Vacant Lot Gardening: Tips For Planting Veggies In Vacant Lots
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Unless you are totally oblivious, you have probably noticed the recent explosion of neighborhood gardens popping up. Using vacant spaces as gardens is by no means a new idea; in fact, it’s steeped in history. The question is how to garden on a vacant lot and what goes into the creation of a neighborhood garden?
History of Neighborhood Gardens
Community gardens have been around for ages. In earlier vacant lot gardens, home beautification and school gardening were encouraged. Neighborhood societies, garden clubs, and women’s clubs encouraged gardening via contests, free seeds, classes, and organizing community gardens.
The first school garden opened in 1891 at the Putnam School, Boston. In 1914, the U.S. Bureau of Education sought to promote gardens nationally and encourage schools to include gardening in their curriculum by establishing the Division of Home and School Gardening.
During the depression, Detroit’s mayor proposed using donated vacant spaces as gardens to aid the unemployed. These gardens were for personal consumption and for sale. The program was so successful that similar vacant lot gardening began to pop up in other cities. There was also a spike in personal subsistence gardens, community gardens, and work relief gardens – which paid workers to grow food used by hospitals and charities.
The war garden campaign began during World War I to raise food for individuals at home so farm-raised food could be sent to Europe where there was a severe food crisis. Planting veggies in vacant lots, parks, company grounds, along railroads, or anywhere there was open land became all the rage. During World War II, gardening was again at the forefront. The Victory Garden was not only necessary due to food rationing, but also became a symbol of patriotism.
In the 70’s, urban activism and interest in environmental conservation piqued an interest in vacant lot gardening. The USDA sponsored the Urban Gardening Program to promote community gardens. Interest has slowly but steadily increased since that time with the virtual plethora of community gardens seen in urban landscapes.
How to Garden on a Vacant Lot
The idea of planting veggies in vacant lots should be fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, it is not. There are many things to consider when using vacant spaces as gardens.
Locate a lot. Finding the appropriate lot is the first priority. Land with safe, uncontaminated soil, sun exposure of 6-8 hours, and access to water are necessary. Look at community gardens near you and chat with those who are utilizing them. Your local extension office will also have helpful information.
Obtain the space. Securing the vacant lot is next. A large group of people may be involved in this. Who to contact may be the result of who the beneficiary of the site will be. Is it for the low income, children, general public, just the neighborhood, or is there a larger organization behind the use such as a church, school, or food bank? Will there be a usage fee or membership? Amongst these will be your partners and sponsors.
Make it legal. Many landowners require liability insurance. A lease or written agreement on the property should be secured with clear designation regarding liability insurance, responsibility for water and security, resources the owner will be providing (if any), and the primary contact for the land, usage fee, and due date. Write up a set of rules and bylaws created by a committee and signed by members that agree about how the garden is run and how to deal with problems.
Create a plan. Just as you would need a business plan to open your own business, you should have a garden plan. This should include:
- How are you going to obtain supplies?
- Who are the workers and what are their tasks?
- Where will the compost area be?
- What types of paths will there be and where?
- Will there be other plants amidst planting veggies in the vacant lot?
- Will pesticides be used?
- Will there be artwork?
- What about seating areas?
Keep a budget. Establish how you will raise money or receive donations. Social events promote the success of the space and allow for fundraising, networking, outreach, teaching, etc. Contact the local media to see if they are interested in doing a story on the garden. This can engender much-needed interest and financial or volunteer assistance. Again, your local extension office will be valuable too.
This is just a taste of all that is needed to create a garden on vacant land; however, the benefits are many and well worth the effort.
How to Start Guerrilla Gardening
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Guerrilla gardening is a term used to describe the unauthorized cultivation of plants or crops on vacant public or private land. For some practitioners, Guerrilla Gardening is a political statement about land rights or reform  X Research source for others, it is primarily an opportunity to beautify and improve neglected, barren or overgrown spaces. Guerrilla gardening can be conducted either via secretive night missions or openly in an attempt to engage others in the idea of community improvement regardless of which approach one takes, there are some basic steps that are important to successfully raise plants under the demanding conditions experienced by these gardens. Follow the steps below to learn how to start your own guerrilla garden.
