Building a Sustainable City Garden

Partnerships and planning provide the key to success

By: Peggy Smith Ann Daniel Emily Griswold

Peggy Smith is a UCCE Yolo County Master Gardener and board member of the Board of Directors Central Park Gardens….

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Ann Daniel is a UCCE Yolo County Master Gardener and a member of the Board of Directors of Central Park…

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Emily Griswold is assistant director of horticulture at the UC Davis Arboretum and leads a volunteer effort to renovate the…

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In times of isolation, as in the past several months of the pandemic, we seek out community and resources to enrich our lives. People need green spaces and seek connection to nature for restoration and respite from an uncertain world. Having an accessible outdoor space that offers beauty and opportunities for learning is important, but not all communities offer such a public space to their residents. We’d like to show you how the initiative of a group of volunteers filled this gap.

The Rose and Flower Garden features mosaic artwork by Mark Rivera with plants and pollinators from the garden; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

A Site for Community Engagement

Starting in 2006, a team in Davis, California, had a vision of transforming an almost half-acre area of Davis Central Park into a demonstration garden, and the foresight to build a coalition of talented partners to make it happen. We envisioned a garden that would encourage the use of sustainable gardening practices and regionally-appropriate plants. After fourteen years, we are proud to say we have accomplished much more. We want to share our story and offer a roadmap for launching something similar in your community. This is the story of volunteer leadership, team building, public engagement, and municipal-private partnership—not to mention lots of hard, but satisfying, work.

Davis Central Park is an award-winning park that has served as a model of community-centered design and is home to the ever-popular Davis Farmers Market. The park is considered by many to be the social center of the city, and thousands from Davis and surrounding communities gather there weekly on Saturday morning and Wednesday evening market days. The park is centrally located and near the campus of UC Davis with its almost 40,000 students. This is a high visibility location that is enjoyed year-round.

Central Park has had an area designated as an ornamental garden since it underwent a major renovation and expansion in the early 1990s, but there was no organized plan for ongoing maintenance or volunteer involvement. As city budgets experienced difficulties, maintenance by stretched parks staff was cut and the garden fell into neglect. This neglected appearance frustrated many, but it sparked the interest of Emily Griswold, a professional horticulturalist who recognized the potential of the site.

In Emily’s work at the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden she had learned how powerful teams of trained, motivated volunteers can be for the creation of gardens and for providing ongoing maintenance. She also anticipated that building a coalition of partners and encouraging community participation in developing a shared vision would help build support and momentum. She drew on her leadership and team-building skills to begin assembling partners, and the new team worked together to craft a plan and put it into action.

The Central Park Gardens Meadow features wildflowers, milkweeds, grasses and seasonal bulbs; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

Assembling a Team of Partners

In order for a garden in Central Park to be successful, there would need to be a team of people devoted not only to championing the creation and renovation, but also to stewarding it over the long term. Emily started the search for partners by identifying established groups and individuals who would have resources to contribute and who would benefit from a garden initiative. She reached out first to the local county’s University of California Master Gardener program to recruit a team of knowledgeable volunteers to take on the renovation of the gardens and, equally important, to develop the area as a demonstration site for the Master Gardeners to fulfill their public education mission. Several Master Gardeners responded enthusiastically to the call for help, and members of this partner group serve key leadership roles in supporting the gardens to this day.

Since the garden site was located within a public park, partnership with the City of Davis Parks and Community Services Department was essential. Fortunately, a dedicated parks volunteer coordinator, Sandy Dietrich, was able to work closely with the team to guide the formation of plans that would meet city requirements and shepherd them on a winding path to approval through department leaders, advisory commissions, and the City Council. City representatives were enthusiastic about plans to improve the garden, which would beautify the park, support sustainability goals, and build community through volunteer engagement. They also acted with caution to ensure that public notification processes were upheld, that public safety and access standards would be preserved, and that a long-term volunteer maintenance plan was in place. Ultimately, a formal Memorandum of Understanding was adopted to clarify the terms of the partnership and the roles and responsibilities of the City and our volunteer team in the care and development of the gardens.

