Michelle Obama planted one on the South Lawn of the White House and a new one has sprouted at Vancouver’s City Hall, as well. Fuelled partly by a boom in interest in the health benefits of locally grown food, community gardens are popping up across North America. The idea is not entirely new’"victory gardens" in this country date back to the Second World War’and Canada’s biggest cities all have shared garden spaces that date back several decades.
Some are allotment-style gardens, where each gardener gets a plot, while others feature a single communal area where both the work and the literal fruits of that labour are shared or donated to local charities. Still others are a mix of these two approaches. "We’re seeing an explosion of interest in starting new ones," says Troy Glover, director of the Healthy Communities Research Network at the University of Waterloo, who has studied community gardens and advises gardening groups.
“It’s a vitamin D sport,” says Sylvia Holland, a gardener with Vancouver’s Green Streets program, who says she has seen full-body benefits from her gardening, including improved strength and aerobic health. "But community gardening is also about creating a healthy society, a healthy planet."
Carolyn Bailey, community gardens coordinator with EcoSource, an environmental education charity in Mississauga, Ont., sees that in her Garden of the Valley program. "The garden benefits the Mississauga Valley Park’s ecosystem by bringing more flowering plants into the park, encouraging pollinators like bees," she says. “But there are less tangible health benefits, too, from the friendships that gardeners make with each other, or as seniors share their knowledge with young families, or new Canadians literally put down roots in their new community.”
And while both men and women take part, many gardens are initiated and led by women, says Glover, who co-authored a 2004 study of gender roles in community gardens. As one male garden coordinator put it, speaking anonymously so as not to offend his male volunteers: "Women get things done." Here’s just a sample of what they’re getting done, coast to coast.
Montreal: The urban rooftop garden
For Gaëlle Janvier, one of the best things about working on the rooftop garden at McGill University is the shared knowledge. "I’ve learned so much," says the 25-year-old, who joined the program as a student and then was hired as a project leader. The 150-square-metre garden, which sits on a first-floor roof, is a summertime hub of activity: 100 volunteers and two project staff tend the tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables and flowers; university staff and students stroll through or stop to eat lunch; and events such as gardening lectures, yoga classes and outdoor film festivals also take place.
The garden, started in 2007, is a joint project of the university and Santropol Roulant, a meals program for seniors. The vegetables’grown in self-watering containers’help feed about 100 seniors during growing season. And the so-called "edible campus" demonstration garden also helps plant the seeds for other such projects. "What we’re offering is a new way to green surfaces on asphalt, gravel, rooftops and balconies, without changing the existing structures," says Ismael Hautecoeur, 36, the garden’s coordinator. "All kinds of hostile surfaces become possible gardens if you have enough light."
Janvier has been surprised at how well the garden has done. "We’re out in the open. I thought people might steal from it, vandalize it." But with a couple of minor exceptions, that hasn’t been a problem. "People respect the garden’they’re happy to have it here."
Spryfield, N.S.: To grow healthy children
Marjorie Willison laughs as she describes each year’s first session of the Come Grow With Us program at Urban Farm on the fringes of Halifax. "We walk up the hill with the kids, who always complain about how far the walk is. When we give them their treat’carrot sticks or apples’they complain because it’s not junk food." But by the fourth week, the kids are racing up the hill and enjoying their fresh snacks. "They love being outdoors and playing in the dirt," says the long-time gardener and community organizer.
Willison, 58, along with friends Michèle Raymond and Pat MacLean, has worked for more than a decade to get Urban Farm up and running. It’s designed to reflect the area’s agricultural heritage, so volunteers garden organically and by hand whenever possible, even using oxen to initially plow the fields. The one-hectare garden also hosts a harvest fair and other events, with about 500 people taking part in garden programs in a typical summer.
Willison’s favourite is the kids and parents program, which typically attracts a dozen or so children every Saturday in the growing season. They help plant and tend the crops’including tomatoes, pumpkins and corn’and get to sample the harvest. Produce grown in the communal beds is sold as a fundraiser for the farm, as is a Foods of Spry’s Field cookbook of harvest recipes. "We need to pay more attention to where our food is coming from," says Willison. "And this is one way to encourage people to grow food."
Lutselk’e, N.W.T.: The great northern gardeners
It’s not easy to water a garden when there’s no pump or tap nearby. But when it really needs water, Stephanie Poole, 37, and the other Lutselk’e Community Garden volunteers call on the local fire department. The truck fills up its tank at Great Slave Lake, rumbles through the community of about 300 to the 15-square-metre plot in the town’s centre. Then the volunteers give the garden of potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, beans, sweet peas and carrots a thorough soaking.
"Everything that grew here was like a miracle," ‘says Poole, who helped start the garden last summer. Lutselk’e sits on the southeastern shore of Great Slave Lake. It’s not accessible by road, so garden supplies’including seeds’had to be flown in and, this past winter, composters were brought by snowmobile over the frozen lake. The growing season runs just from June to September, but with many long hours of sunlight, it’s also intense.
