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Building A Garden

The construction of your garden will vary greatly depending on the piece of land you are building on and your goals for the garden itself. In this section, we will provide an overview of the construction of the Pleasantville Community Garden’s main donation garden to give you a sense of the process and some materials we found helpful.


Procuring the Land

The land on which the garden will be built should be identified and procured well before actual construction begins. A thorough evaluation of the proposed garden site should be undertaken and include consideration of:

  • Direct Sunlight. A minimum of six hours daily.

  • Access to Water

  • Adequate Drainage

  • Local Animal Populations. You may need a fence to keep out animals

  • Lot Size. How much growing space will you have?

  • Proximity. How close is the proposed garden site to you and your volunteers?

  • Soil Quality. Feasibility of success based on the lot’s historical and present usage and soil composition (a soil test [3.1], while not imperative if raised beds will be built, will be helpful to determine if any contaminants are present)

  • Garden Visibility. How visible is your garden to the public? Are there neighboring residents who can see the garden? This may affect your attention to the aesthetics of the garden. Our garden is on a side yard facing the street, so we added a pergola with flowers in the front, and stained the wood supports a light gray. This aesthetic plan for the garden was more pleasing to the neighbors and therefore more readily accepted.

Here is some more information on garden site selection and size [3.2], along with some useful tips for planting, plant care, and harvesting. This information is geared toward Westchester County.


Planning Out The Garden

1. Drawings. It is important to do several drawings of possible garden layouts in order to develop the best layout possible. Using graph paper, sketch out the dimensions of the proposed garden to create as much growing space as possible while also making the beds easily accessible. Consider the following:

  • Raised Beds: Raised beds make it easier to tend to the plants of the garden (especially for the elderly and disabled) and allow better control of the soil in which your plants are growing. For these reasons, we strongly suggest using raised beds.

  • Bed Position: We suggest having a thinner bed around the edge of the garden for plants that climb up the fence (like peas and cucumbers). Then, several larger beds can be made in the middle of the garden for other crops that spread more. 

  • Accessibility: Take into consideration access to the plants – are walkways needed? For the PCG, walkways two feet wide between the raised beds allowed for easy access to all beds.  You may need to consider the optimal width of your walkways to accommodate wheelchair access or wheelbarrows or other equipment.

  • Growing Space Ratio: Consider the ratio of growing space to total space (aim for 1:2 or greater). Once constructed, there were 600 square feet of total space in the PCG garden with 305 square feet dedicated to growing space in raised beds. Here is our final garden layout [3.3] with what we decided to grow in each bed:

  • Animal Control: Plan necessary measures to keep out local animal populations. For the PCG, we have a five-foot chicken wire fence (to keep out deer) which curls at the bottom to go under the garden as well to keep out burrowers. Fencing needs will differ based on location.

2. Building Permits. Obtaining the appropriate approval and permits for your garden is essential to success in building the garden. Here is who you will likely need approval from before construction:

  • Town Building Permits: Here is a guide to building permits and forms for Westchester County [3.4], with a few town-specific examples. The process outlined in this attachment may help you to understand the general process to obtain town building permits, even if you are not building your garden in Westchester.

  • Landowner Approval: We presented this presentation for land use [3.5] to the vestry of the church to convince them to allow us to use a piece of the land to build the garden. We also created a memo of understanding with landowner [3.6] to mitigate disagreements.

  • Neighbor Approval: We sought this approval too late which led to us having to postpone construction while we addressed some of the neighbors’ concerns about aesthetics, noise, and parking. Make sure to notify the surrounding neighbors of your plans early to keep them in the loop and in support of your garden. Here is a neighbor meeting invite [3.7] we dropped off at surrounding houses for a meeting in which we explained the project and asked if anyone had concerns about it.

3. Materials. Give due consideration to the materials to be used in the construction of the garden. There is a wide variety of wood, fencing, gravel, compost, soil, seeds, and gardening tools available.

  • Wood: For the PCG, cedar was the wood of choice due to its weather resistance and durability. When growing vegetables, DO NOT use pressure treated wood as the chemicals used in this process will leach into the soil and therefore the produce. Hardwoods are suggested for food growing.

  • Fence Posts: If building a tall fence to keep out large animals, we suggest using cement for the fence posts to make sure that the garden is sturdy. Fence: Fencing is crucial to keep animals out. To keep animals out and to ensure burrowers could not get in, we used coated chicken wire, which stretched from the top of the fence to 1’ underground and then bent horizontal to the ground to 18” under the garden. Needed fencing will differ based regional animals.

