GardenABCs

Photo: Woodland Elementary garden, Gages Lake, Ill.

How to Grow Your Volunteer Community


By Anne Nagro


Creating a garden is relatively easy.  Growing a community to support it… well, that’s a different story.


A community of engaged volunteers can mean the difference between an oasis and a weedy back lot, a place of active hands-on learning and a forgotten Earth Day project.

But how do you get folks to take ownership in a school or youth garden project beyond the dedicated-to-the-point-of-insanity regulars?  I wish I had an easy solution!  Instead, here are a few ideas you may find helpful:


Reorganize.  From their very beginning, some gardens are created with support from lots of stakeholders – teachers, administrators, community leaders, parents, students, local businesses.  Others take a ‘build it and they will come’ approach:  Get the garden started by a few and then draw in the support of others.   Both approaches work, but the latter never really creates the buy-in needed to ensure the garden’s long term survival.  What happens when the few who make it happen move on?  In either case, it’s important to constantly grow your community of volunteers.  I hear some of you… you want to garden, not manage people.  Still, if you want the garden project to survive, you’ve got to create an organization that will outlast you. Start holding regular committee meetings, alert the community to these meetings, assign small doable tasks, and create opportunities like photography, fundraising and promotion that appeal to ‘non-gardeners.’


Invite New People. We need volunteers long term (e.g., to help run the program) and for shorter projects, like planting or weeding days. Here are some groups that may give you some help:

     + Scouts – boys, girls and Eagle

     + Master gardeners from the county cooperative extension office

     + Community college horticulture students and faculty

     + Community garden clubs

     + High school and elementary school clubs with a “green” or service mission

     + Summer camps

     + Church youth groups interested in service projects

     + PTA / PTO 

     + Local businesses – Encourage them to show their corporate citizenship by adopting a garden.  The Woodland Elementary West garden in Gages Lake, Ill., benefited greatly from the help of five Kohl’s employees, who weeded, spread compost and planted radish seeds. The company also made a significant donation to the garden project.


Make Meetings Fun. Celebrate a good harvest with a tasting party. Ask a local business to donate refreshments for a work day. Break big projects down into smaller pieces so volunteers feel like they’ve accomplished something.  Establish a regular day and time to weed and water the garden, say Wednesdays at 9 a.m.  A "standing" date with others draws in more people and makes a tedious chore a lot more fun. 


Recognize Efforts. Most important, recognize volunteers for their effort. This doesn’t have to be a public display -- a nicely written letter works fine – but everyone likes to know her hard work is appreciated.


Copyright Anne Nagro


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