Introducing the garden metaphor for exploring community management 

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring a number of metaphors about community management that can support conversations about specific concepts and common challenges in a creative and free-flowing manner.

You can read more about the series – and the accompanying community calls – in our overview post. For each metaphor, there will be a blog post describing the metaphor and several additional posts applying it to specific scenarios. This post is the first in a series of four posts dissecting the garden metaphor. Previously, we described the house party metaphor, and we subsequently published that series as a free-to-download booklet.

Imagine yourself in a garden. Maybe you see a rose climbing a trellis, pink flowers blooming and scented. A long border filled with flowers of all different colors, bushes of different sizes, and in a couple of places large trees offer shade. A vegetable plot in one corner is filled with carrots, onions, and tomatoes, and in pots here and there lavender and mint grow tall and fragrant. All around, bees and butterflies buzz and flutter, stopping now and then to take a sip of nectar while unknowingly hauling pollen from flower to flower. 

Just like a garden, a community is made up of different member types, who bloom and flourish at different times, and who prefer different environments. And just as a gardener works to nurture and maintain the plants in their garden, so a community manager scaffolds activities and provides key resources to support community members in their activities. 

The garden metaphor offers the opportunity to get to know your members better, and also see how the community connects and supports each other within the overall structure of the garden. 

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the components of the garden metaphor, and then we’ll publish three more blog posts that use the metaphor to probe the importance of multi-modal programming. We intend to publish the whole garden metaphor series as a single concept booklet, as we did for the house party metaphor series. 

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, 20 March 2024 at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC when we’ll be discussing the garden metaphor on our monthly community call! 

An illustration of a person with long, brown hair preparing to remove a plant from a pot and plant it in their garden. There are trees, a fence, and some flowers already in the garden, and white clouds dot a blue sky.
Image by Freepik

Metaphor components

The garden

The garden as a whole represents your community, and the plants are your members. The fences or hedges help define boundaries around your garden, as well as around specific parts of the garden. Your garden might also include features like a greenhouse, a trellis, a pond, or a paved path. 

Features of the garden: 

  • Different types of plants in differing abundance – who are the different members in your community, and are there sizeable sub-groups? What do these different members need and contribute? 
  • Different plants flower at different times of the year – your members’ ability to participate in the community will ebb and flow. Do you offer different ways for them to thrive? 
  • Plants may require support at different stages of their lifecycle – are you offering scaffolding to support your members? Is it the scaffolding they need? Maybe the scaffolding they need promotes their ability to work with other types of members (think providing trees for shade or cultivating pollinators).
  • Access to different parts of the garden – what communications channels exist in your community? Are they all open to everyone? Are they multi-directional? 

The vegetable plot

This is the part of the garden where you grow food, where your members work with you and independently to create outputs. In your community, that might look like producing a research paper, co-authoring a report, or collaborating on a podcast episode.

Features of the vegetable plot: 

  • It needs to be well fertilized and watered – vegetable production is resource intensive. Do your members have what they need to succeed? Do you have the budget or staff time to support the creation of outputs? 
  • It is seasonal – do you have recurring outputs (e.g., community calls) that happen on a regular schedule? Are there fallow periods where rest is possible?
  • It flourishes when plant species are rotated – are you always nurturing the same community members? Are there ways you could encourage newer or quieter members to co-create?

The wildflower bed

This is the part of the garden that exists to encourage insects to pollinate the rest of the garden. It is not so carefully cultivated or watered, it is allowed to prosper on its own, with different flowers blooming on their own schedule. Maybe in your community this is the “watercooler” channel, or annual social networking event; a space in which your members can explore ideas and make connections. 

Features of the wildflower bed: 

  • It self-seeds – do you have community programming that is less resource-intensive but that offers value to your members? 
  • It attracts life (e.g., birds or insects) from outside the garden – do your members share news about your community more broadly? Are they inviting new members in? 

The tool shed

To keep your garden looking good and producing, you’ll need some tools. This might include the technology you use to support your members in connecting and working together, or the signage you put up to guide members through your annual conference. The toolshed is likely also where you keep your fertilizer, seeds, and a water supply of some sort. 

Features of the toolshed: 

  • It’s unobtrusive or shielded from the view of visitors to the garden – community management work is often less visible. How do you signpost your value to your supervisor, community members, and/or leadership? 
  • It contains things of value, and might even be locked – who has access to administer your community platforms?
  • It helps you sustain your garden – but what sustains the tool shed? Where do your resources come from, and how can you ensure that your toolshed remains stocked and tidied? 

The gardener 

Gardens have a tendency to run wild with no one to look after them. Some plants overgrow, others wither and die. As gardener, or community manager, you play a vital role in making sure every plant in the garden has a chance to flourish. This might sound overwhelming if you’ve conjured a large and beautifully manicured garden in your mind, but remember, small gardens are exciting places too, where you can get creative about how to use space – think pots, raised beds, and hanging baskets! Or maybe your garden focuses on wild flowers to pollinate the vegetable plot next door, so some amount of “letting the plants do what they want” makes sense.

Features of the gardener: 

  • Sensitive to the varying needs of different plants – how do you connect with your members to learn more about them? 
  • Performs multiple different tasks around the garden – community managers often wear a lot of hats and take on a variety of roles. Are you comfortable in your position as head gardener, or are there others on your team or in your community you could work with to share the load? 
  • Skilled, trained, and interested in learning more about cultivation – are there things about community management, or the community you work with, that you could learn more about? What professional development opportunities exist? 

Coming up in our next blog post

Next week, we’ll be using the garden metaphor to think through community programming – how can you meet your various members where they are and offer multiple ways of getting involved in the community?