Tips and Resources for starting a community garden or greenspace:
Land permission, ownership, and tenure:
Land permission is tricky and important. If you have your heart set on a specific parcel, you will need to find the owner, find a way to contact them, and hope they will give you permission to use the site. Alternatively, you can guerilla garden on the site with the knowledge that your garden could be destroyed at any time. If you know you want to have a garden or greenspace in your neighborhood but do not have your heart set on a specific spot, you can try to connect with other neighbors who might want to start a garden, or find some who may have a garden already with which they would like help. Alternatively, approach neighborhood institutions and ask if you can garden on their land; churches, schools, businesses, and even individuals may have unused land that they may be excited to see put to use. Lastly, If you are involved in an existing garden that is at risk, there are a few different strategies to try and preserve the garden.
Resources for land permission, ownership, and tenure:
See Grounded in Philly’s “Pathways to Land Access” page for detailed how-to’s in accessing land from various city agencies, private landowners, sherriff’s sale, and adverse possession:http://groundedinphilly.org/resources/pathways-list/
Grounded in Philly is a new webtool (still in beta) that can help you identify existing gardens, owners of vacant lots, or folks in your neighborhood who are also interested in organizing gardens or green space. They also have a resource list with gardening how-tos and garden legal help. http://www.groundedinphilly.org/
These maps can help identify land parcel owners: http://www.phila.gov/water/swmap
Roughly 25% of vacant land in Philadelphia is city-owned. Most of the City’s surplus vacant land can be found online at www.phillylandworks.org. This website (also known as the “front door”) contains a map, a list (called a grid on the site), and an online application form to denote interest in accessing a site. If you are interested in using a site that is listed as available, you can click on it, fill out the application, and submit it. Staff from one of the landholding agencies will get back in touch with the next steps in the process. A spokesperson from the city says “The City adopted new land disposition policies last year that are designed to make it easier for gardeners to secure an interest in the land they are planting. These policies support individuals who want side yards by offering some of the City’s land to adjacent homeowners for deeply discounted prices. It offers community groups the opportunity to lease parcels for nominal consideration for up to five years at a time so that their investment is better protected from potential displacement. It also offers market farmers the opportunity to lease land for commercial purposes.” The entire policy can be found online at http://www.phila.gov/pra/pdfs/City%20Policies%20for%20Sale%20Reuse%20Property_5.2012.pdf
Contact the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia for help protecting an existing garden or with questions about land access/tenure: http://www.pilcop.org/garden-justice-legal-initiative-gjli/#more-882
If you are using a garden space and would like to make it a permanent space, check out the Neighborhood Garden Trust, which can help hold a lease or title to some gardens: http://www.philadelphialandtrust.org/
It it important to test the soil of any new site before you begin to work. While this is especially important if you plan to grow edible crops, even ornamental gardens can transmit heavy metals and other toxins from garden dirt when children and adults play or work in the soil and then touch their face or eat food. Make sure to do a test that includes heavy metals. When you choose a site, try and figure out what the previous uses of the site and surrounding sites were. This will give you a better idea of what contaminants you might find in your soil.
More information on soil contamination and what to do about it: http://thefoodproject.org/soil-testing-and-remediation
Detailed report on determining contaminants and how to deal with them: www.epa.gov/swerosps/bf/urbanag/pdf/bf_urban_ag.pdf
Where to test your soil for contaminants:
Penn State Soil Testing Lab: http://www.aasl.psu.edu/ssft.htm
University of Massachusetts offers the most affordable testing for lead and other heavy metals: http://soiltest.umass.edu/
Many people jumpstart their projects by having a big workday to clear the site, do initial plantings, and build enthusiasm by giving their neighbors a chance to envision the site’s potential.
Where to find volunteers: Make sure to include your neighbors! Pass out fliers door-to-door, drop off information at neighborhood organizations, schools, and churches, and ask to put up signs in local restaurants or corner stores.
Post on the Philadelphia Urban Farmers Network, which can also be a good starting place for knowledge and resources: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/pufn
Join a local currency system– you can barter skills you may have for specialized help, including carpenters, gardeners, people with pickup trucks, etc.
Resources and tools:
Managing Directors Office: block captains and neighborhood leaders request tools to borrow for neighborhood clean up and related projects: www.mcaleer07.net/takethechallenge.pdf
West Philly Tool Library: http://westphillytools.org/
Some CDCs, NACs or other community organizations may have tools for community members’ use. Check with your local community organization to find out: http://ecasavesenergy.org/services/neighborhood-energy-centers
The Habitat for Humanity Restore sells garden tools, as well as wood for raised beds and other tools, at a discount. Profits go to support their programs: http://www.habitatphiladelphia.org/restore
The Recycling Center in Fairmount Park gives away compost, mulch, woodchips, and manure. Materials are free for up to 30 gallons. Although not ideal, plantable soil can be made by mixing leaf mulch with compost. http://www.phila.gov/PARKSANDRECREATION/ENVIRONMENT/Pages/RecyclingCenter.aspx
Plants and Seeds:
Philly Seed Exchange: http://phillyseedexchange.org/phillyseedexchange.org/
Call or write to your local garden center or favorite seed company in the early spring, and request a donation of last year’s seed. Make sure to mention where the seed will be going and why your garden is unique and important.
Look for plant swaps in your neighborhood– many gardeners or neighbors associations will host them as fundraisers, and they can be good low-cost sources of perennial flowers and herbs.
The Philadelphia Urban Farmers Network listserv is a good place to request or accept offers for divisions of perennials, extra berry canes, and other seedlings or plants. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/pufn
Sometimes neighbors will let you use water from an outside spigot in exchange for some money toward their water bill or free vegetables or flowers.
You can get free rainbarrels installed at residences (you must have a downspout) through the Energy Coordinating Agency: http://ecasavesenergy.org/services/neighborhood-energy-centers
If there is a fire hydrant near your garden site, you can request a fire hydrant permit from the cityfor community gardens. You must obtain a backflow valve and show the city the receipt receipt to apply (which can be pricey), along with the tools to turn the hydrant on and off, but if you are affiliated with a nonprofit and can supply a tax-ID number, the city can waive the yearly fee to use the hydrant.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgHead of Fire Hydrant Enforcement & Corrosion Control Units Include: Garden contact name, non-profit tax ID, address of hydrant for which you are requesting permit.
Philadelphia has tons of great resources to improve your skills! Here are just a few:
Sign up for the Philadelphia Urban Farmers Network listserve (https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/pufn) to learn about other classes and opportunities
PHS garden tenders class: http://phsonline.org/greening/garden-tenders
PHS green city teachers (if you plan on using your garden for education): http://phsonline.org/greening/green-city-teachers
Penn State Master Gardeners class: http://extension.psu.edu/philadelphia/programs/master-gardener
Penn State Master Gardeners hotline (Call with questions): http://extension.psu.edu/philadelphia/programs/master-gardener/horticulture-hot-lin
Philadelphia planting guide– find out what crops grow best at what times of year in our climate: http://extension.psu.edu/philadelphia/programs/master-gardener/horticulture-hot-line/philadelphia-planting-guide/view