  • Landscaping Fabric: Landscaping fabric should be placed under the walkways before they are filled with gravel. This landscaping fabric [3.8] will minimize the invasion of weeds in the walkways. Gravel: To fill in the walkways between the garden beds, a large amount of gravel was needed (2” deep on all walkways). Gravel makes it easier to walk through the garden and helps to prevent weed growth in the walkways.

  • Soil and Compost: The beds will have a combination of soil and compost (see Chapter 4: Gardening).

4. Tools. You will need an assortment of tools for the construction, planting and general gardening.

Land Clearing: Shovels, pickaxes, hoes, trowels Fence and Raised Bed Building: Post hole diggers, string, drills, all-weather wood screws, levels, galvanized steel staples, staple guns, wheelbarrow for cement

Garden Filling: Wheelbarrows, large buckets,
shovels, trowels, rakes
Irrigation System: Is an irrigation system needed? Using a digitalized irrigation system ensures that the garden receives a base amount of water each day, even when there may be a shortage of volunteers. However, the irrigation system will incur a great cost (around $2,800 for our garden), so identify if you want an irrigation system early in your planning process to ensure that you fundraise enough. While useful, irrigation systems are certainly not necessary and should not be a barrier to making your garden a reality. Here is some information on selecting an irrigation system [3.9] if you choose to go down this path.


Organizing Volunteers for Construction

Choose the number of days for construction depending on the size of the garden you are building, if you are using concrete for the fence posts, and the number of volunteers who will be helping. Planning and promoting an actual event around the construction of the garden will attract volunteers to come out and help (see Chapter 5: Volunteers). Food and drinks should be provided for volunteers. Here is how we split our construction into two consecutive Saturdays:

  • Day One: Clear and flatten the land where the garden will be and install the fence posts with concrete. A limited number of volunteers with strength and/or carpentry skills was effective for us for this day.

  • Day Two: Create the raised beds; put down gravel, soil, and compost; and then plant. This is when we had many multi-generational volunteers of all skill levels join in.


The Building Process

Once final calculations have been made, and all the materials have been procured, it is time to start construction. Every project will be different, but here is information that may be helpful, taken from the PCG experience.

  • Fencing: Once the area has been adequately cleared, two-foot-deep postholes were made with posthole diggers. Cement was used to ensure the stability of the posts, with scrap wood used to keep the posts in place until the cement set. For the PCG, we halted day one construction once the posts were in place to allow the cement to completely dry. Upon returning a week later, crossbeams were attached to the fence posts with all-weather wood screws. Next came the coated mesh fencing, attached with galvanized steel staples.

  • Raised Beds: Next, the actual garden beds were constructed. Recommended heights for raised beds vary from 8 inches to 18 inches. The larger the bed, the more soil and compost will be needed, so consider costs. Make sure that volunteers can reach any plant in the bed. Here are resources providing general raised bed building ideas [3.10] and specific raised bed building instructions [3.11]. Here is a guide on raised beds, soil health, and container gardening [3.12].

  • Filling the Garden: Before the constructed beds are put in place the ground will need to be leveled and weed-suppressing landscape fabric put down over the walkways to help minimize the invasion of weeds. Then, it is time to place the beds and fill them by wheelbarrow or bucket load. Volunteers of any age can help bring buckets of soil and compost to fill the beds and buckets of gravel to pour on the walkways. The gravel, compost, and soil should then be leveled with a rake.

  • Aesthetics: The PCG included a small un-fenced bed on the outside of the garden for herbs and zinnias (which deter deer and other pests). In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, volunteers are invited to help themselves to the herbs and flowers over the course of the growing season. Another aesthetic touch was the construction of a pergola, which was easily put together from a kit and placed at the front of the garden where donated rose bushes would be planted and, in time, grow up and over. Aesthetics may seem unimportant and superfluous, but this can be a vital part of the garden construction to ensure that the landowner and the neighbors remain supportive of the garden.

  • Gate: A pre-constructed gate was attached to provide easy access for the volunteer gardeners while keeping out animals.

  • Irrigation System: The last step for the PCG was the post-planting installation of a digital irrigation system of soaker hoses that runs through the raised beds of the garden, watering the beds every day at 5am for about an hour. The irrigation system has a weather monitor to decrease its daily watering if it rains.

  • Container Gardening: Though the PCG has experimented less with this, growing vegetable plants in containers (pots, buckets, etc.) can increase growing space if your area is limited or an odd shape. We grew some tomatoes in pots at one of the gardens with which we work, with the pots at the ends of raised beds, which maximized the available growing space. Here is some information on growing vegetables in containers [3.13]. We also grow potatoes in bags which are kept outside of the garden, as they are largely left alone by pests.

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