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Reflections from Master Community Gardeners

Applying Lessons Learned from the Master Community Gardener Program

By Shannon Spurlock, DUG Community Initiatives Coordinator

Denver Urban Gardens just completed the fourth year of the Master Community Gardener Program, an eleven-week program designed to further engage people in building community through supporting community gardens. Program participants, in exchange for partaking in the program, commit to a minimum of 30 volunteer/GiveBack hours. Each year, participants, through the varied ways in which they earn GiveBack hours, enrich and strengthen neighborhoods throughout the Metro Denver area.

Therese Revitte and Sandy Peletier, two Master Community Gardeners from the 2010 Program, reflect on the multitude of ways in which the knowledge and experiences gained from the Master Community Gardener Program affected, and positively changed, the places in which they focused and earned their GiveBack hours. Denver Urban Gardens greatly looks forward to the many ways in which the 2012 Master Community Gardeners will affect the places in which they apply their knowledge and community building skills.


How Do We Grow Community in the Community Garden? Try Work Days (Really!)

By Sandy Peletier, DUG Master Community Gardener, and long-time gardener at DUG’s West Washington Park Community Garden

We enter the community garden for many reasons. High on the list is undoubtedly a vision of fresh green beans and award-winning tomatoes. In our eagerness to get digging and planting in our assigned plot we may overlook the fact that we have also signed on to a “community” garden. Growing community can be as elusive as growing the perfect tomato. So how do we grow “community”?

From my DUG Master Community Garden program, I learned valuable principles and guidelines to organize and grow communities. At the core is valuing the individual and recognizing that each gardener has something to contribute. The key is building on those strengths and assets. As a co-leader of West Wash Park Community Garden’s maintenance committee, I believe community work days are a great way to foster community spirit and cohesion when they focus on the individuals as much as the tasks. Work days create a communal opportunity to work side by side and get to know each other, which transforms us from being gardeners in a community to becoming a community of gardeners.

Here are some thoughts and ideas to bring people together at your next work day or on a special project.

  • Gardeners working on a new compost system for the West Washington Park Community GardenStart with an organized work plan with clear priorities. Give people as much choice in work tasks as possible and latitude to do it their way. When given options and flexibility people will surprise and delight you with their skills, creativity, and diligence. We can count on one of our gardeners with a yearn to put his portable power washer to use to show up when a work day includes hosing down a dumpster pad, outdoor furniture, or patio pavers. What a great resource!
  • Pair/team up people on tasks. Even if there’s more chit chatting than weed pulling, that’s OK. It fosters camaraderie.
  • Encourage ownership of the commons by establishing an “Adopt-a-Patch” system. Assign interested individuals sections of the common garden areas to tend for the duration of the garden season, like a communal herb garden or those often neglected hell strips along fences and sidewalks. This fosters personal investment in, attention to, and stewardship of the greater community. Admittedly, establishing and managing such a system requires greater coordination to be successful but ultimately it’s satisfying to gardeners who like having sole responsibility for a specific area, and they appreciate having the flexibility to do the work when and how they want.
  • Turn a work day into a “work out.” We found no lack of volunteers for the hardier composting chores when some of our more “he-man” folks figured out what a great physical work out turning compost or chopping veggie waste is. An “al fresco” gym workout is better than lifting weights inside a fluorescent lit building any day.
  • Host a painting party. We turned a daunting to-do list of repair and painting projects into a done list by inviting those with interests and skills to help. One person with an electric sander and saw horses single-handedly prepped all five of our picnic tables and benches, and another gardener arrived equipped with an impressive array of carpentry tools and the know-how to use them. When word of the special projects got around, people joined in the fun of the progressive painting parties to paint the tables, benches and garden gate. The participants seemed to enjoy the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment as well as being able to fit work hours into their schedules. In no time WWPCG was freshened up for the new garden season.
  • Although having opportunities for work sessions outside scheduled community work days is a great way to optimize overall participation and individual contribution, formal community work days remain an essential fulcrum in creating a strong culture of community.
  • After a work session don’t forget to reinforce the effort and results with a thank you posting on the bulletin board. We all need an attaboy. And consider the honor system to log work hours. Trusting the individual builds trust in the system.

