When starting a community garden, it’s easy to get caught up in the produce. I mean, that’s really what a garden is all about, the plants, right? Wrong! Of course it’s important to focus on the food, but what’s even more important is putting people, your volunteers, first. After all, they put the “community” in community gardening.
I became a Community Garden Manager in November 2017. I noticed that we had an abundance of plants and vegetables, thanks to David Whitwam, but virtually no volunteers or people to even distribute the food to. Essentially, David was running a one man show. We had the gardening portion covered, now we needed the community aspect. This made me shift the mission paradigm from a focus on produce to a focus on people.
How did I do it? I made a conscious choice to get to know people who showed interest in the garden. Instead of putting them right to work, I greet them, get to know what inspired them to volunteer, and what they hope to get out of the experience. I realized that volunteers are choosing to be there (for free) so the least I can do is try to give them a good experience that makes them want to come back. Think about it, if you had a bad experience at a restaurant are you going to go back and give it another try? Maybe, yes, but most likely not. To take it a step further, are you going to recommend that restaurant to your friends and family? My guess is no. We should take the same approach to community gardening.
The first visit to the garden can be intimidating. A lot of people’s first reaction is, “I’m scared I’m going to mess up and hurt the plants” and I like to respond with, “The best gardeners kill the most plants”. Of course I don’t want them to ruin all the plants in the garden, but just like life- it’s game of trial and error, failure and learning, growth and success. My advice is to give a first time volunteer something they will succeed at. We all like the feeling of accomplishing something and making a positive difference. So give that feeling to your volunteers! Give them a small but important job to do so they can break the fear barrier, connect with the plants, and accomplish something they can be proud of.
Building people in this way shows that you care about them. It makes them feel accepted and part of the group. Empower your volunteers with confidence, education, and excitement. The more hands you have in the garden, the more you can accomplish. The equation is simple, more people = more produce! Do something today to show your volunteers that you value them and that the community garden would not be possible without them- because it’s true! And hey, we all deserve to feel special and appreciated- why not be that person for others?