Our tiny community garden in South Linden started with the biggest of ironies: an acre of weeds growing on top of a nearly unmovable weed tarp. It wouldn't be the last. We called our project Hope Grows - as in, we hope it grows.

Our tiny community garden in South Linden started with the biggest of ironies: an acre of weeds growing on top of a nearly unmovable weed tarp. It wouldn't be the last. We called our project Hope Grows - as in, we hope it grows.

With nothing more than a love of tomatoes and concern for an impoverished neighborhood, members of my church and I soon encountered Ohio's notorious clay, broken equipment, mislabeled plants, a late frost, fertilizer shock and the fattest, laziest groundhog in Franklin County.

A bunch of first-timers who were green in everything but their thumbs learned quickly to take manageable steps, celebrate tiny victories and avoid sweating the small stuff. Slowly but surely, a vacant plot became four beds of vegetables and herbs bordered by a simple network of mulched paths: summer squash, basil and okra, string beans, snap peas and tomatoes.

Some mornings, I'll bike down before work and eat breakfast off the vine.

More importantly, neighbors have started poking their heads over the fence to see what's growing on. Kids have developed a taste for vegetables they can pick straight from the plant. We've even hosted a few potlucks.

Community gardeners across the city are doing the same thing - digging in, putting down roots and watching communities unite from Weinland Park to Westerville. A dozen local projects circa 2000 have blossomed into more than 150 at schools, rec centers, churches and businesses.

All have gotten help from Growing to Green, a pioneering program that has made Franklin Park Conservatory a leader in the national community-garden trend. Next month, the Near East Side facility will unveil its new Community Garden Campus, a comprehensive resource center for new and established green spaces.

On display during the From Field to Table festival Sept. 11-13, it will put a strong program into hyper-drive.

"The educational opportunities are endless," said Bill Dawson, Growing to Green coordinator and the go-to sage for community-garden advice. "There's not another facility like this that involves the educational buildings, community gardens and theme gardens."

Built on underused southern acres, the campus will include 40 rentable plots, a teaching kitchen, storage facilities, demonstration gardens and specific landscapes for bees, berries, birds, flowers and herbs. The American Community Garden Association, which relocated to Columbus several years ago, will set up shop in the renovated caretaker's house nearby.

The process of renting the on-site plots will be determined later, but the main goal of the beautiful new complex is to bring gardeners to the conservatory, educate them and send them into the community with new ideas.

"Growing to Green just keeps increasing and increasing," Dawson added. "The passion of the people, generations coming together, people sharing culture is what keeps me going."

Timeline and Tips

Organizing a successful community garden isn't a full-time job, but it's a year-long process. Here's a very basic look at what it takes to run one once you've got a good piece of land.

August

In full bloom, take garden pictures for planning and grant-writing purposes

Harvest a lot, give a little to local markets or pantries

Boost neighborhood interest by hosting harvest party or potluck

Plant fall crops including spinach, garlic and kale

September-October

Put garden to bed by pulling stakes and cages and cleaning and storing tools

Protect soil by planting over-winter crops like wheat or clover

Amend the soil with compost and other organic materials

Plant grass seed for paths and any spring flowering bulbs

November-December

Evaluate success of horticulture, outreach and garden policies

Decide basics of next year's garden: size, crops, funding, membership, security

Start taking classes at Franklin Park's Community Garden Academy

Begin applying for grants

January-February

Take inventory of members, funds, tools and supplies

Raise community awareness with fliers, public meetings or a blog

Start seeds indoors for spring crops

Locate an affordable water source

March-April

Get a soil test to check for missing nutrients and harmful chemicals

Watch shade patterns and arrange plants in beds accordingly

Gently turn through the soil

Edge beds and create paths between them

Start spring crops like lettuce and peas

May-June

After safe-planting date, plant summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash

Label all crops with care info

Set up maintenance schedule for weeding, watering, staking and cleaning

Harvest spring crops and replace with other vegetables

July

Water regularly

Begin harvesting summer crops

Goodies on the Cheap

Community gardening can be expensive. Here are a few freebies to ease your budget.

Land: The city rents numerous lots for beautification projects for $1 a year. Be sure to ask if you need liability insurance, which costs more. Call 614-645-5263.

Money: Grants exist from public and private organizations. Always check deadlines, which are usually earlier than your planting date.

Tools: The city loans a wealth of garden gadgets to residents through its Mobile Tool Library. Call 614-645-8542.

Supplies: Many nurseries and farmers markets offer in-kind donations, such as plants and mulch. Franklin Park also has free compost, topsoil and seeds.

Advice: Growing to Green coordinator Bill Dawson offers free advice on planning and problem solving. There are also cheap garden classes at Franklin Park throughout the year.

What's Next at Franklin Park Conservatory

Putting Down Roots

Thursday-Sunday, Aug. 6-9

This weekend, the American Community Garden Association hosts its annual conference, a great resource for projects new and established. Spots for some talks and activities are still available. Individual seminars start at $50.

Growing to Green Awards

6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10

Franklin Park will honor community gardens and gardeners, recapping another great year of the Growing to Green program.

From Field to Table Festival

Friday-Sunday, Sept. 11-13

After a fundraising dinner Friday night comes a two-day celebration of local food and community living. Tours will be given through the new Community Garden Campus. Admission costs $12.

Good to Grow

Franklin Park Conservatory's new Community Garden Campus will be unveiled Sept. 11-13 at the From Field to Table festival. Here's a look at what you'll see.

Caretaker's house: The American Community Garden Association, which works closely with the conservatory, will set up headquarters in this renovated building, which also holds a resource library.

Demonstration gardens: The focus on education comes alive with bee, butterfly, berry, vegetable and herb gardens designed for teaching.

Garden plots: Forty new rentable garden plots will replace the current 18. They include storage and fresh water. Renting policy will be determined during the winter.