Considerations for choosing a site to plant your Community Garden include abundant sunlight, access to water, safety, nutrient-rich soil, neighborhood access, and more.
Look for a site that gets at least six hours of full sun daily. Planting a garden on the south side of a tall building or trees is ideal. The north side of a building or trees will be too shady.
If you do not already have access to water, several possibilities exist for obtaining water. Check the property or adjacent sidewalk for access to an underground water meter. If one is available, you can set up an account with Citizens’ Water at (317) 631-1431 or visithttp://www.citizenswater.com/. You only pay for the months you use water. Water company staff will turn the water on when you’re ready to use it and off when you’re finished for the season.
Not everyone wants to pay for water. Thus consider installing a water catchment system. It can be as simple as placing a couple of rain barrels under downspouts of nearby structures or as complex as a a gravity-fed, above-ground cistern or a electric or solar pump-powered below ground cistern.
You can see water catchment systems in action around Indianapolis at these locations:
- Fall Creek Gardens, located on the north east corner of 30th Street and Central Avenue
- Felege Hiywot Center, 1648 Sheldon Street
- Double 8 Foods Rain Garden, east of 34th Street and North Central Avenue at 555 Fairfield
- People: How many people will garden in your space?
- Beds: Determine if beds are to be individual, communal, or mixed use
- Bed height: Vary heights to accommodate children and those requiring wheelchair access
- Bed size: Consider 4′x4′ as a minimum-sized bed, people can reach 3′ or 4′, thus is a reasonable minimum width for beds
- Paths: 3′ wide for secondary paths between beds, 4-6′ wide for primary walkways
- Compost: Allow area in garden for composting
- Water: Determine source of water (rooftop-fed cistern, gutter-fed rain barrel, city water)
- Public art: Great way to involve those who might not otherwise participate in the garden
- Storage shed: Good to have for convenient access to supplies, preferably locked. PODS (portable on demand storage) can be useful if you are not ready to construct a permanent structure
- Costs: Consider financial resources available to you
- Parking: For bicycles, cars, or scooters
- Zoning and Permitting: Visit the City of Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement for information and answers to your questions www.indy.gov/dce
Testing your soil should be the first step in your Community Garden plan. Properties closest to down town tend to have higher levels of lead.
One way to determine if your soil might be contaminated is to determine your site’s historic use. The city of Indianapolis Web site includes online map of known brownfields and historic maps of the city.
How do you find out what’s in your soil? Have it tested by a professional lab. While garden stores sell test kits, the results are not always reliable.
- Free soil tests: Download Garden Safe Garden Well, An Urban Gardening Guide GardenSafeGardenWell.pdf.
- Low cost soil testing: UMass Amherst Soil Testing Lab
- Urban Brownfields Guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)
- Growing Gardens in Urban Soils
- Urban Agriculture (General Information)
- Steps for creating a community garden
- How Does Your Garden Grow: Brownfields Redevelopment and Local Agriculture
- Brownfields Revitalization: Urban Agriculture and Food Connection
- Brownfields and Urban Agriculture: Interim Guidelines for Safe Gardening Practices
While tilling is a quick and easy way to start the growing process, it also uncovers an entire bank of weed seeds, some of which can remain dormant underground for years or even decades. Excessive tilling can damage your soil structure and harm the underground life that interacts with your garden plants (such as earthworms).
Consider no-till methods of starting your beds. Lasagna gardening (or sheet mulching) is one option. Simply layering hardwood tree mulch (free from local tree cutting services–ask for hardwood, not pine.) and letting that sit for a year will result in looser, richer soil active with beneficial microbes, bacteria and fungi while naturally removing grass without tilling or chemicals. While these methods take longer, you’ll see and taste the difference in your harvests.
Further reading: Make a sheet mulch bed by Patrick Whitefield; also Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.
What kind of tools should you have on hand for your gardeners? Here’s a list of suggested tools to get you started (Ten Tools Every Community Gardener & Garden Needs, courtesy of Toronto FoodShare):
A well-made trowel is your most important tool. From container gardening to large beds, a trowel will help you get your plants into the soil. Essential for everyone.
- Hand Fork or Claw or Cultivator
A hand fork helps cultivate soil, chop up clumps, and work amendments into the soil. A hand fork is necessary for cultivating in closely planted beds.
A long-handled hoe is a gardener’s best friend. Keeping weeds at bay is the purpose of this useful tool. Hoe heads come in alldifferent shapes and sizes and every gardener swears by a different one.
- Secateurs or Hand pruners
Invest in a pair of quality pruners, such as Felco, which is clearly a cut above. There are different types and sizes, depending upon the type and size of the job. Secateurs are for cutting small diameters, up to the thickness of your little finger. Anything larger and you need loppers.
- Watering can
A watering can creates a fine even stream of water that delivers with a gentleness that won’t wash seedlings or sprouting seeds out of their soil.
You can’t dig and divide perennials without a heavy-duty fork (and some dividing methods even suggest you own two!).
- Shovels & Spades
There are several different types and shapes of shovels and spades, each with their own purpose. There are also different types of hand holds for either–a “D”shape, a “T” shape, or none at all. They are a requisite tool for planting large perennials, shrubs, and trees,breaking ground, moving soil, leaves, just about anything. The sharper the blade, the better.
Wheelbarrows come in all different sizes (and prices). They are indispensable for hauling soil, compost, plants, mulch,hoses, tools … everything you’ll need to garden.
Unless you want to wear your favorite hobby under your nails, use gloves.Leather gloves hold up best. If you have roses, get a pair that resist thorn pricks.
This is the fastest way to transport lots of water. Consider using drip irrigation hoses or tape.