For over ten years we have hosted a small community garden on our property here in Madison, NH just south of Conway Village in the Mount Washington Valley (MWV). The garden consists of 27 individual raised bed plots four feet by twelve feet bordered by two-by-eight or two-by-ten-inches boards. Gardeners come from all parts of the valley for several reasons including a lack of gardening space or exposure to the sun where they either own or rent.
The garden originally came about when members of the MWV garden club asked me to look at a plot near our local dog park. It looked to me like it would be a lot of work making a go of this particular location. So instead, I offered the members a quarter acre spot on my own property where I knew I could provide water and rich soil and also keep an eye on the garden.
So, working from a grant through the MWV Chamber of Commerce we kicked off preparing the site, building the beds, putting up a deer fence and getting water to the site. Fortunately, a friend volunteered his portable sawmill that he set up on my property and milled out a pile of two-by-eight inches lumber (for bed edging) from pine trees that I had already felled and were waiting for such a noble purpose. It would have been better for them to be hemlock but the pine worked fine for more years than I would have expected. (I now have my own sawmill and am scoping out some hemlocks standing nearby that may soon find themselves part of the garden.)
We filled the beds first with a layer of leftover newsprint from our local Conway Daily Sun and then a few inches of fresh leaves topped with leaf compost that I make every year when local landscapers and homeowners haul me their “used” leaves that I turn into a very rich compost. (See photo.) We soon learned that the layer of newsprint was not necessary as the bottom layer of leaves in the beds seemed to stifle the field grasses underneath quite adequately.
I initially ran a water line from our town water supply to the garden but have since dug a well very capable of supplying the Community Garden and all of our other outdoor water needs without having to pay a water fee to the town. Even the cost of pumping the water is avoided as our 11kWh solar system provides all of our electricity free.
The first few gardening seasons the Chamber provided a monitor funded by grant money and bed fees. The monitor collected the modest rent fee from the gardeners and also tended to a couple of additional common area raised beds that those gardeners helped tend to raise vegetables for the community at large. When my daughter, Jennie, returned to our “compound” (which is what my kids have named our growing homestead), she also started gardening and expanded the common beds of the community garden area. Her farming operation now offers CSA membership (Community Supported Agriculture) to a couple of dozen local citizens. She has taken over monitoring the garden and puts much of the bed rental money back into improvements to the garden.
After more than ten years we still have many of the original gardeners. There are thirteen gardeners, several having more than one plot. Many are religious in their attention to their plots while some start with enthusiasm and then lose interest or are called away to other things. A few have been able to start their own home gardens now that they have had a taste of gardening.
Jennie makes sure that everyone follows organic practices. I still donate compost to the gardeners which amounts only a tiny part of the hundred or so yards of compost I make each year. This is something I recommend to anyone thinking of starting a community garden as “used” leaves are free and readily available and best kept out of landfills. Leaf compost provides a well-balanced source of nutrients as it is nature’s own way of producing rich soil.
On the side: Although having a separate “common area” for plot owners to help maintain is a noble idea, in reality it is unlikely that they will be maintained by anyone other than the garden monitor. Having a garden monitor be a part of the overall community garden with growing space adjacent to the rented beds seems to be a key to the overall success of both.
Since much of the initial grant through the Chamber of Commerce was used to provide a porta-potty that we thought would be necessary but found in time that gardeners were seldom at their gardens long enough to require such a facility, we have not had one since that first year.
When laying out the wood-sided raised beds be sure to space them far enough apart to allow the lawn mower that will be used for keeping grass under control to fit between them. We originally covered the aisles with wood chips but it did not take long for the grass to overtake every uncultivated space. The neatly mowed grass actually looks better than wood chips with clumps of grass sprouting here and there.
Russ Lanoie is a long-time solar proponent in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and operated his Alternative Systems business in the 1970s and 80s selling solar hot water systems, composting toilets and Window Quilts®. He has lived in a passive solar home for forty years. www.RuralHomeTech.com.