The garden metaphor for community management: Planting your garden – who is welcome in your community?

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 second in a series of four posts dissecting the garden metaphor. Previously, we described the house party metaphor and you can download all of those posts in a concept booklet

An illustration of a spring meadow, where plants with various leaf shapes, colors, and flowers flourish side by side.
Image by Freepik

When you imagine a garden, do you see a large lawn with a single bed of roses? Or do you see a space filled with variety – plants with big leaves and small leaves; vibrant red flowers and tiny yellow blooms; trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals? 

Chances are, it’s the latter. But, it’s often much easier to plant and mow a lawn than tend a garden for a multitude of plants, each of which has its own requirements to flourish. Such vibrancy takes intentional planting, careful irrigation and fertilization, and ongoing maintenance to make sure all of your plants flourish, not just a select few. In this post we are going to focus on using  the garden metaphor to think through establishing community spaces that are welcoming and inclusive. In our next post, we’ll be talking about ongoing maintenance (aka programming) that supports multiple types of members.

Inclusion – and generous exclusion

It can be tempting to excitedly rush into planting your garden with all of the plants you know and love. And that might look great, with plants fresh from the garden center that are healthy and flowering. But, if your soil pH is not quite right, or you’re working with sandy soil instead of clay, some of your plants are going to struggle to take root and may quickly end up fading. 

When planning a new community, it’s important to consider who it is for and specifically which different perspectives and expertise need to be represented for it to be successful. By pausing to ask this question, you can not only design invitations and onboarding pathways to reach these different member types and make membership seem appealing, you can also “prepare the soil” so that they feel welcome. This might look like making sure you already have some resources in your library for new members to access (nutrients in the soil!), or that your community participation guidelines are easy to find (e.g., nets to protect your plants from birds). The soil itself also needs regular tending to stay welcoming – which can look like refreshing the nutrients (adding new resources), removing weeds (deleting spam content), and observing whether some plants are spontaneously thriving in new locations in the garden where you might direct more attention. 

You can read more about the importance of community participation guidelines/codes of conduct in the house party metaphor series

This is also a good time to consider which plants may not be appropriate in your garden, i.e., who not to invite into your space, perhaps because they crowd out the ability of others to thrive in this context. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker describes this as “generous exclusion,” whereby you ensure that your event (or community) succeeds by defining the boundaries of inclusion. For example – if your community is intended to support early career researchers and empower them to discuss challenges openly, it may be important that their supervisors or employers are not also present. 


Preparing your garden for new members involves paying attention to how they access resources or participate in programming. In the metaphor, this might look like removing a brick wall to ensure that your plants get the sunlight they need, or providing a trellis to support growth of younger plants. Similarly, there are barriers to participation you can remove for your members, e.g., by subtitling your monthly webinar or working to translate your resources into multiple languages. 

Building accessibility into your programming also involves talking to your members about their needs, and responding accordingly. However, not every gardener has an unlimited budget for knocking down walls. This might mean that you turn to your community for support, e.g., by creating contribution pathways for translators. 

Supporting diversity

In many neighborhoods, gardens are filled with similar plants – plants that have historically flourished in the local conditions. But occasionally, you’ll see a garden with rarer species, or new combinations of plants and hard landscaping. These gardens didn’t just happen – the gardener worked hard to ensure that the rare plants had what they needed to succeed. 

As we work to ensure STEM is welcoming to everyone, especially those who have historically been marginalized from community spaces, it is vital that we make sure to not just welcome members from a diversity of backgrounds, but actively listen to our membership and build environments in which previously absent or excluded members can flourish.

Want to extend the metaphor? 

We hope you’ll join us for our next community call, during which we’ll explore the garden metaphor in more detail: 

Additional reading / resources

  • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2023) DEI Tip Sheet: Virtual event accessibility guiding questions. Carpenter, Kobilka, Pratt, Sanghvi, Wright, Bellini Saibene, Ye, and Woodley doi:10.5281/zenodo.8043909
  • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (2020) DEI Tip Sheet: Community member recruitment. Baker, Bechtol, Harris, and Santistevan doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3759890
  • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (2020) DEI Tip Sheet: Inclusive marketing. Baker, Bechtol, Harris, and Santistevan doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3759866