Eat your vegetables!

Six steps to starting a community garden

Stephanie Elliot says gardening together is a great way to build community.

Stephanie Elliot says gardening together is a great way to build community.

Chico is currently home to at least 20 community gardens, where friends and neighbors gather together to work a shared piece of land. Through her work with the GRUB Education Program and Cultivating Community North Valley, Stephanie Elliot has had a hand in helping several of these get started.

“We have every opportunity to grow our own food here,” she said. “We have great soil and great weather.

“There’s nothing like harvesting fresh food you helped grow, cooking it up in your kitchen and eating it,” she said. “Not only does it taste amazing, but the experience is very empowering.”

The food, she said, is just part of the experience: “It’s also about the community you’re establishing, and the friendships and relationships you develop.”

Elliot offered her expertise on how to grow food together, breaking it down into simple steps.

1. Do your homework.

Elliot recommended looking at a list of active community gardens available on Cultivating Community’s website ( and workshops offered there and through GRUB Education ( Then pick one, check it out, and maybe volunteer some time to see how things are run.

“Working in an established garden and going to workshops teaches you about gardening and gives you the opportunity to meet fellow gardeners,” she said.

2. Location, location, location.

Look for a piece of land. Elliot said this can be almost any spot. Front yards, back yards, vacant lots, apartment complexes and social-service centers are all sites of Chico’s existing community gardens.

“We recommend doing something close to the residence of the person most interested in starting the garden,” she said. “It’s much easier to establish and maintain if it’s something you see daily and is convenient and easy to get to.”

Access to water and sunlight are more important than size, she said, noting the entire garden at the 6th Street Drop-In Center is contained in two converted rain barrels. “You can grow an astonishing amount, even in a 4-by-8 garden box,” she said, “so size doesn’t matter as much as creative use of space.”

Lynsey Shinn is currently growing at least eight types of vegetables, including 30 to 40 tomato plants, in her 25-by-25 plot at Humboldt Community Gardens.

It’s also important to research your location and check the soil to make sure there’s no history of contamination.

The Cultivating Community website has listings of open spaces. Elliot also recommended contacting Mark Stemen of the Butte Environmental Council, who has researched several vacant lots suitable for community gardens.

3. Ask permission.

“Using someone’s yard is usually the easiest option,” Elliot said, “but vacant lots might take a little more work.”

There are several Internet search engines to help identify property owners using an address, and this information can also be obtained from Butte County. Write them a letter with a request to use the land.

4: Gang up.

“The next step is gathering your workforce,” Elliot said. “Start calling friends and/or knocking on doors around the location. It’s a great way to meet the neighbors, find out who’s interested and draw people in.”

5: Get your hands dirty.

Prepare the land and plant your seeds. Encourage everyone to be as involved as they can every step of the way. Elliot cited several resources to help even the most inexperienced gardener get the space ready and keep things growing, from Internet sites to asking assistance from a master gardener. But mostly, she said, have fun with it and try new things.

“Gardening is, in my opinion, all a big experiment,” she said. “There are guidelines you can follow, but everyone’s goals are different and every location is completely unique, so don’t be afraid to try things and do what works for you.”

6. Enjoy the fruits of labor.

Depending on the season, which crops you choose to grow, and how much prep work the land needs, your newly formed community can begin harvesting within months, Elliot said.

She said each garden group distributes its food differently: “In some gardens each person has their own plot, some are communal where everyone works the same plot. We try to encourage people to make sure everyone gets something to take home, because it makes them feel good about the work they’ve done.”

She said figuring out what to do with the abundance of food produced is a more common problem than figuring out how to divide things up.

“At least one garden I know of gets together to process all of their excess, like they’ll make a bunch of pesto sauce out of their basil, and they do canning workshops when they have a lot of tomatoes,” she said.