Often, we tend to think about domestic polytunnels, or those used in a commercial setting. But it is important to remember that polytunnels can also be used not just by individuals or businesses but also by communities. A community could be a small group of like-mined individuals, or a whole neighbourhood. However large or small a community may be, creating a polytunnel garden can be a great way to invest in a sustainable future.
A First Tunnels polytunnel could be ideal for use in a wide range of community settings. But how does one go about creating a community scheme in the first place? In this article, we will explore what is needed to establish a community polytunnel garden, with helpful tips to help you get started in making your community a happier and greener place.
Why Create a Community Polytunnel Garden?
When like-minded people congregate geographically, they are better able to meet their own basic needs in ways which are consistent with a permaculture way of life. They are better able to benefit from collaboration and the pooling of ideas, skills and resources. Families, individuals or small groups of friends can come together in wider groups in order to effectively manage land and become more resilient, self-reliant and sustainable.
While you do not necessarily need a polytunnel for a community garden, it can be an invaluable addition to the space. It can make it easier and more comfortable for all the gardeners involved, and also opens up a wider range of possibilities for the space.
Funding a Community Polytunnel Garden
One of the main barriers often imagined to stand in the way of the creation of community garden creation is financing the scheme. Yet it is practical to create new community projects without much initial capital in the development phase. Funding possibilities could include:
- Receiving the gift of land to a land trust, intended for sustainable development.
- Development of lands already communally owned.
- ‘Option to buy’ agreements with willing owners, convinced by the vision for green development.
- Working with an ‘angel’ investor on the projects development. (Or putting forward the money yourself, if you have it.)
- Development of a co-investment scheme – clubbing together with others, each of whom agree to put up a share of the initial capital. Co-operative finance can be complex and challenging, yet is not necessarily so. It could be an option for the majority of potential community garden projects.
Remember, starting a community garden need not cost the earth, especially if you ‘borrow’ or lease a piece of land rather than trying to buy land outright.
Finding Land for a Community Polytunnel Garden
One of the first stages in finding a location for your community garden could be to speak with local land owners, and the local authorities such as the local council. If you have identified an unused or under-utilised piece of land – especially a brown-field or marginal site – finding out who owns it and approaching them could be a good place to start.
Think outside the box and consider spaces that no one else is interested in. Almost any site can be turned into a productive growing area with a little imagination and hard work.
Organisational Frameworks for a Community Polytunnel Garden
From the initial stages of funding and site selection, right through to creating and maintaining your community garden, it is vital to establish good communication links with the local authorities in your area. Get them on board with your plan and speak with them to find a way forward at each stage.
In addition to communicating effectively with local authorities, it is also essential to create a good organisational framework and communication between all the members of your community. Starting small, with no more than 30 adults, for example, is usually the best policy – building up to form an eventual community of no more than 200-500 people. Groups of this size have been shown to function more successfully than larger groups.
How exactly a community will form its organisational structure will depend to a degree on that community’s specific desires and goals. Yet certain elements are defining characteristics of many sustainable projects.
Usually, groups of three individuals will be assigned to different tasks. This has proven to be the most efficient number to retain effective decision making and progress. There may well be a hierarchy between groups – with an elected management group overseeing all operations – though each group will have an independent decision making process, is separately accountable, and manages its own money/ resources. Of course, the complexity of any organisational structure will depend on the size of your community group.
Formulating an organisational framework will not only keep things running smoothly, it will also help you to work out how any ongoing costs (for example, for mains water, power or rent (if relevant)), are to be met.
Designing a Community Garden
When you have sourced your land, is it time to formulate a plan for the creation of your community garden. If you are considering a polytunnel or polytunnels, you will have to decide where to locate these on the site. Of course you will also have to decide where to place any outside growing areas too, along with any sheds, compost creation areas etc..
As well as considering plants and food production, it is also important to consider water, access, and any energy needs. When designing the garden, it is important to take all the needs of a community into account, and consider how the space is best utilised to fulfil all those needs (and wants).
Sourcing Materials, Seeds & Plants For a Community Polytunnel Garden
Once you have a site and a plan, it is time to put your plans into action and create your community garden. It is a good idea to consider where you can save on costs when it comes to sourcing materials, tools, seeds and plants for your project. Consider:
- Approaching local businesses or charities who may be interested in helping with the project.
- Asking members of the community to donate their time, items and resources.
- Sourcing reclaimed materials from junk yards or local recycling centres.
- Looking for free items offered online through sites like Freecycle or Freegle.
- Sourcing cheap second hand items online.
- Holding a community event such as a swap meet, where seeds and plants could be exchanged and/or gathered.
Growing Food in a Community Polytunnel
Once you have created your growing areas, erected your community polytunnel, developed the paths and water management systems and got a composting system up and running, you can get started with sowing some seeds and transplanting plants. In a community, many hands can make light work. But it is important to make sure that you keep all your volunteers enthused. The prospect of self-grown food can be a motivating factor, but holding regular fun get-togethers and community events can help to keep everyone inspired and working hard.
Developing a community ‘time bank’ could be one way to reward time spend developing and maintaining the community garden. Time banks allow members of a community or group to record time given to others, and to use time credits to claim time from others when it is needed later on. Every hour of work someone contributes to a project is viewed as a deposit. They may then ‘withdraw’ equivalent support in terms of someone else’s time. Everyone’s time is equal, so whatever those in the time bank choose to exchange, one hour of one persons time is always equal to one hour of someone else’s.
Other Uses for a Community Polytunnel
While the most common way to use a polytunnel on a community project is for growing food, there are other ways in which a polytunnel could be utilised on a community garden site. A polytunnel could, for example, become a meeting or leisure space for the community.
It could be a space to relax, to play, or even to eat and drink – if it became a pop up cafe. Having an undercover area as part of your community garden could make it a more valuable asset to the community, as it could be used happily come rain or shine. Of course, each use is not mutually exclusive – a community polytunnel could be used for growing food, and for some or all of these other things.
If you do not have your own garden, or even if you do, creating a community garden could be a wonderful way to bring people closer together, and do your bit to help in the transition to a greener way of life. If there is not already a community garden in your area, do not bemoan the lack of opportunities – create new opportunities yourself. Act local, think global – start something magical for your community today. If you have any thoughts on establishing a community polytunnel garden, or have an inspiring story to share, please leave a comment below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.