In addition, a local educational non-profit, Davis Farm to School Connection, joined the efforts because they saw the potential for the garden to serve as a place for training school garden coordinators and hosting garden-based school field trips and family programs. They also offered to serve as our non-profit fiscal sponsor so we could accept community donations. Other initial partners included the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden and the Davis Garden Club. By creating meaningful partnerships and working with a network of existing volunteers, we gave the gardens a chance of long-term success.

What began as a series of casual living room conversations evolved into a ten-person steering committee with representatives from each partner group and a monthly meeting schedule. The steering committee structure allowed our team to discuss and come to agreement on garden projects, programs, and priorities, and to distribute tasks. We decided to call ourselves the Friends of Central Park Gardens and we quickly began laying the foundation for the work ahead.

The design concept plan for Central Park Gardens as a place to relax, enjoy, and learn; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

Developing a Shared Vision

Our first major task was to develop a shared vision and plan for renovating the garden site as a diverse demonstration garden. All of the partner groups and individual steering committee members had their own goals and aspirations for the garden. We also wanted to make sure we were capturing the interests and feedback of regular Davis Central Park users. A key step in informing the development of our vision for the gardens was the creation of a park user survey. With help from a UC Davis graduate student, Missy Borel (now Missy Gable, the director of the Statewide UC Master Gardener program), we surveyed 119 park users on what kind of plantings they would like to see and how they envisioned using the garden.

Our steering committee took on the creative work of integrating all these ideas with the pro-bono help of garden designer Laurie Gates and landscape architect Cheryl Sullivan. The long, narrow garden site lent itself well to the creation of a series of garden “rooms” with different thematic plantings linked together by a decomposed granite pathway system. Together, we developed and honed a master plan for the garden that featured seven themed gardens that reflected the interests of our partners and park users. These included:

  • Rose and Flower Garden, with a mix of roses and flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies
  • Sensory Garden, with herbs and fruit trees that stimulate the senses
  • Native Plant Borders, with California natives that are proven to perform well in home gardens
  • Meadow, with ornamental grasses, wildflowers, and bulbs that show an alternative to lawn
  • Vegetable Garden, with an assortment of seasonal vegetables that are donated to the local community meals program
  • Beneficial Insect Borders, with plants to attract a variety of pollinators and beneficial insects for natural pest control in the Vegetable Garden
  • Waterwise Garden, with succulents and drought-tolerant plants

Involving many stakeholders, including city staff, in the design process led to the creation of a robust plan with universal support. Developing a master plan for the renovation of the garden allowed us to secure approval from the Davis City Council for a whole package of garden improvements that would end up taking several years to implement. When it came time to build the improvements, this empowered city staff to streamline the approval of our plans with the security of knowledge that we had Council support.

From the first planting in 2007, volunteers have been the engine of our efforts, providing the people power needed to renovate, transform, and maintain the garden; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

Making it Happen

About a year after the first conversations had begun, we had a Central Park Gardens Steering Committee, a coalition of five partner groups, a garden renovation master plan, and the green light from the City of Davis to begin our work. Our next challenge was to raise funds and recruit help to bring our plan to life. It was time for more creative thinking and broadening our circle of community partners and supporters.

Leveraging the networks of Steering Committee members and the resources of our partner groups was key to our fundraising success. Funding was assembled through a mixture of small community grants, grants through the university, private donations, service club donations, and allocations from various city departments and programs (including from unexpected places like civic arts, economic development, and stormwater pollution prevention). In-kind donations also helped. For example, a park supervisor convinced an irrigation supply company to donate all the supplies for retrofitting and upgrading the irrigation system, and city staff performed the installation work. Community service clubs from the city and campus generously donated their time and expertise to take on path renovation and fence construction projects.