Gardening Without Ownership
You don’t need to own vacant land to establish a community garden or green space in Philadelphia, but gardening without ownership comes with risks. Find out how to get started.
The following guide provides a framework for those seeking short-term possession (land tenure) or ownership (land sovereignty) for urban agriculture projects.
The first section provides tips for starting gardens on vacant lots—whether the lots are privately-owned or city-owned. The second section explains risks for those gardening on vacant lots that they do not own. The final section details tactics for land tenure and ownership for existing or beginning gardens on either privately-owned or city-owned lots.
HOW TO START GARDENING ON VACANT LAND
Urban agriculture has gained attention in recent years. In a city like Philadelphia with excessive vacant land—over 40,000 vacant and abandoned lots—converting this land, our common space, into gardens takes on increased significance. With hundreds of acres of vacant land in thousands of parcels, gardening is a way to steward land, make neighborhoods safer, beautify disinvested areas, and strengthen communities.
Gardens on vacant lots also increase food security by providing access to produce in places where fresh, healthy food is hard to come by. But community-controlled gardens go a step further—they allow communities to be the heart of their own food systems, thereby increasing food sovereignty, or the right for communities to define and control their own food systems. Similarly, the greatest benefits of gardening on vacant lots—environmental, health, social, and economic—often derive from community-driven gardening tactics, where those living in the neighborhood play an integral role.
In a city like Philadelphia, with diverse neighborhoods and a strong and long history of community gardening, ensuring community support and longevity is vital when starting a garden on vacant land. To make sure this happens, ask yourself this before starting a garden: Is this your community? If possible, focus on organizing where you live, with your friends, neighbors, local businesses, and political officials. Consider finding out:
- which groups of people live in the immediate neighborhood and surrounding area where you wish to garden
- which languages are spoken in the neighborhood and whether you or a fellow gardener has the language skills to do outreach, build relationships, and develop trust
- which grassroots organizations have a presence and/or leadership in the neighborhood see if you can learn more about their work or help out with any relevant issues, such as food, health, nutrition, and anti-hunger work.
- if there is someone growing food in the neighborhood or nearby. Perhaps you could support an existing garden, or share resources or information. Check out the directory of established gardens to get started.
You should also meet and talk to neighbors and connect with people to build relationships and trust, and in turn, ensure that the garden benefits more than just the gardener, but is informed by community needs and wants.
GARDENING ON VACANT LAND YOU DO NOT OWN: RISKS AND BEST PRACTICES
You have been gardening or are planning to garden on land that you do not have legal ownership of or permission to use, or “guerrilla gardening.” Gardeners may be liable if the actual property owner does not approve of the garden use of his/her property. Potential punishments exist for guerilla gardening, but the City has not made a point of prosecuting gardening on vacant land, unlike other cities that routinely enforce these laws.
Therefore, gardening in Philadelphia on vacant land is currently a low risk activity. We do, however, want people to know that for guerilla gardening punishments could theoretically occur and what actions could incur worse punishment.
Here are some risks you should consider, followed by suggestions for reducing your liability.
Guerrilla gardening is a trespass , or a wrongful interference with another’s property rights. Pennsylvania categorizes different types of trespassing potentially the most relevant is defiant trespasser 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3503(b), summarized as:
If a person enters or remains on land without a license or privilege to do so, and where notice against trespass has been given by:
- Someone telling the person
- A sign or other posting that an intruder would notice, such as a “No Trespassing” sign
- Fencing or other enclosure meant to keep out intruders
This offense is a misdemeanor of the third degree if the offender ignores an order to leave that is personally communicated by the owner of the premises or another authorized person. A misdemeanor of the third degree incurs the potential risk of a fine between $250 and $5,000 and/or imprisonment for no more than 90 days.
If, however, the “intruder” receives no verbal warning–if the warning is only a sign or fence–the trespass is a summary offense punishable by no more than $200 and not longer than 90 days in jail. Variations do exist for trespass charges that carry different sentences, but as a general rule, if you are notified by an authority figure, the risk becomes greater.
