development nearby where the gardeners were only offered a 2 year lease on a virgin plot: it was never going to work.
  • People have very busy lives these days. Whatever time anyone has for the garden is the right amount of time for them and everyone must respect that. We find that people who come less often than others are reluctant to take crops and then stop coming altogether! That’s not right.
  • Your land will need stock fencing with strong posts if you want to keep animals: they certainly bring the garden to life and eat all the outside leaves/stalks etc of the crops. We had a visitor from an urban community garden in Wellington, New Zealand, which had no livestock and the garden was completely open to everyone. Decide together what sort of a garden you want!
  • You need to be registered as a smallholding if you do want to keep livestock, and to conform with the animal passport and transport schemes. Your livestock supplier will help you with this.
  • You will need access to get things in and out of the garden. We only have a single width gate and so the pig pen has to be just inside it for loading and unloading the animals. We are also unable to have compost etc delivered right into the garden. We have become wheelbarrowing experts, but a lot of time is spent with barrows which could have been avoided with double gates.
  • You need to be insured for theft of tools and equipment and for public liability for yourselves and people visiting for open days etc. We do this through the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society).
  • You also need to consider a child protection policy if you have families at the garden: we all read a statement about this and sign it.
  • You will, of course, need water. Having a few members who are really practical and can turn their hands to plumbing and erecting strong frames for beans is essential (we are on the old Tangmere Battle of Britain Aerodrome and it is very windy!).
  • We were very lucky indeed when were given a polytunnel. It is the best thing! Raising funds for one is strongly recommended but you might need planning permission for it.
  • We have Crop Heroes who are responsible for the sowing of particular crops - this is especially important for a constant supply of salads and leafy veg for the winter. 
  • Make friends with a local professional gardener who will be happy to advise you. Our “President” is the wonderful Sarah Wain from West Dean Gardens. One member says that the plants always seem much happier when she comes to see us!
  • Don’t try to do/grow too much! Most people value sitting down with a cuppa as much (or more) than digging!
  • Cook and eat together - it binds the garden community. Our main cooker is a washing machine drum topped with a car wheel in which we build a fire and use a huge paella pan on top to cook. Lunch is usually a risotto-type dish. When we started people used to pick through and say “I don’t like this or that” - now they just say “Is there any more please?”
  • We have built a pizza oven - they are harder than you think! We also have a camping ring and kettle for every day brew-ups and have collected old plates, mugs, cutlery etc.
  • Sheds are Important but keep them tidy! Getting everyone to learn where things go is a challenge!
  • If we were starting again we would start with a NO-DIG regime as championed by Charles Dowding. We are gradually moving over to this and the garden is looking better and better and producing more and more.
  • Harvesting rotas are as important as watering rotas.
  • Wooden sided raised beds tend to attract slugs and snails.
  • Whether people join you or not they will like the garden being part of their community!
  • Spin-offs in Tangmere included regular fund-raising cookery demonstrations, open afternoons (we give away tea and cake and invite donations) and in the winter we try to run a supper club to keep the community spirit of the garden going, established through eating together.
  • From May to September we have a Bring & Share supper at the Garden on the last Friday of the month.
  • Establish your core working times when people can come and garden in company. Choose a variety of times and days to cover everyone who might like to come. Some people will like to be at the garden alone but most will prefer company. Our main work time is Saturday mornings.
  • We allow members to bring their dogs. On open days we ask people to keep their dogs on leads.
  • A sign is a great idea, as is painting sheds and making the garden fun.
  • People often don’t know how to cook many vegetables other than carrots and broccoli. Be aware of this when planning crops and try to have special events when crops are ready, to share knowledge, recipes and cooked food!
  • The most popular thing are berries and soft fruits!!!!