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Growing Community Against Steep Odds: A Community Garden Story

Read about how one suburb created a community garden that demonstrates a permaculture response to land repair, community fellowship, and growing food.

growing community with a community gardengrowing community with a community garden

Read about how one suburb created a community garden that demonstrates a permaculture response to land repair, community fellowship, and growing food.

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The following article about creating a community garden first appeared in the Permaculture Activist issue #92 (now Permaculture Design Magazine).

Many suburban communities lack public gathering spaces, and ours was no different.

In our township, we transformed an ecologically damaged hillside into a community gathering space. In this space, neighbors and college students learned together about gardening and healing the land using permaculture design principles.

A “Simple” Community Garden

Our community garden is on a college campus high on a ridge overlooking the Ohio River near Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. I arrived on a brisk afternoon in December 2010.

“The garden should be just over the hill,” the chairman of the university’s Environmental Action Committee told me. “We should see a blue shed!”

It took us a while to find the site. On a hillside below a parking lot, and behind some trees, it was hidden from view with limited access. Tires, garbage, and invasive honeysuckle covered the hillside.

My heart sank.

It’s a powerful exercise for me to think back on that day. My excitement was immediately shadowed by despair. Finally, after some reflection, I decided to meet the land and the community on a journey of discovery.

My hope was that it would yield a rich bounty of relationships and camaraderie.

My simple plan was to bring people together to grow vegetables, but it would ultimately do much more.

Taking cues from the forest around us, we designed a garden that stacked functions. Growing food, building relationships, and restoring a small piece of land are all interconnected.

Yet, multi-functionality was not on my mind that December day.

My original vision was simplistic, like a typical community garden layout. I was looking for a flat, cleared space on which to build a few raised beds.

community garden spring kick-offcommunity garden spring kick-off

Hillside Community Garden Spring Kick-Off Day

Identifying the need for a Community Garden

Before I moved to the suburban township where this garden thrived, I lived in a leafy neighborhood. Places where people gathered were ubiquitous: cafes, restaurants, parks, and gardens. In our new-to-us bedroom community in Cincinnati’s western suburbs I felt trapped and isolated.

Our neighbors seemed to keep to themselves, even though we lived on postage-stamp sized lots. We drove to the grocery (0.4 miles) because it wasn’t a safe or pleasant walk.

My selfish goal was to meet like-minded people, all while doing something I enjoyed that added value to the community.

Finding Land for a Community Garden

My first thought was to approach the township about unused space at one of the parks.

The location I had in mind was flat, sunny, visible from the road, and had good accessibility and parking. It was on the land of a public floral garden, where master gardeners worked with volunteers to maintain a carefully groomed space. Cut-flower greenhouses once blanketed the township, and this garden was a memorial to that legacy.

The public garden gets a good deal of press and funding, but not a lot of use.

Because of that, I thought the existing greenhouse, picnic area, and connected gazebo would be a fantastic collaborative space.

The community garden would bring people to the flower gardens, while the flowers would attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. In my mind, bringing them together was a win-win.

I made an informal pitch to the master gardeners during a visit to the park. They were hesitant, but agreed to a meeting with the parks director. I invited the gardeners and director to tour two nearby community gardens, where we talked to the respective parks directors and garden coordinators.

The day started with a lot of hope.

However, in the end, they informed me that “there wasn’t enough demand and there wasn’t enough human power in the parks department to run a community garden.” Most importantly, they thought the vegetable garden would detract from the beauty of the flower gardens.

Perhaps they viewed my garden idea to be in competition with the flower garden? Or did they consider a community garden to be associated with poverty and the inner city (as many suburban communities do)?

community garden space at universitycommunity garden space at university

Hillside Community Garden began on a steep hillside, strewn with tires, garbage, poison ivy, invasive honeysuckle, and suspect cages in which university science classes observed the decomposition of animals.

Build Your Tribe First If You Can

They may have had some preconceived ideas about community gardens, but this was also a chicken-and-egg case.

If a group of residents had asked for garden space, we might have received a different response. As it was, when I first approached officials, I acted alone, so they responded that there wasn’t enough interest.

If I were starting this project over again, I would hold a public meeting to bring together a group prior to searching for a site.