See https://law.onecle.com/pennsylvania/crimes-and-offenses/00.035.003.000.html for additional classifications of trespassing and subsequent punishments. Again, the city has not actively pursued prosecuting gardening on vacant land, but it may be useful to know the rules.
Other Legal Risks
Whether city-owned or privately-owned property, gardeners may also be liable for:
- Private nuisance, where the owner’s use and enjoyment of his/her property is interfered with as a result of the garden. Courts have determined that odors and loud noises are private nuisances.
- Public nuisance,where a garden harms community resources, or threatens the public health, safety, or welfare. In Philadelphia, public nuisances may occur where public rights are interfered with due to an activity that violates the Philadelphia Code, an ordinance, or any statute. Courts have determined that excessive noise in violation of health and zoning regulations is a public nuisance.
- Attractive nuisance,where property owners are liable for injuries to trespassing individuals, especially children who cannot understand a possible hazard. Unsafe structures in a garden that harm trespassers would likely cause liability for the property owner. It is unclear whether gardeners who do not own the property would be liable.
- Negligence, where someone becomes injured as a result of your actions on a property. Negligence is failure to behave with the level of care that is reasonable under the circumstances, particularly if there was a foreseeable likelihood that your conduct would result in harm.
WHAT IF I GET SUED? LIABILITY AND COMMUNITY GARDENING
Do any laws exist to protect farmers or gardeners against lawsuits?
Pennsylvania has what is known as a “right-to-farm” law. This law makes it clear that the policy of the state is to support agriculture, and it protects farmers from certain kinds of liability. Specifically, it prohibits nuisance lawsuits against certain agriculture operations. It remains to be seen, however, how “right-to-farm” laws apply to urban agriculture, since the law is intended for larger operations that generate income. See this factsheet from Penn State for more information.
How can you reduce liability?
The best way is to ensure community support, since liability is most likely to come from neighbors’ complaints. By providing opportunities for the neighborhood to be involved with your garden, misunderstandings can be avoided, thwarting possible trespass or nuisance claims. It is also important to reduce loud noises, bad odors, and hazards in your garden to reduce the risk of liability for nuisance or negligence.
Securing tenure or ownership also reduces liability. With this kind of security, you have no risk of liability for trespass, and nuisance risks decrease, so long as you are not bothering neighbors or the larger public.
SECURING OWNERSHIP OR TENURE OF YOUR GARDEN
While tenure or ownership are important aspects to garden and gardener security, local politics and relationships play a large role in whether gardens exist long-term.
Establishing a good relationship with your city councilperson, as well as good relationships with neighbors and the larger community where you’re gardening, is an important step to securing your garden for the long term. Making efforts to ensure community support and engagement, sharing your garden with others, and explaining what you’re doing may be the most important actions you can take to secure your garden’s existence. In fact, some of the longest standing gardens in Philadelphia are gardens where nearby communities are not just involved with the garden, but are central to its existence year after year.
When considering which kinds of tactics you may use to secure tenure or ownership, it is important to first identify whether you are on city property or privately-owned land. Different tactics will apply depending on who owns the land. Find out using this tool.
After you have identified whether your lot is city-owned or privately-owned, you will want to consider whether you are more interested in pursuing land ownership or land tenure. Land tenure is an ideal option to pursue if you are more interested in gardening only in the short-term. However, if you are hoping to garden on a certain lot for many years, you may prefer ensuring your garden’s longevity through ownership.
Tactics for Gaining Ownership or Tenure on Your Land
For privately-owned, vacant land tenure:
- (In)formal agreements with the property owner(s):Agreements with property owners can be formal, such as a written contract, or informal, such as verbal permission. The more formal the agreement, however, the more likely the terms will be kept. You and the property owner(s) can develop an agreement specific to your situation. For more information, see making an agreement with a private owner.
For privately-owned, vacant land ownership:
NOTE: these tactics are useful only when the lot is owned by either a deceased or absentee landowner.
- Adverse Possession:Also called “squatter’s rights,” adverse possession enables ownership where an individual or group has gardened continuously for 21 years without concealing the garden, without permission from the owner, and to the exclusion of others. Adverse possession can be a complicated process, requiring a lawyer. See our guide to adverse possession.
