Community Gardening on a Budget

June 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Do you plant some of your own food? Do you fancy yourself a wielder of not one, but two green thumbs? Have you ever wanted to work on a (community/ for profit) garden? What about starting one?

I am here to tell you that, despite some reservations that many might naturally have before jumping into the world of food production, almost anyone can get into gardening.  Additionally, the fruits of your labor don’t need to cost you an arm and a leg, though they both will inevitably become sore in the process.

I am new at this, so please, for the love of all things holy, don’t look to me for expert advice on what will best help your tomatoes grow fastest or what type of fungus is killing your kale. More often than not, I turn to older, more experienced and wiser farmers to help me through the bumps in the road.

I want to share with you the story of  how I myself and a group of unassuming 20- to 30-somethings, simply interested in gardening, started a community garden and how, in a couple of weeks, we will have around 250 plants and close to 25 different varieties of veggies and herbs growing and how it cost me nothing.

That’s right, my friends and I have a community garden: land, tools, seeds, water, and awesome neighbors and it all cost us nothing.

How, you might ask?

Well, the natural starting point is to talk about the incredibly supportive place where this is all taking root (no pun intended) – Cleveland, Ohio. It is a drum I beat loudly, and at often times ad nauseum, but as you will see – it is for good reason.

I, like most people I hang around with, am a pretty frugal guy. Given the fact that my employment status is evolving at best I don’t have much – if any – personal money to sink into this or any other project. Last fall I knew that my first summer back in Cleveland needed to start off in a big way. I left Chicago and headed back to my hometown of Cleveland with the promise that “I’ll be a bigger fish in a smaller pond” – and countless other baseless platitudes along those lines. The idea was to live in a place that was going to be supportive of the work I wanted to do: namely, work to create a vibrant local economy with food access as its backbone.  As it turns out I knew enough great people, organizations, and programs to take the far-flung idea of starting a community garden and turning it into a reality.

The,  and please don’t forget to include t-h-e, Ohio State University is the fine State of Ohio’s land grant university. As a result they have a range of programming helping factory farmers all the way down to little ol’ me.  Working with the Cuyahoga County Extension Campus and their ‘Summer Sprouts Program‘ I was able to apply to start a community garden in the fall of 2011. The application was straight-forward enough – tell them why you want to run a community garden, who will be helping you, and where you want to have your garden.

You may be thinking to yourself: that seems ridiculously easy. Grotesquely easy, even. And you would be right! Upon acceptance into the program you begin classes over the winter; you learn how to maintain beds, what companion planting means, how to fend off unwanted pests, what makes good compost, and during that time you get paired with a master gardener just in case you have questions along the way.

You are free to attend as many or as few classes as you wish. The workshops are almost always free and take place around the county for those who enjoy learning new techniques and skills.

I wanted my garden to be in the neighborhood I lived in, St. Clair-Superior. Even if I hadn’t grown up there I felt like the garden could be my “thank you” to a community that had so warmly embraced me. I scoured Cuyahoga County’s Land Bank, a registry of over 22,000 vacant properties dotted around the region. The goal was to identify a plot large enough that, if I stuck with it, I could maybe one day turn into a for-profit venture and live off the fat of the land as they say, though I am totally unaware of who ‘they’ are. I found a plot just blocks away from my home that was an acre – one of the largest continuous plots on the county’s registry. I figured this would be more than sufficient amount of space for a beginning garden to play around with. The extension campus came out to do a soil test, for free naturally, and the results came back with less than ideal pH  levels and higher than ideal levels of lead and other metals. This is not at all surprising given the location and the fact a building once stood on the property just a few years ago. In the end all the measurements fell within the EPA’s range of what is acceptable to grow food for consumption. I was given the green light!

As part of our agreement with Ohio State Extension, we were and are not allowed to sell any produce that will be grown. All of it had to go to our neighbors or be donated to the Cleveland Food Bank. In return, OSU Extension would provide me and my fellow gardeners with access to a fire-hydrant for water, till our soil, give us close to $200 in seeds and around 250 starter plants (tomatoes, collards, cabbage, peppers, and eggplant to name a few).  I hate to use this phrase, but in my head all I heard was Charlie Sheen screaming, ‘Winning!’

Then winter ended, and I decided to inspect the plot to get a feel for what I was going to be working with and I quickly realized why the land was free. The plot, even where it had been tilled, functioned like and resembled  a gravel parking lot with two, maybe three, inches of dirt haphazardly thrown on top of it. Just as things got exciting the romanticized notions of tillin’ the land were shattered: we unsuccessfully tried to scoop out a shovel full of ‘dirt’ only to find rock bed beneath the ‘soil’.

We immediately knew that we would have to find some soil amendments to ensure the 200-some-odd starter plants we were given would live for longer than a couple weeks. They would inevitably die unless they got into some nutrient rich soil. Scouring the internet, I found a woman who lived not far away, in a suburb south-west of Cleveland that had a mountain of aged horse manure free for the taking – just as long as you had a vehicle to haul it away.

A resource that cannot be understated and should be consulted often is the ‘FREE’ section on Craigslist: it is a frugal farmer’s best friend. Using this I have acquired straw, cardboard, wood, discarded windows for a D.I.Y. hot house and most valuable of all – the aged horse manure. I pick ‘trash’ off my neighbors lawns – taking their lawn clippings, tree trimmings and any other heap of organic material I can get my hands on. I take all the spent coffee grounds and compostable food scraps from the high school where I work, and toward the end of each week I spread that either on top of my beds or add it to my compost pile, which is constructed out of wooden shipping pallets that were left on the side of the road.

I have quickly realized that our garden will not have any prize-winning crops this first year, but  if all goes as planned, we will have done it for free. Rich soil takes years to build and rushing it can be a mistake, so I am using this first year to establish a trust and understanding with my neighbors by constantly and consistently showing up and demonstrating my investment to the garden. They have taken note and have already begun adding their own food waste, bringing supplies, housing supplies, and even planting crops of their own. This is, after all, the goal of a community garden – to grow community.

You won’t ever see fences put up around our garden. Despite whatever benefits there are to keeping things in or out, it sends a message that is all too often misinterpreted. Fences scream ‘this is mine’ rather than ‘this is ours’; fences denote ownership and a sectioning off from rather than connection to – each other.  Myself and the people who organized this garden didn’t pay anything for it, we just got the ball rolling, and if we move, or our schedules prevent us from making it out to the garden, I want our neighbors to feel like they can appropriate the land back for themselves. Using everyday objects, simple techniques, and a welcoming attitude can go a long way in making any community garden a success. Like I said before, we might not produce the most food, or have the biggest pumpkins come fall, but we will know each other, share techniques, and have a shared sense of accomplishment when we enjoy the fruits of our labor.

I leave you with this: if you are interested in gardening, community building, and advancing a food economy, move to Cleveland. We are on the cutting edge of the country in terms of legislation, programming, and support. You don’t need to live in Berkeley do be passionate about local food, come to the Kinsmen/Central neighborhood of Cleveland and there you will see the next generation of food production.

If you are a Clevelander reading this post, consider spending some time on the garden, dropping off your lawn clippings/ soil/ plants/ supplies/ sweat any and all contribution is a significant one! Below is a picture of where the garden is located. At the top (north) is St. Clair and at the bottom (south) is Superior. The plot is outlined in red.

Comment on the article or email us at for more details:

Daniel Brown – Co-Founder of MSCS


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