The garden metaphor for community management: Companion planting and pollination – helping your members help each other

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 third 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.

A drawing of corn, beans, and pumpkins all growing together, intertwined.
In a technique known as companion planting the three crops (corn, beans, pumpkin) are planted close together. Image credit: Anna Juchnowicz via Wikimedia Commons

In an earlier post, while we were exploring the house party metaphor for community management, we talked about the importance of scaffolding to support community members as they join a community and start to participate in activities. The garden metaphor affords a slightly different lens on the importance of scaffolding by helping us consider not just the structures that we put in place, but also how different member types might be able to support each other.

Don’t miss our community call on Wednesday, 20 March 2024 (11am EDT / 3pm UTC) when we’ll be discussing the garden metaphor with the members of our community of practice! Open to all STEM community professionals.  

Cultivating strong growth connections

As community managers, it’s often our job to connect our members and facilitate the work they do together. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. As gardeners, our approach to planting or fortifying the soil impacts how members can connect and develop constructive relationships that, after this careful setup, don’t necessarily require ongoing intervention. 

In indigenous American culture, “the Three Sisters” of maize, climbing beans, and winter squash, are a beautiful example of how a gardener can cultivate cooperation between different plants. As Robin Wall Kimmerer explains in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass the Three Sisters coordinate their timing so that each comes to maturity in its own time without stifling the other: 

“The corn is the firstborn and grows straight and stiff; it is a stem with a lofty goal. Laddering upward, leaf by long-ribbed leaf, it must grow tall quickly… Just about the time that the corn is knee high, the bean shoot extends itself into a long vine, a slender green string with a mission… Had the corn not started early, the bean vine would strangle it, but if the timing is right, the corn can easily carry the bean. Meanwhile, the squash, the late bloomer of the family, is steadily extending herself over the ground, moving away from the corn and beans, setting up broad lobed leaves like a stand of umbrellas waving at the end of hollow petioles. 

Once established, the plants work together in a non-competitive manner so that each can receive the light it needs:

“The corn stands eight feet tall; rippling green ribbons of leaf curled away from the stem in every direction to catch the sun. No leaf sits directly over the next, so that each can gather light without shadowing the others. The bean twines around the corn stalk, weaving itself between the leaves of corn, never interfering with their work. In the spaces where corn leaves are not, buds appear on the vining bean and expand into outstretched leaves and clusters of fragrant flowers. The bean leaves droop and are held close to the stem of the corn. Spread around the feet of the corn and beans is a carpet of big broad squash leaves that intercept the light that falls among the pillars of corn. Their spacing uses the light efficiently with no waste.” 

Poetically, Kimmerer notes that: “The organic symmetry of forms belong together; the placement of every leaf, the harmony of the shapes speak to their message. Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others and there will be enough for all.”  

This reminds us that communities can flourish and provide for all of their members’ needs when relationships with one another are carefully tended, so that diversity is a strength, and cooperation an opportunity to be stronger together. 

Kimmerer underscores the importance of cooperation over competition in this arrangement: “You can tell they are sisters: one twines easily around the other in relaxed embrace, while the sweet baby sister lolls at their feet – cooperating not competing.” 

Furthermore, the coordination between corn, squash and beans enables each to actively contribute to their “collaboration” in a unique way:  

“Without the corn’s support, the beans would be an unruly tangle on the ground, vulnerable to bean-hungry predators. The corn takes care of making the light available, the squash reduces the weeds…and beans take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into usable nutrients.” 

This lack of competition has the added bonus that it enhances the overall yield of the garden: “Acre for acre, a Three Sisters garden yields more food than if you grew each of the sisters alone.”

Over the course of their different growing seasons, the Three Sisters offer each other shade, structure, and sustenance – thanks to their careful planting. This example highlights how different plants, or community member types, support each other, provide resources for each other, and work together to grow as individuals and as a community. That each plant in the triad grows and flourishes in its own time is also a metaphor for community care – while the corn takes off quickly, the beans and squash wait until they are ready and able to contribute.  Indeed, Kimmerer notes: “Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies.”