- Sheriff’s Sale:Particularly if the property you wish to acquire is burdened with unpaid debt, sheriff’s sale is an ideal option for acquiring title without debts or liens attached. Individuals can request that specific tax-delinquent properties be sent to sheriff’s sale. For more information, see our guide to sheriff’s sales.
Conservatorships and Raising an Estate
Conservatorships apply only to lots with vacant structures. They are authorized by Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act (also known as Act 135). The process involves petitioning to take possession of a blighted property, financial commitment, and representation by an attorney. For more information, see our guide to conservatorships.
For city-owned, vacant land tenure
- Interim-Use Agreements:These agreements allow a temporary use of property until a particular date or event, or until zoning regulations no longer permit the use. They require that the use be in line with Philadelphia’s Zoning Code, so you need to ensure your garden or farm is in compliance with the Code.
- Joint-Use Agreements:These formal agreements serve to define the terms and conditions for shared use of city land. They are often agreements between two government entities. Terms can be set by the gardeners and the city, but these agreements require a lot of effort and cooperation. See: https://ourcommunityourkids.org/media/4477/14-DUG%20and%20DPS%20Agreement.pdf for an example agreement between Denver Urban Gardens and Denver Public Schools.
- Leases: The City leases properties for urban agricultural activities defined as an urban garden, a community garden, or an urban farm. An urban garden is a non-commercial garden used by one household a community garden is a non-commercial garden managed by a nonprofit and an urban farm is a commercial garden that has a goal of earning a profit. Leases with Philadelphia last between three and five years and require purchasing liability insurance, which could cost over $650 per year. Advocates are working to develop policies that would provide affordable insurance for urban gardens and farms. Contact the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority at 215-854-6500 for more information on leases.
- Licenses:Licenses give individuals or organizations permission to garden or farm. However, licenses can be suspended or revoked at any time. anything else?
- Zoning Amendments/Ordinances:Amending the Zoning Code or crafting ordinances to enable certain land use policies for gardens is a possible solution to the abundant vacant land in Philadelphia. For example, if the process for leasing land were made simpler and cheaper, land tenure could be furthered. If land were available for gardeners for a nominal fee, land ownership would be promoted.
For city owned property, please see this resource about gardening on public land.
This document is meant to be a living document of resources and recommendations for those growing food for themselves, their neighbors or others. If you would like to add a resource to this page, or if you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin .
Vacant Land: Transformation from the Ground Up
In Pittsburgh, which has lost 60 percent of its population in 60 years, close to 30,000 vacant lots are scattered across the city, largely concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. This vacant land is increasingly seen as an asset by the general public. Community-led efforts are using it as a platform to educate and empower residents to take action, being linked to educational, training, and employment opportunities, and galvanizing multi-organizational collaboration that ultimately informs public policy.
The city’s youth were employed through a summer workforce training program, and they prepped, planted, and maintained the sunflowers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Butcher
One of the places this attitude toward vacant land took root in Pittsburgh is the neighborhood of Larimer, which has among the highest vacancy, crime, and poverty rates in the city. In 2008, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) acquired multiple vacant, overgrown lots in the neighborhood that were filled with brick and debris. The URA and Jackson Clark Partners created a consensus planning process with multiple teams, including what came to be known as the “Green Team” to tackle vacant land as a major priority. My organization, Grounded Strategies (then known as GTECH), was contracted for approximately $10,000 to transition the largest lot into a sunflower garden. The idea was to improve soil, create a platform for green jobs, and demonstrate the production of biofuel for cleaner-burning biodiesel. The project employed youth through the city’s summer workforce training program to prep, plant, and maintain the sunflowers. The quick-execution project gave the nascent Green Team a clear sense of purpose and a tangible outcome for the group to organize around as they planned for harvest and for transition of the sunflower patch into a community garden, which is a much more complicated project to arrange. The sunflower garden yielded the city’s first-ever crop of biofuel produced from a vacant lot and brought out dozens of volunteers and residents in celebration. Some residents had been skeptical about the value of sunflowers amidst so many other needs in the community, but longtime community leaders who were passionate about horticulture, green space, and gardening were able to harness the energy of the sunflowers toward a broader neighborhood greening strategy.
