GreenThumb: Starting a community garden in New York

Last week I attended a panel discussion put on by GreenThumb at Project Farmhouse. Six gardeners, each representing a different community garden in New York, spoke about how they started their gardens, and the challenges and victories they encountered along the way. One gardener even told us about his more controversial days of illegally squatting in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. Let it be known, from the Hudson to the East River, that gardeners know how to squat.

from NYC Parks GreenThumb pamphlet

I learned a lot about what it takes to start a garden, and about the agencies and community groups that are there to assist anyone who wants to undertake that journey. I’m not interested in starting a community garden right now—I already belong to a garden—but I wanted to learn more about how the process works and discover how I can determine who owns that empty lot on Broadway somewhere between Dyckman and 207th. It’s a relatively large lot and receives enough sun that it could reasonably be used to grow vegetables. Two concerns about that property: 1) The recently approved Inwood rezoning means whoever owns that land may finally be induced to sell to a developer, and, 2) There is a lot of rat poison on that property and I’m not 100% sure what that means for growing edible plants.

from NYC Parks GreenThumb pamphlet

At any rate, as I said, I learned a lot—and even if I’m not going to instantly put this knowledge into practice, it’s good to be informed. And in the spirit of sharing knowledge, I’m laying out the steps that GreenThumb recommends for anyone who wishes to start a community garden.

So, you want to start a community garden in New York? Great. Let’s get started.

1. Contact GreenThumb.

GreenThumb has historical knowledge about many vacant lots and they can often provide insight and advice. Keep in mind there might already be a community garden near you. You can search for nearby community gardens at GreenThumb’s website.

2. Identify a vacant lot.

You can check Living Lots NYC or New York City’s database to find available lots in your area.

3. Determine the ownership of the site.

You can determine ownership with the help of GreenThumb, or by consulting the NYC Department of Finance Digital Tax Map.

4. Get permission!

There are steps one must take before starting a community garden on city land. GreenThumb can help expedite the process. When starting a community garden on private property, gardeners must obtain the permission of the owner. If the land in question belongs to your landlord, try to make an ally in your super before applying to your landlord or engaging your neighbors.

5. Gather members.

Find prospective members in your building, at the local library, from local organizations, or at the neighborhood school.

6. Draft proposal.

A formal proposal shows your long-term commitment to the garden. Consult with the Citizens Committee for New York City, and GreenThumb for assistance.

7. Seek support.

Reach out to your community board, local associations, and local businesses for buy-in. While these organizations may not have the final word in determining whether or not your proposal is approved, they can exert influence, and become strong allies to draw upon in the future.

8. Access water.

A tap or a rainwater harvesting system, or both, will need to be installed. Contact GreeNYC or NYC Department of Environmental Protection for assistance.

9. Make healthy soil.

This is especially important for any gardeners who want to grow food; eating food that has been grown in dirty soil or directly in the what-the-heck-is-in-here ground of NYC can cause serious health problems. If you are growing fruits and vegetables, plant them in raised beds filled with good soil. NYC Urban Soils Institute at Brooklyn College, NYC Compost Project, Department of Sanitation, and Greenthumb can help.

10. Find plants.

Community gardens may be eligible to receive free plants, compost, and mulch. Plants may also be purchased with member dues or other funds. Consult GreenThumb, Grow to Learn, Greenbelt Native Plant Center and your local botanical garden for assistance.

11. Learn more, grow more.

GreenThumb, botanical gardens, Grow to Learn, and other community gardens host workshops about all aspects of urban gardening and farming from rainwater harvesting to vermicomposting and beyond. Those who want to grow food may benefit from the courses at Farm School NYC.

12. Connect to community.

You can’t have a community garden without community. Local schools, tenant groups, faith-based groups, elected officials, and neighbors can be valuable allies. Consider reaching out to NYC Community Gardening Coalition.

13. Complete registration.

Whether you’re just starting your community garden or you’ve been operating for some time, consider registering with GreenThumb. GreenThumb can offer legitimacy and protection to community gardens, as well as resources, training, and materials. What does it take to turn your community garden into a GreenThumb garden? You must register (of course) and host at least 20 open hours and one free event that’s open to the public.

And that’s about it. Apparently the process of starting a new community garden is not for the faint of heart. It can take YEARS to get land approved for use as a community garden. But, judging by the fruits of the panelists’ labor, it pays to be patient.

Are you an urban gardener in New York? Let’s connect.