I was so sure the township would agree to let me use the garden site that I had no Plan B. Lacking other options, however, I went to the local university, which was located away from residential areas.

Surely, I thought, they would see the positive role of a community garden. And sure enough, they said yes!

An Opportunity for Practical Permaculture Experience

That led to the day in December when I first saw the garden site. I was dismayed. Like the township, the college was worried that a community garden could increase work for the grounds crew, and they didn’t feel confident in donating visible, high-quality space.

I went home and mulled it over. That discarded scrap of hillside, prone to landslides and strewn with trash, was not what I had pictured.

I didn’t feel qualified to lead such a project of restoration. I had received my permaculture design certificate two years prior, but had little practical experience outside of my own yard, and this hillside would definitely need a careful design analysis.

Rather than wallow in disappointment, however, I decided to embrace the challenge: I hoped that the college site would deepen my understanding of permaculture design.

As Mark Shepard says in Restoration Agriculture,

We are responsible for creating our own habitat.”

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Permaculture Design ProgramPermaculture Design Program

Announcing the Community Garden Project

Now that I had a garden space, the time came to gauge interest in a community garden in my township.

I went to the public library to book a meeting space and call a public meeting, only to find that this privilege was reserved for organizations; the library wouldn’t allow an ordinary citizen to use the meeting space.

I was crushed. I was trying to build community, but it seemed to be working against me. Not only did I have an impossible piece of land, I didn’t even have the right to use a public gathering space.

That’s when I found a garden ally in a solar-heated, geothermal-powered event space that was only 800 feet from the garden site!

The event space, called EarthConnection, is run by Sister Winnie, who also manages the organic food pantry garden on the grounds. She became a gracious supporter of the community garden concept.

During back-to-back weeks in January 2011, I gave two public talks there to gauge interest. I called the series Eat Local—Grow Local, which were both well attended.

It was exciting finally to connect with like-minded neighbors!

Breaking Ground on the Community Garden

I couldn’t believe it: Nineteen people arrived for a clean-up day on a Saturday in February 2011.

We organized a committee including myself, other gardeners, and a representative from the university, and the first season was underway.

That first year folks came and tried it out; some returned, others didn’t. Over time, we discovered our natural gifts and learned how to work together. As with any new system, these adjustments took time.

Leadership of the project emerged in step with our confidence and our new-found skills. Our committee often asked, How can the garden serve the community in…

  • Connecting
  • Feeling confident to lead and create
  • Learn skills that promote health and well-being

That’s a tall order, because the people involved in the project are all busy with their home gardens (after all, we’re in the suburbs!).

community garden site designcommunity garden site design

The master site plan for the community garden included many kinds of terraces on the steep hillside, as well as rainwater collection and a composting center.

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The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable GardenThe Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden

Thinking Cooperatively

We decided to garden the whole space cooperatively. Abandoning plot rental for communal management propelled us into other cooperative strategies.

We determined that our gardeners would not have to join, pay, or commit to any set fees or number of work hours. We wanted to make it accessible to busy suburban families who may not be able to work every Saturday.

Consequently, our community garden was truly communal, free and open to anyone who wanted to join us on any work day: Saturday mornings starting in March as well as Wednesday evenings starting in May.

As the coordinator, I was present to lead the work days along with members of the garden committee. We shared harvest among those who attended.

We also encouraged public visits and individual harvests. Because we didn’t pay a fee for the land or water use, we focused our fundraising efforts on development projects and buying necessary materials.

Creating a Community Garden Development Strategy

Honeysuckle, garbage, and old tires covered the eroded half-acre site before we started in 2011. Poison ivy afflicted the bottom portion. The steep upper slope had lost most of its topsoil and drained quickly, revealing hard clay, while the bottom was swampy.

Many creatures inhabited the land that had been untended for a decade. We found garter snakes, turtles, and salamanders, which was great entertainment for the children. Unfortunately, mosquitoes also enjoyed the swamp.

At the outset, we invited a team of people to help assess the site: University representatives, local permaculturists, and friends from the Civic Garden Center (which supports more than fifty local community gardens).

community garden spring plant salecommunity garden spring plant sale

The community garden hosted an annual spring plant sale. The sale of hundreds of seedlings funded development projects. We connected with many backyard gardeners through the event, and donated hundreds more to the local food pantry.

