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How Do Your Community Gardens Grow?

It’s been a warm week in Portland, Maine. According to the groundhogs, we’ll see spring in a few more weeks, and I’m already dreaming of building raised beds and starting my garden. If you don’t live in the ‘burbs, but have the itch to grow your own food, there are several options to consider. Community gardens all over the world are on the rise. And for good reason: Community gardens provide opportunities for greater access to fresh food, create meeting spaces for a variety of communities, increase surrounding property values, and provide recreation and exercise for people of all ages. A 2014 report from the National Garden Association showed that 2 million more US households participated in a community garden in 2013 than 2008 – a 200% increase in five years.

Portland has seen similar growth in its community garden program. When the City began partnering with Cultivating Community to manage and support its community gardens in 2013, there were only 4 city-owned properties. Now there are 11 community gardens across the City. With all this growth and popularity, Portland has experienced the highs and lows of community gardening.

In a recent conversation, Portland’s deputy director of parks, facilities and recreation Ethan Hipple and Cultivating Community’s urban agriculture specialist Laura Mailander shared their insights and advice on how to grow a community garden program.

1. Community gardens should be community spaces.

Hipple: The mission of the parks department is to have something for everyone. Some may think of community gardens outside of the realm of government, but they fill an important niche in Portland. Even though gardeners own the produce they grow, this is still city land and public space. Families should feel like they can have a picnic in the gardens; school groups should be able to use the gardens as an educational tool. Although there are fences around the community gardens, Portland has made the conscious effort not to lock the gates. This can lead to some challenges (e.g., food theft), but the City is working on this through improved signage, education, and opportunities for those in need of food.

Mailander: The most successful community gardens in Portland have the support of neighborhood groups. Their creation has been a community-driven effort. The City’s newest community garden was proposed to Parks and Cultivating Community by the Libbytown Neighborhood Association as a way to unify an area without any public space and previously disconnected by the building of an interstate. The neighborhood came together to gather the supplies, and even went to the beach several times to harvest seaweed for the raised beds. Gathering a lot of people together is what makes these efforts work. Community gardens enable people to contribute and end up being a great of intersection of folks who might not know each other. It needs to be a triangle of effort from the City, Cultivating Community, and the neighborhood.

2. Manage expectations when an inevitable waiting list starts

Hipple: You know your program is successful when the waiting list starts to grow. There are 400 residential plots with 10% of gardeners identifying as low income. There are an additional 250 people on a waitlist. Each year, 10% of gardeners turn over, but those spots are quickly filled and adding new gardens doesn’t seem to lessen demand. Conveying this information to potential gardeners and sharing insights into the waitlist prioritization (e.g., low income families) helps lessen the frustration.

Mailander: Cultivating Community is very aware of how many people want to be apart of the community garden program and is working to build new gardens to meet the needs of city residents.

3. Rely on data when making decisions about the community garden program.

Hipple: The City would like to re-evaluate data that’s collected to determine things like amount of produce grown and health outcomes for program participants. For now, the City Manager and City Council are interested in breakdowns of budgeting data, including fees collected from gardeners for using plots of land, to ensure that this is a revenue-neutral program that’s still meeting the needs of the community.

Mailander: Cultivating Community administers an annual survey of gardeners to collect impressions of the community garden program and preferred program resource allocation (e.g., hands-on events vs. technical trainings, usefulness of the quarterly newsletter, etc.). Cultivating Community consistently looks back at survey results throughout the year in budgetary, operational, and programmatic decision making. This information is also presented to the gardeners, along with the vision for the future of the community garden program.


Thanks to Ethan Hipple and Laura Mailander for their insights and time! Has your organization thought about community gardening and how to measure program success? We’d love to hear more. Do you have questions or comments? Contact us! Post questions to our Q&A section, or email us at


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