This energized the Green Team and a growing group of other residents to engage a collaboration of organizations, including Grounded Strategies, Penn State Extension, the Student Conservation Association, Grow Pittsburgh, the Western PA Conservancy, and the Kingsley Association, to beautify dozens of lots within a primary corridor in the community. Those projects became the driving force for a grant application that ultimately yielded a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant to build dozens of affordable housing units, with preserved green space as the anchor of its neighborhood plan. Ultimately, the sunflower project activated a space by engaging people to take action in a tangible and incremental way to demonstrate some kind of improvement to the area. The project also galvanized a community action team, leveraged money, anchored a community planning process around green space, and facilitated meaningful community input through the grant process.
Pittsburgh has been able to take this momentum to other parts of the city as well. Many decentralized projects, initiatives, policies, and resources have continued to activate vacant spaces, turn them from liabilities to assets for the community, even though the city’s land bank—founded in 2013 with the hope of providing a formal route to productive reuse—has been slow to get that route in place. The city now has an open data interactive resource called “Lots To Love,” which helps residents find vacant land to invest in and understand how to go about doing it. There is a mobile tool bank for residents who want to clean up and activate vacant lot, operated by Grounded Strategies in partnership with Neighborhood Allies. There is a standing meeting between nonprofits, community groups, and public agencies to tackle policy objectives through a “Green Space Alliance.” A dedicated open space specialist within the Department of City Planning screens vacant land project proposals. And a maintenance and stewardship program allows small neighborhood businesses and contractors to secure public maintenance contracts if they demonstrate meaningful engagement, outreach, and employment strategies with the neighborhoods they are charged with maintaining. Grounded Strategies Pittsburgh has even developed a way to calculate the return on investment of actions undertaken on vacant land. All of this collaboration, progress, and demonstrable impact derived from a groundswell of hyper-local actors who cared, took action, and mobilized their neighbors and networks.
Despite much progress and a unique blend of active organizations, residents, and public leadership, Pittsburgh is still struggling with how to not overly burden the process of addressing vacant land for short-term projects. Specifically, the city’s Adopt-A-Lot process, intended to give residents a way to take action on vacant land, can be costly and time consuming, which demotivates residents as opposed to empowering them. While the program aspires to “make it simple,” the current process can require months of paperwork, a financial investment of $150, liability coverage, and unclear parameters imposed by the city’s open space specialist. Many of these hurdles to development are well within the city’s prerogative. The city may not want to give people the sense that access to their space is permanent, and they certainly want to protect against unnecessary risk should someone injure themselves on site. However, the fear of permanence and liability is more reflective of development concerns at a higher end of the development spectrum and ultimately leaves some of the opportunity of vacant land development on the table.
Larimer’s story is the ideal illustration of how vacant land “development” benefits from an inverse approach to traditional real estate and economic development, which usually starts with a vision of the end goal, usually a new or rehabbed building with a specific use. Fixating on the end outcome of millions of dollars of investment and new housing may be a daunting mountain to climb from an existing vacant lot. But breaking that expedition into small victories defined by physical transformation of a lot, celebration among community, consensus in planning, and participation in decision making can lead to an upward spiral of community investment.
Larimer’s experience is also a story of how the right level of access to a space, combined with resident-driven, tangible actions can align with a public planning process to have a major imprint on the built environment in a historically disinvested community.
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.
- Call Neighborhood Gardens Trust and ask how to obtain permission to garden on a vacant lot in your neighborhood.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Obtain materials like fencing, soil and tools.
- Add organic matter. For example, residents can get free compost from Fairmount Park Recycling Center.
- 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.”
-Text and images by Jonathan Ginsburg.
Can You Rent Garden Space For A Party Or Wedding?
You might be interested in renting garden space for a garden wedding or party.There are lots of ways to find outdoor space to rent for a wedding or party.
In that case, you do have some options for a short-term rental of garden space.
In the U.S., you can try Peerspace, which lists indoor and outdoor spaces for rent. You can search by location and by category (wedding, baby shower, etc.)
In the U.K., you can try Borrow My Garden, which has outdoor party venues and other spaces available for rent. You can search by location and by number of guests.