We came up with a design that would allow us to harvest produce while restoring the land: a terraced vegetable garden would cover the bottom, while a native food forest would help restore the steep northern slope.

One of the first challenges came from the local conservation organization, who protested against the garden to the university.

The conservation group wasn’t familiar with permaculture and was concerned that a productive garden would hinder ecological restoration.

The focus of their work was on eradicating exotic species in the local forests using herbicide and planting natives. Herbicides now contaminate many gardens and compost bins because of being misused, so you could say that both parties were equally skeptical of one another.

However, we presented our goal of restoring the site using ecological principles while growing healthy food, as well as design plans for the site. We also shared our Edible Forest Gardens books and emphasized that we weren’t razing the forest for the sake of vegetables. Rather, they would be integrated.

So, we compromised: They would support the project and observe our process if we would plant the upper food forest with native fruit trees and berry bushes.

Getting to Know Each Other and the Land

Our plan was to tackle the bottom half of the garden first where the vegetable plot would be located.

We built terraces using double rows of cinder blocks that we found on site. We laid the bottom rows of cinder blocks on their sides to allow for good drainage. The top blocks stood upright, which we planted with perennial herbs to deter deer and attract beneficial insects; the herbs also help to stabilize the wall with their roots.

One terrace is 3’x24′ and two terraces are 3’x10′ each.

We sheet-mulched everything on and around the terraces with free wood chips, composted horse manure (making sure it was herbicide-free) and compost soil to create garden beds, then covered the walking paths with more wood chips.

Small trees and invasive shrubs were removed when we were ready to replace them with something else, in order to keep the soil intact.

Building terraces out of cinder blocksBuilding terraces out of cinder blocks

We built many terraces out of discarded cinder blocks found on-site. It was hard work, but there were always many volunteers. The bottom row of blocks faced outward to allow water to drain. Blocks facing upward were planted with herb companions.

First Year Reflections

By the end of our first year, we had contributed 800 hours of work, made new friends, hosted and attended ten community events, and made several presentations to local groups. Ninety people had subscribed to our newsletter.

We were making progress, but we also had setbacks.

Many residents showed up expecting simple gardening activities such as planting, weeding, and harvesting. Instead, we labored over terrace building, honeysuckle removal, and hauling wheelbarrows of organic matter up and down the hill.

Our decision not to till frustrated a few participants. These folks had grown up on farms and were convinced we should be able to farm the site using “conventional” methods. Never mind that we’re on a steep hillside in the landslide capital of the US! A few of these folks didn’t return.

Yet I have to think that Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture was encouraging me to not sweat the small stuff when he said, “In the rich interconnectedness of an ecosystem, small failures are shrugged off.”

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The Permaculture Inspired Edible LandscapeThe Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape

Second Year: Finding Our Identity

In our second year, 2012, we decided that intensive production was not our goal, because most of our gardeners and visitors also gardened in their own yards.  Rather, they were looking for community and education.

Also, high annual vegetable production is generally not compatible with restoring a damaged site.

Consistent with our university campus location, therefore, we grew into an educational demonstration garden, combining eco-restoration and food production through permaculture design.

Wanting to provide examples of garden designs that challenge the tilled, straight-row model, we built a circle garden as part of a public workshop. Four beds 4′ x 6′ surround the perimeter, with an herb spiral in the central pathway.

community garden work daycommunity garden work day

Communal garden work days included grueling work like terrace building, honeysuckle removal, and hauling wheelbarrows organic matter up and down the hill.

The community garden became a drop-off site for leaf bags to boost our homemade compost soil blends.

We installed a 300-gallon tank to harvest rainwater from the existing shed as part of a workshop for the public and college students.

Being quite industrious that year (650 people hours worked!), we also accomplished the following:

  • Hosted a spring seed swap
  • Sold more than 100 vegetable seedlings at our first annual edible plant sale
  • Through the sale, we met more of our neighbors who had backyard gardens.
  • Distributed leftover vegetable seedlings at our local food pantry
  • Attended and hosted many community events, including six community potlucks

Third Year: Establishing Roots in the Community

In our third year, we built two 4′ x 10′ asparagus terraces and another 3′ x 10′ terrace for cut flowers. We also created a retaining wall for our central pathway.

