I’ll never forget the bitterly cold November night in 2008 when I traipsed off to city hall to a public hearing of an early version of the 30-year municipal development plan, The Way We Grow. Despite a broad grassroots lobby, there was neither mention of a food policy nor a food security agenda for Edmonton. A speaker that night cautioned that it was like a home renovation plan that did away with the kitchen. I was just one of the 550 people who crowded the council chambers and overflow rooms that evening. I was in my late 30s, and this was my first citizen act of activism.
At first, my interest in urban agriculture was focused on how much and what types of food could grow in cities. I soon learned, however, that urban farms, backyard chickens, rooftop beehives and community gardens are about so much more than the food they produce. Streets come back to life. Families emerge from their homes. Strangers become friends while discussing tomatoes and basil. What begins as an impulse to get our hands in the dirt and grow a few strawberries ends up as an accessible and effective tool for citizens to change the look, feel and smell of our neighbourhoods.
When you build a city on rich, deep soil—as we did and are still doing in Edmonton—it’s no surprise that gardens spring up. Urban gardening is just so (pardon the pun) shovel ready that it seems to constantly reinvent itself based on the needs of the community. Early settling Chinese market gardeners grew crops in the rich alluvial soil of the river valley, as did Scottish-born Donald Ross even before Edmonton was a city. Wartime food shortages led to a flourishing of some 4,000 “vacant lot” plots rented out to locals each year—let alone the food gardens being grown in private yards in the city of 100,000 people. Community gardening roared back to existence in the 2000s when our global supply-chain food seemed starved of flavour, freshness and nutrition. There are now some 90 community gardens in the Capital Region, and plots are still in demand.
So what’s the current need in our city that growing green beans and rosemary can help fix?
Right now, I’m particularly interested in how community gardens can help with newcomers.
What if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of “companion gardening,” if you will?
Existing services outfit them with winter- ready apparel and aide with the transition to a new country, new cultural mix and new careers. Yet studies show it can take up to 10 years before Canadian immigrants feel truly “at home” and able to participate socially and contribute economically. Even then, it is often the Canadian-born generation that has the agency and confidence for the kinds of intercultural exchanges that we pride ourselves on.
This is often true of community gardens. The coveted spots are snapped up by citizens who feel entitled and sure of their place here. Yet, we all know the power of food to help us express our identity, and perhaps soothe the aches of adjustment from missing home to making our way in a new one.
There’s a community garden project in Vancouver’s downtown peninsula called the Downtown Intercultural Gardeners Society, or DIGS. It reserves 40 percent of its plots for gardeners born outside Canada, a statistic that reflects the demographics of the inner city neighbourhoods around it. Sign-up sheets and gardeners guides are printed in Mandarin, Spanish, Russian and Farsi. The garden’s rules also require each gardener to take in sessions on intercultural communications, diversity and antiracism training. Similarly, Toronto has a community food nonprofit called The Stop. One of its gardens has eight plots planted with foods from the city’s eight most populous ethnicities. Elders from these cultural communities do the teaching and directing; youth do the digging, weeding and heavy lifting. These intergenerational teams garden, socialize and cook together.
There’s a gardening technique known as “companion planting.” If you plant thyme near strawberries, they get plumper and grow more quickly. Beans fix nitrogen in dirt, which corn then greedily takes up, making it more robust and productive. It’s a savvy gardener’s way of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. What if Edmonton also created community gardens that were not just accessible, but had places reserved for our newest citizens—a type of companion gardening, if you will? Not only might it help them feel at home sooner, but we’d get to know one another over conversations around the global unifier that is food. I for one am looking forward to a few more flavours added to our city’s culinary smorgasbord.
Where’s my nearest community garden?
- Peace Garden Park (10259 120 St.)
- Our Urban Eden Garden (9910 Bellamy Hill Rd.)
- COMING SOON: Alex Decoteau Park (105 St. & 102 Ave.; if you’re interested in joining the garden committee email firstname.lastname@example.org)