A collective garden is a way for city dwellers to work as a group to grow and share a large selection of produce. Learn about how collective gardens function from someone with a few years of collective gardening experience.
Do you secretly wish you were a farmer… but don’t really want to make the plunge into a rural lifestyle? Would you like to grow all your own food, but don’t have the backyard to do it in? Then a collective garden could be for you!
Honestly, I’m not sure how many collective gardens exist in the world. However, after chatting with my friend Nancy it sounds like a model that I would love to be a part of!
Community Gardens and Farm Shares
There are already a few different types of collective gardens out there. Probably the most common type is the community garden. In case you haven’t heard of it, this is where households can sign up for a small garden plot somewhere in their neighborhood. We’ve been part of community gardens in both Canada and Ireland, so it’s a fairly common practice.
Farm shares or community-supported agriculture are another way of connecting more directly to the food you are eating. In these cases, households buy a share of a farm’s produce at the beginning of the year. Then they get a share of the harvest throughout the summer. The exact amount of food received will depend on whether it’s a good year or a bad harvest year.
A Collective Garden
Nancy’s collective garden is different from either of these models. She’s part of a group of 10 households who rent a parcel of farmland. They generally grow enough food that Nancy doesn’t need to buy produce during the growing season. However, instead of each person growing their own plots of food, there are crop teams responsible for growing particular crops (potatoes, salad greens, tomatoes, etc.).
This allows them to have the efficiency of a large production farm, without the sole responsibility.
They have quite a few ground rules in order to make the collective garden work. Like all cooperative endeavors, rules and expectations are key to success. Here is how Nancy’s collective garden is managed:
- They host monthly meetings to decide on everything from what crops to grow, to how much land should be set aside for a pollinator garden.
- Some crops, like potatoes, are harvested all at once and then split up. Other items, like zucchini, are self-harvested, then noted on a tally sheet.
- The land is subdivided into plots, with each member in charge of a particular plot of land. They use a crop rotation to determine what each plot will grow each year. Some years you might have an easier crop than other years. According to Nancy, bulk-growing carrots is surprisingly difficult! But growing potatoes is easy.
- Rather than making just one household in charge of each plot, they work on crop teams, with a team captain who takes prime responsibility. This means that the garden plots will be cared for, even when people go away on holiday.
I asked Nancy a few questions about the nitty-gritty details that everyone probably wants to know:
1. How much time do you usually spend in the garden each week?
- We average 5 hours per week throughout the FULL year which can be more than 5 hours per week in the summer, especially during planting season and heavy weeding.
- In addition to our drip irrigation schedule, we also hand water the seedlings, which in the peak succession and heat can be a 3-hour watering shift. Each member takes turns on the watering shifts, which means I’m hand watering once every 10 days.
- People often think that there is no gardening in the winter but we do tool cleaning, small repairs, and mending insect netting. We create the garden planning/bed rotation chart, and research crops for the new year. Since we’re always rotating the crop teams there’s always lots to learn.
2. How much does it cost?
- We’ve managed to keep our ‘shares’ at $100/each per year.
- We have $300 in rent, which includes potable municipal water, $250 in insurance, and the rest we spend on seeds, natural fertilizer, and incidentals (e.g. irrigation repair, small tools purchase, etc.).
- Usually, 10 members gives us enough money (just) to buy everything we need. If we don’t have enough money, we vote on whether we should each pay an extra $20 or so.
- People are generally very generous as well. For example, I don’t claim gas money for picking up manure.
3. What if someone is not doing their share of the work or takes too much food?
Fortunately, cheating has not been an issue. For a couple of reasons I suspect:
- People are in it for community and gardening itself as much as food, and the attitudes are all community-minded. We’ve probably had more of the opposite issue, with people holding back on taking food for fear of taking too much.
- We track the harvest for desirable crops (e.g. we don’t track abundant kale). It depends on the crop but it could be by weight, by number (e.g. two cukes), or by the bag full. It’s a pretty general system, but after looking at the hard copy harvest tracking sheet that lives in the garden you can see pretty quickly if you’re taking more or less than the other people.
- We date when we harvest so we can see the pacing of the harvest too. This is a useful record for when we’re planting the next year too – to compare (did we have more abundance one year over another?).
- We also encourage active participation (and mandatory attendance) in the regular meetings. So if someone is not getting enough, we know that we’ll hear about it and we encourage that feedback. If someone is away and wants to capture peak ripeness in a harvest, they can also ask another member to harvest for them.
4. Can you leave anytime you want?
Yes. But membership runs with the calendar year and we wouldn’t refund the membership fee if they left after rent, insurance, etc. was spent, as those are our big costs. We pay early in the new year so someone should decide early on if they don’t want to be in the group so we can budget accordingly. We are pretty relaxed though so even if someone joined in January, we paid our insurance, etc. in Feb, and they left in March, we might still feel it’s appropriate to refund so it’s not cut-and-dry on that topic.
5. Social Permaculture
We always let people know that the social permaculture aspect is as important (possibly more!) than the physical permaculture when they show interest in the garden.
- One has to be willing to listen to other points of view and possibly wait to vote on a topic until there is more information. (For example, should we compost certain types of weeds, should we prune at different times of the year, should we harvest seaweed, should we pull out all the weeds, or let some grow for bees, etc…).
- Group meetings are mandatory to ensure that there is shared understanding being built across the group. We’ve had people over the years say ‘I’m happy to just work in the garden and let the others make the decisions, but that doesn’t work. Otherwise only a small group of people will make all the decisions.
- Also, it’s the shared understanding from the meetings that help build a common vision of why we do things a certain way. There is a lot of nuance and detail and being part of those discussions ensures that people are working with the most complete information and not inadvertently going against the group’s decisions.
6. The Best Part Of The Collective Garden
The diversity and size of the garden is not something anyone alone could do. Certainly not living in a highly urbanized area with virtually no yard, and working full time. So I get access to food and getting my hands dirty without being responsible for all of it. People always want to try new crops and techniques so we learn a lot from each other too.