During a public workshop we built a compost center, which now allows us to accept kitchen waste from campus kitchens.

We saw more than 970 service hours donated by our regular crew of gardeners and student groups.

At this point, we were very much integrated with the university, leading community service work days for both students and faculty. The composting center and sitting area were both a big hit for folks who wanted a peaceful place to sit at lunchtime. We were invited to speak to many classes about the integration of ecological repair and food production, as well as to have an educational booth at university events.

We offered more classes and provided more presentations and tours. Attendance was up at both our spring seed swap and the plant sale. And we moved into a donated office space in the EarthConnection building. 

We even grew a lot of produce with our vegetable beds fully developed.

The swamp disappeared because the terraces above it slowed down the water drainage, while thirsty organic matter, perennial herbs, and deep-rooted asparagus absorbed the runoff, in addition to lots of wood chips. And the good news is that we continued to see wild critters.

Catching water from a garden shedCatching water from a garden shed

During a university volunteer day, students and faculty came to the community garden to help connect gutters and a 300-gallon rainwater tank to the gardens shed.

Fourth Year: Planting the Native Food Forest

We finally broke ground on a native food forest in the upper half of the garden, featuring strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, mulberries, and pawpaws, with an equal number of herbs and ground cover species.

We took a cue from Bill Mollison in Introduction to Permaculture where he says, “the importance of diversity is not so much the number of elements in a system; rather it is the number of functional connections between these elements.”

Therefore, we combined plants with varying root structures to stabilize the hillside. Also, we created fruit tree guilds under the pawpaw trees by matching the roles and needs of the various components.

The permaculture designers who mentored us did not recommend swales because the hillside was so steep and unstable. Instead, we used a technique called check log terracing.

Rather than digging down to create trenches, which can make an unstable site more unstable, we piled organic matter up to create a planting area that would also slow water, retain moisture, and encourage root growth by our edible trees and bushes.

Happy (and Sad) Endings

After five years, this inspirational garden project was nearly fully developed. We were looking forward to shifting into a more relaxed gear of maintaining the garden instead of the hard labor of developing it.

At the same time, Mr. TAF and I had bought a new home that would take me away from the original Tenth Acre Farm, as well as the community garden. It was bittersweet: Amazing opportunities were ahead, yet I had a deep sadness for what I would leave behind.

I wondered whether all of our hard work on this land actually mattered in the grand scheme of life. Hard labor had inspired a collective confidence in ecological gardening and a community rooted in it.

At the same time, when I stepped down as garden coordinator, there was no one to fill my role. The garden committee felt unsure of leading without me, and the university, though happy to support and participate, was not interested in leading.

So, the project would end.

Hillside Community Garden developedHillside Community Garden developed

After five years and 4,000 of people hours worked, the hillside garden was mostly developed according to the master site plan. More than that, friendships were weaved into caring for the land and producing food.

After five years together and 4,000 people hours worked, as well as potlucks, workshops, events, retreats, classes, volunteering at the local food pantry, and more, I wondered:

Who would remember this place that we created? Were the lessons learned really that memorable? Would the friendships last?

Our garden was a mere blip on a forested hillside in a sprawling township, when I look at it on Google Maps.

Yet, we learned skills, solved problems, and got to know the land intimately. All of us took those lessons into our home yards and gardens, which we shared with one another.

Many years later, I still look back on these five years of the community garden with fondness. There’s some sadness that the project didn’t actively continue. However, it was a blessing in my own life.

I made dear friends, who remain so to this day. We’ve been there for one another through life celebrations, tragedies, and moves. I experienced the joy and challenge of repairing a fragile ecology using permaculture design, in community with others. And, I became more confident and knowledgeable as a leader and permaculture designer. It is a big part of who I am today and what I’ve accomplished in my work as an author, writer, and permaculture educator.

I learned that success can take many forms.

Hillside Community Garden was much more than a point on the map. It was truly a gathering place in our community, where threads of connection were weaved around caring for the land and producing food in partnership with one another.

Have you participated in a community garden or community food forest? What was your experience like?

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