How To: Start A Community Garden

Finding a place to care for plants or harvest crops in an urban setting like Philadelphia may not be easy. However, throughout the city there are more than 60 community gardens at the public’s disposal. If none of the established gardens are close enough to home, or the waiting list to join is too long, there’s always the option to start a community garden on vacant land.

Various groups in Philadelphia like Grounded in Philly, a project of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, offer resources for gardening in Philadelphia.


  1. Call Neighborhood Gardens Trust and ask how to obtain permission to garden on a vacant lot in your neighborhood.
  2. Figure out the street address(es) of the lot. If not obvious, this can be done by looking at the addresses of the houses closest to the lot.
  3. Follow the guidelines outlined by Grounded in Philly on methods for obtaining permission to start a community garden on vacant land. This advice provides the framework for licensing, leasing and purchasing land from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), the Department of Public Property and the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC).
  4. Write out a set of rules and guidelines so everyone who uses the community garden knows how the rules and how to treat the land.
  5. Obtain materials like fencing, soil and tools.
  6. Add organic matter. For example, residents can get free compost from Fairmount Park Recycling Center.
  7. Start planting!

Sally McCabe, associate director of community education for The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) teaches the training program Garden Tenders.

“It walks the group through the process of what they need to know to get a garden that can last for a long time,” McCabe said. “We set up this program as a kind of DIY boot camp, so people come to the training and they decide when they’re ready.”

According to McCabe, some community gardens get started with no permission whatsoever due to apathy regarding who actually owns the land the garden might be on. Ideally, facilitators of community gardens typically either make an agreement with the owner or simply squat on the land and hope they don’t get removed.

McCabe said PHS is working to streamline the registration process and make it easier for people to start using a city-owned community garden. On privately-owned community gardens, she has seen most people either have an agreement with the owner or are simply squatting on the land.

“We do it [the program] as an eight-week course, kind of like Weight Watchers, where each week we learn something new,” McCabe said. “For example, we’ll learn about how to find out who owns the land and how to go about getting permission, and everybody goes home and they work on it.”

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