As you know, a garden is a living, dynamic entity that requires regular care and maintenance. Previous experience showed us that it was important to have a program in place to ensure a reliable team of gardening volunteers. We initiated a regular schedule of biweekly volunteer gardening sessions led by steering committee members on Saturday mornings to coincide with the Farmers Market. The sessions were open to anyone, regardless of their level of gardening knowledge. Thirteen years later, our community volunteers still have the opportunity to learn about the plants and the maintenance requirements of the garden as a whole and to spend time with interesting gardeners of all ages. Strong friendships have formed, and many volunteers work with us regularly. We were pleased to discover that many of the volunteers were UC Davis students who wanted to spend time in a garden, relax from the challenges of their college studies, and engage in community service.

Building awareness of the garden, celebrating successes, and recruiting volunteers all required communication to share our story. We accomplished this through the development of signage on site, press releases, email lists for various garden interest groups, and a website. The transformation of the garden attracted more community support and interest. Expressions of gratitude from garden visitors buoyed the spirits of our volunteers, which was especially helpful when we faced the inevitable challenges with vandalism, weeds, and irrigation issues that accompany any public garden project.

A UCCE Master Gardener leads a hands-on demonstration session on dividing perennials for Garden Steward trainees; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

Securing our Future

In the early years, the excitement of major transformation fueled our work. After we filled the garden with plants, installed educational signage, and completed our major infrastructure improvements, the focus of our efforts began to shift to ensuring the long-term stability and stewardship of the garden.

From the very beginning of this effort, we recognized the critical importance of creating a sustainable volunteer program. As Steering Committee members retired, we realized that we needed a more robust way to welcome, mentor, and train new volunteer leaders. In 2015, we created what we hope will be a model for other volunteer-driven gardens—Central Park Garden Stewards. Garden Stewards receive 12 hours of training in horticulture and volunteer management led by Steering Committee members and Master Gardeners. The training includes background reading as well as hands-on work.

The Garden Stewards serve as team leaders during our Saturday volunteer gardening sessions and mentor small groups of novice volunteers in their tasks. They work closely with the overall session leader and take responsibility for specific tasks for a garden area. Through the program, they build their horticultural knowledge and leadership skills as well as their investment in our organization. Designed to improve the quality of the volunteer experience, the Garden Steward program has also strengthened our organization by creating scaffolding for increasing levels of volunteer involvement and leadership.

In 2016, in order to make our financial future more secure, we established Central Park Gardens of Davis as a legal 501 (C) (3) non-profit. With this development, we were able to create a more formal “Friends” program to help support our annual operating expenses. Thanks to our location on city property and our long collaboration with the City of Davis, we are currently provided with water, mulch, and green waste removal, so our financial needs are relatively modest. Plants do need to be replaced and elements of our infrastructure—decomposed granite paths, wooden fencing—need maintenance, so we seek task-specific support from community service groups and donations from the public. We very much appreciate the local service groups and individual community members who continue to help as volunteers and as financial contributors.

UCCE Yolo County Master Gardeners provide free seasonal workshops to encourage and guide local gardeners; Central Park Gardens of Davis.

Sharing the Wealth

From those initial steps over ten years ago, Central Park Gardens has indeed become not just a recognized and valued community asset, but also an important resource for the home gardener. By watching the ongoing work done by our team of volunteers, reading our many plant labels and informational signs, and participating in monthly free educational workshops presented within Central Park Gardens, the home gardeners in our community are kept well informed about the best sustainable gardening practices. Master Gardener volunteers continue to play a primary role in using the garden as a venue for sharing gardening information.

Reflecting back on our original vision for Central Park Gardens, we were initially quite focused on the physical development of the garden and realizing its potential as an educational resource. We didn’t fully anticipate many of the other benefits of our efforts—the many friendships we would form, the community ties we would build, the leadership and organizational capacity we would develop, and the meaning and inspiration that the gardens would create for so many park visitors. Many public parks suffer from underfunded maintenance, and yet their potential to serve as diverse, beautiful, and engaging public spaces is tremendous. We encourage you to reflect on the power you hold as a gardener and engaged citizen to transform a neglected public space in your community. You have that power.

If you are thinking about creating a public garden in your community and would like to talk with us about our work, please reach out to us at centralparkgardens@gmail.com.

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