How to Start a Community Garden: Converting a Vacant Lot

It’s mid-winter, the perfect time to start planning a community garden and have it ready for the thaw.  Community gardens are a great way to turn previously unused land into a vibrant community space that promotes health and education for members of all ages! All throughout the Appalachian basin communities are finding creative ways to reuse land as shared gardens.  Like Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students or BUGS, an after-school and summer program that aims to inspire children to develop new skills within their communities by turning vacant lots into green spaces for growing fresh food.  Or Swale, which dealt with New York City’s strict land use laws by not using land at all, instead deciding to grow on barge.

Which brings us to our lesson!  It’s extremely important to make sure your garden is legal and terms are fairly negotiated.  There’s a lot to cover here so we’ve split this post up into three different parts.  The first post will be about finding your land and writing a lease that assures all parties are fairly represented.

Each community garden starts with the same steps but as you develop your project you will begin to understand how your project has its own legal needs. We hope that as you discover these legal needs the guidance in these articles can help you ask the right questions and provide you with the right tools to make sure you are ready to break ground without breaking the law.

Here is a step by step guide on how to turn your community’s vacant spaces into beautiful, bountiful, and nourishing land that everyone can enjoy.


Step 1: Find a plot of land

Depending on where you live vacant lots can be easy to find, you probably have multiple in your community already, I do.  So be picky, consider the following before choosing.

Who owns the land?

Sometimes you can find a piece of land that is already owned by your community.  Other times you may work with a private landowner, a church, or maybe you own the land yourself!  Each situation requires different terms. The local tax assessor's office will have public records of land ownership if you find a parcel you're interested in but don't already have a relationship with the owner.

How is the land currently zoned?

Most of the time the lot you are looking for will already be zoned for similar use but if it is not you will need to go the rezoning process.  This can be time intensive and confusing.  We’ll get to this in our next post.

Does the soil have the right nutrients?

This is the place to get really choosy. Particularly in urban settings, soil testing is crucial where there may be contamination issues from litter and pollution over the years. Your local extension office will have soil testing resources available to you. Testing is best done before you invest your love, sweat and resources in the site!

Step 2: Approach the Land Owner

You should always have a plan before approaching the land owner.  You should ask yourself: What do I want?  What do they want?  What situations would make both parties happy?  If both parties can’t get what they want then, what’s the best alternative.   All of this information will eventually be put together in terms of a lease. If you decide you want to make some investments and improvements in the property, you'll probably want more certainty in land tenure and a longer term for the lease.  The lease will act as the legal agreement between both parties and will be final!  So make sure you think through all circumstances before you sign anything.  If you are feeling unsure about how to best define your lease terms reach out to a local attorney.  If you are in Pennsylvania or Ohio you can always give us a call!  We love to help communities start their gardens and we will work with your budget and time constraints.  We can also help you write your lease or even do the services for you!


Step 3: Drafting a Lease

For those who are ready to draft your own lease we have provided a few things to think about for each type of land owner you may encounter.  We have also provided a list of resources and sample leases at the end of this article to give you a head start.


Private Land Owner

If you have thought through the logistics of your intended use of the space, you're less likely to cause a headache for the landowner. Things like parking, built structures, taxes, accessibility and premises liability should be on your radar, with a goal towards making the situation work for everyone.  They want to make sure their land is improved by the garden so you may want to include lease terms with rules for accountability or a section that requires an organizational structure in place.  The more confidence you can afford the owner the less your lease will cost you.  You may even be able to get it for free.  Everything’s negotiable!



Make sure you assess what local resources are already available in your neighborhood. There may be grants and other resources available. Fortunately community gardeners tend to be community minded and willing to share resources and expertise.


If this is you, then thank you for being a proactive and positive community leader.  Now, make sure you protect yourself within the provision of your lease.  Consider rules about times of use, conduct within the garden, parking, use of pesticides/fertilizer, etc.  If you own the property yourself, you might spend some time writing up an agreement for people who come join you in the community garden. 


Before you can accurately draft the lease, there are some other important business matters to take care of.  In the next two posts we will talk about Liability Insurance and Zoning.  Feel free to begin the lease based on what you know right now and you are in a great place, but be prepared to change it as you learn more about forming your community garden.  The more time you take the more comfort you will have in the final agreement.  This comfort will go a long way in assuring your garden is set up for a long and prosperous future!


ChangeLabs Solutions “Ground Rules”:

Garden Matters “Multiple Benefits of Community Gardening”:

UCSD “Community Garden Start-up Guide”:

Public Law Center “Community Garden”':

Grow Pittsburgh “Community Garden Guide”":