Gardens Grow Community and More
10 steps for making your own urban garden in Richmond
A vacant lot, neighborhood square and school courtyard have something in common. All have potential to be transformed into vibrant community gardens. Duron Chavis readily recognizes the possibility, having launched 12 community gardens in urban areas of Richmond and Petersburg.
“None of this is new, people have been planting community gardens for years,” said Chavis, community engagement coordinator for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “But now it’s being framed differently: for public health and environmental benefits.”
Families are prone to eat what they grow, and fresh vegetables support good health. Exercise and time spent outdoors are vital for wellbeing, too. When youngsters join in, gardening teaches stewardship while supporting SOLs related to science, technology and math. An urban garden nurtures renewal through natural beauty. It also supports environmental sustainability as it improves air quality, ambient noise, stormwater mitigation and heat reduction through shade.
“Greenspaces also help with social cohesiveness,” Chavis said. “They integrate people into a social fabric that creates unity and community pride.”
Chavis outlined ten steps for developing a garden in an urban setting. Most pertain to establishing planting beds on school grounds and in rural communities, too. Now is a good time to start, wherever the parcel of land, since approvals and planning take time.
1. Find a location. Scout for vacant or underused land and obtain approval from the owner. A sunny location with access to water is best. For urban gardening, the City of Richmond offers an excellent resource: Richmond Grows Gardens. The webpage includes an online map showing city-owned property already approved for gardening, plus guidelines and applications. Remember: it’s not the size of the garden that counts. It’s the quality of harvested crops and related benefits.
2. Take a soil test. Crops are only as good as the soil. A soil test helps determine what nutrients are missing and what amendments should be made. For urban properties, probably most important is determining if any toxins or contaminants have leached into the soil. “Many homes built in the 1920s and ‘30s, torn down and hauled away, left heavy metals and carcinogens in the soil, such as lead, mercury or asbestos,” Chavis warned. Soil testing is available through Virginia Cooperative Extension and the City of Richmond. A nominal fee may apply. If the onsite soil is deemed contaminated or unusable, resort to raised beds and a supplemental soil mixture.
3. Work on neighborhood buy-in. “It’s very important to include more people in the garden than just yourself,” Chavis said. “Have conversations with folks closest to the site and get their involvement.” He recommended asking about the history of the site, what neighbors want to see growing and how they want to be involved. “Get to know the community voices,” he said.
4. Secure donations or sponsors. Soil, seeds, plants and possibly lumber (for raised beds) will be needed, so recruit support. Obtain enough funds in case permits and tools are needed, too. “Finding supporters isn’t as hard nowadays,” Chavis said. The public and local businesses have become more aware of the benefits of shared community gardens, including urban renewal and community pride.
5. Plan. “Planning is the biggest part of the work,” Chavis noted. He recommended drawing a schematic of what the garden will include, from plants and trees to compost bins and benches. The Beautiful RVA website offers helpful design templates, budget guidelines, plant recommendations and planting tips. As for tools, the Richmond Community ToolBank loans gardening equipment at a nominal fee to nonprofit and community organizations. Also, consider what you hope participants will learn. Educators interested in school gardens and nature-related activities can attend Natural Connections and professional development workshops hosted by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The garden staff models interdisciplinary strategies for blending science, social studies, language arts and math standards for authentic learning experiences. Advance registration is required.
6. Plan a volunteer workday: Excitement grows as a date is set for the garden build. Chavis recommends recruiting volunteers through social media, flyers and word-of-mouth. For potential volunteer support, check out HandsOn Greater Richmond. Community organizations can recruit volunteers and access volunteer-management resources for training and tracking. “A Ginter Urban Gardener also may help with planning and coordinating volunteers on the workday,” Chavis said. Ginter Urban Gardeners offer knowledge of horticulture, enhanced through a 12-week course on project management, volunteer coordination and sustainable agriculture. To request a Ginter Urban Gardener volunteer, check out the community gardens video and then email firstname.lastname@example.org with details. All requests will be considered, but assistance cannot be guaranteed.
7. Host the first workday: The garden build will be as successful as the preparation. Chavis recommends having all equipment and plants onsite before volunteers arrive. For the workers, make sure you have plenty of water and perhaps donated snacks and sandwiches. “Music is another great way to keep folks motivated,” he said.
8. Determine the garden model: “Once the garden is planted, the fun starts,” Chavis said. He suggests specifically defining the garden’s purpose and beneficiaries, based on community interest. “Decide if it will be a garden in which neighbors rent plots, work for produce or donate food being grown to a food bank,” he said. “Or, maybe it will be a garden that focuses on education,” as in a school, nonprofit or neighborhood setting.
9. Set up events and a point of contact: The garden will need continual maintenance, so plan frequent workdays. Draw volunteers and build community through a mix of impromptu and planned events, possibly featuring live music, special guests, onsite games or picnics. Also determine a designated garden steward to handle questions, decisions and ongoing communications.
10. Maximize benefits: “A community garden produces more than just healthy, fresh vegetables,” Chavis summarized. “The greenspace brings people together for social activities, exercise, beauty and stress reduction.” Consider the possibilities, see what works and celebrate accomplishments. Over time, the ripple effects may be immeasurable.
This article first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in February 2018.