"One of the kids just couldn’t understand why we were digging out rocks in the hot sun when we could just go to the store and buy potatoes," says Poole. But as she explained how far those store potatoes had to travel and how much better the ones they were growing would taste, he listened. And come harvest time? "It was pouring rain, but all of the high school kids came out to help us." Each volunteer and student took home some of the harvest, with the rest donated to a feast for the elders in the community. "We could all taste the difference," she says.
Vancouver: Greener city streets
Sylvia Holland speaks of the gardener’s "grumpy tendencies" that were surfacing one afternoon as she tended a curbside flower bed in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. The bed is part of the city’s Green Streets program, one of 305 spaces in Vancouver’s traffic circles and intersections that have been adopted by residents who fill them with flowers and shrubs. As Holland, 56, gardened, a group of kids was playing ball hockey. "I was wondering which plants they were going to damage this time," she says. Then she heard a quiet voice behind her: "I like that one the best," said a young boy, pointing to a plant before heading back to his game. His words banished her grumpiness. "A lot of those kids don’t have a balcony, have never had a garden," she says. And when Holland experienced "a dark year emotionally," it was gardening that "helped haul me back into well-being. It reconnects you with the world."
While most adopters get one or two spots, Holland and partner Catherine Kerr, 64, have more than 20. Both work from home’Kerr is a web content manager, Holland helps multi-stakeholder groups design new systems and places’and say the gardens get them outside, as well as making the city more pleasant. In fact, Kerr started gardening in "orphan" spaces before she even knew Green Streets existed. "My walk to the bus was so dispiriting, so I started asking apartment managers if I could plant on their neglected patches," she says. "For both Sylvia and me, it came out of wanting to love the place we live in more."
Kerr spends a little time gardening every day, while Holland is more of a marathoner, devoting a full day when she can. They focus on low-care perennials and shrubs and are experimenting with xeriscaping‘gardens that don’t require a lot of work or watering (other than rain). "If you’re putting in native plants and paying attention to shade, light and soil, the space will be in better condition than it was before, and stay that way if you leave," says Holland.
Edmonton: The multicultural garden
When Edmonton’s Millwoods-Wagner Community Garden holds its annual summer potluck picnic, the dishes shared are as varied as the cultural backgrounds of the 65 or so gardeners. Mediterranean tomato dishes are passed to hands offering Ukrainian cabbage rolls; Polish latkes get swapped for Korean greens. "Everyone tastes everything, even if it’s only one bite," says garden coordinator Odette Dionne, 56. And it’s all washed down with her fresh rhubarb juice. (Dionne’s recipe: Put rhubarb through a juicer, then mix one part of the resulting "concentré" with one part sugar’half in mid-summer, when rhubarb is sweeter’and three parts water.)
The gardeners range in age from "nine months to 80 years," says Dionne (who adds with a laugh that the nine-month-old gardens with her mom). The 2,700-square metre garden was started in 1997. Today, gardeners are drawn from the neighbourhood, as well as students in the agriculture program at W.P. Wagner High School‘on whose property the garden sits’who contribute as part of their coursework.
As well, since 2007 the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton has facilitated a group for Korean seniors. While language can be a barrier, gardening ‘is a great bridge, Dionne says. "We learn from each other." Most of the gardeners grow vegetables, and while they each tend their own raised bed, there are group "work bees," picnics and education events.
Sackville, N.B.: It takes a village
This community garden, which was started in 2003 by a Mount Allison University student, is relatively small at just 15 by 30 metres, but the list of people who have helped it take root is long. There’s the farmer who plowed the field, the construction crew that built the shed, the city officials who donated the land, the works department employees who built the berm to block the wind, and a master networker and brainstormer from Renaissance Sackville, a community development organization. There are also the university students and town residents who tend their own plots as well as the communal market garden, and the farmers’ market shoppers who buy its produce. Not bad for a town of just 5,000.
The garden’s impact has been significant, both in creating interest in local food production and in cultivating a market for it. Volunteer coordinator Theresa Richards, 24, likes to grow the oddball vegetables that local farmers don’t grow’like patty pan squash and spicy greens. Then when consumers start buying them, she passes on suggestions about growing the vegetables to the farmers, who can step in the following year with more volume grown on their own land.
"We don’t want to compete with the farmers," explains Richards. "We want to help them figure out what will sell." The garden donates proceeds from the market sales to the local food bank, and Richards has worked with neighbouring community gardens to help them get up and running.
"Working in the garden is an amazing way to connect with your community," says Richards. "We’ve had so many people involved who’ve never gardened before, and by the end of the season, they’re pros."
Have you ever been involved in a community garden? Would you like to be? Share your questions, tips and stories below.
This article was originally titled "Canada’s Community Gardens," in the Summer 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.