So what might this look like in a community? One example might be taking on the work of setting up and populating a directory for your community, thoughtfully adding tags and search terms of relevance to your members. Then, they are able to find each other and connect. Another might be the emergence of member-led special interest groups (SIGs). Using scaffolding created by the community manager (e.g., a defined channel in the community forum, community participation guidelines, and access to community resources such as a shared Zoom account), volunteer SIG leaders take on the role of community manager in this specialized case and support other members with similar interests. 

In both examples, the work of the community manager is the initial cultivation of relationships and the seeding of ideas, supported or fueled by community infrastructure. 

Trees, weather, and pollinators – community champions

The natural extension of this approach to community management is the creation of champions programs. Community champions are members who take on more responsibility for the success, sustainability, and/or running of the community. They might assume such a role informally (e.g., they promote the community in their conference presentations), step into a named role (e.g., working group or committee leadership), or participate in a champions program (e.g., to access training that elevates their skills and positively impacts the community in some way). 

In the CSCCE Community Participation Model, we describe CHAMPION as a meta-mode, with individual champions operating in all four modes of participation (CONVEY/CONSUME, CONTRIBUTE, COLLABORATE, and CO-CREATE). In the second part of our guidebook, we dissect what this looks like more deeply, defining champions as members who actively work to MAINTAIN, GROW, and/or EVOLVE the community. 

In the garden metaphor, MAINTENANCE might look like the work of pollinators – bees, birds, or even the wind – ensuring that various plants flourish, flower, and fruit. GROWTH-focused champions might be seasonal, joining your gardening team to plant a new specialized area of the garden. And to EVOLVE the community might look like not just contributing to the planting, but building a new water feature or adding a greenhouse. 

In each case, the role of the gardener is slightly different. Ensuring the garden is welcoming to pollinators could look like creating invitations to events that are appealing to new members. Encouraging seasonal workers requires advanced planning and a reciprocal agreement that they receive a share in this year’s vegetable harvest (or appropriate credit/publicity for a resource they create within the community). And re-landscaping your garden requires trust that the end product will “fit in” with the original garden, i.e., your champions will build upon your mission in a way that aligns with your values. 

Join the conversation – and look out for our next concept booklet!

We’re really looking forward to discussing the garden metaphor with you on Wednesday, 20 March at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC (add to calendar). As we did for the house party metaphor, we’ll be consolidating all of the garden metaphor blog posts, as well as some reflection questions that we’ll share at the community call, into a “concept booklet” that you’ll be able to download from our Zenodo collection in a couple of weeks time. In the meantime, if you have any feedback at all about this blog post series, please reach out to

Coming up later this year – the night sky metaphor for community management! 

Additional reading / Resources

  • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2021) The CSCCE Community Participation Model – Exploring the Champion mode. Woodley and Pratt doi: 10.5281/zenodo.5275270
  • Champions program tip sheets – a step by step guide to creating and running a community champions program:
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 1 – Making a case: Should you have a community champions program? Woodley, Pratt, Santistevan, Fairhurst, Plomp, and Puebla doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484087
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 2 – Inclusive recruitment: How do you find your champions? Woodley, Pratt, Santistevan, Kornahrens, Lescak, and Plomp doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484103
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 3 – Participation requirements: What are your champions expected to do? Woodley, Pratt, Santistevan, Fairhurst, and Starke doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484114
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 4 – Onboarding: How will you welcome your champions into the program? Woodley, Pratt, Santistevan, Ganley, and Starke doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484141
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 5 – Rewards and incentives: What are the tangible benefits to champions for taking part in your program? Pratt, Woodley, Lescak, and Starke doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484728
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 6 – Training and other support: How will you support your champions? Pratt, Woodley, Crall, and Schuett doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484736
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 7 – Increasing engagement: What do you do if your champions lose interest in the program? Pratt, Woodley, Kornahrens, Leanza, and Schuett doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484740
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 8 – Offboarding: How will you close your program? What’s next for your champions? Pratt, Woodley, Fairhurst, and Ganley doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484745
    • Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement. (2022) Community champions programs tip sheet: Stage 9 – Evaluation: How did your program go? Pratt, Woodley, Crall, Kornahrens, and Leanza doi: 10.5281/zenodo.6484750