Even if all the weeds don’t get picked or the painting isn’t professional quality or the garden waste isn’t chopped into precisely two-inch pieces, that’s OK too. You’re growing community. And there’s always another work day.

A Community Garden in the ‘Burbs

By Therese Revitte, DUG Master Community Gardener 

It seemed like such a simple and inspired idea . . . an unused and unkempt corner of our subdivision with plenty of full sun, a neighborhood in need of a central amenity to draw people together, a political and environmental climate ripe for local growing. And don’t be fooled – there are generations of people in the burbs who don’t know that vegetables don’t come from the grocery store. The benefits of building a community garden in our neighborhood seemed endless. As with all community gardens, the vision was to beautify an area, educate folks, and grow community.

Happy gardeners, after a hard day’s workThe Arapahoe Estates Community Garden and Garden Club started with a proposal to the HOA Board in 2008. In a covenant-controlled community, you have to consult with the decision-makers at each step. I was given permission to determine neighborhood interest in a community garden– all 164 households. In fact, there were several interested households and many supportive comments. I was feelin’ the love! I started investigating funding options. Since we weren’t a charitable nonprofit, we were not eligible for grants and most donations. Funding would have to come from the HOA.

That’s when concerns started being voiced. An HOA Board is tasked with spending the homeowners’ money wisely, and suddenly what seemed like a simple and inspired idea became much more complicated.

  1. Was there enough money in reserves to build a functional garden that met aesthetic standards?
  2. Wouldn’t that money be better spent upgrading other areas of the subdivision?
  3. Will people get bored with the community garden in a few years and leave the garden unused?
  4. How would the Board justify spending all that money when only garden members would benefit from the garden?

Neighbors spoke out both for and against the idea. The Board became divided. In the end, after a close Board vote, the garden was approved, established and built.

The cost to start a community garden is significant. There has to be good faith between the Board and the garden members. Our HOA Board showed good faith in funding the construction of the garden. To reciprocate, the garden members did a large amount of the design and construction themselves, saving on labor costs – hard team-building work. They consulted with Board members to meet aesthetic standards. They paid for walkways, garden tools and the shed out of their own pockets.

A key discussion related to an HOA building a community garden is whether the garden will be considered an amenity for the whole subdivision. Will its existence benefit all homeowners, justifying the cost of building it? Or will it just be a neighborhood club, benefiting only the households who are garden members? To support the idea that our garden is an amenity to the neighborhood, a policy was made to link plots with the garden members’ addresses, giving garden membership real estate value. If a garden member sells his or her house, the new owners have first right of keeping or refusing the plot. Instead of tennis courts or a swimming pool, realtors put “Community Garden” as an amenity on their listings. Neighborhoods with an amenity have higher home values than neighborhoods without.

The question of how to be inclusive of all neighbors is still evolving. To make sure the garden isn’t an exclusive club, Garden membership is open to all neighbors. To date, there is no waiting list for plots. All neighbors are invited to attend children’s garden activities, social activities and educational events, regardless of membership. Plans are being proposed to make the area surrounding the garden into a park destination for all neighbors to enjoy.

Ours is still a young, growing garden. My instincts told me that there would be a core group of people who would stick with it, while other households joined and un-joined. That has proven to be true so far, but we don’t take that core group for granted. We continue to strive to be dynamic, to improve growing conditions, making for a successful gardening experience. We offer a variety of garden experiences – personal plots, a children’s garden, a shared communal garden, on-going education. Each garden member brings his or her own talents to the garden, whether it be educating others, helping with construction, leading children’s garden activities, or taking food to the food bank.

I recently made a presentation to the HOA Board about the good things we’re doing in our garden. I asked neighbors, members and non-members alike, to write down their thoughts about how the garden has benefited our neighborhood. The top two responses, voiced in heart-felt eloquent ways: The garden brings together our community and beautifies our neighborhood. And after all, that’s where the simple and inspired vision started. We’re on our way. 

To learn more about DUG’s Master Community Gardener Program, click here.

Click here to return to the Spring 2012 edition of The Underground News.