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Monday, June 8, 2009

Adventures in community gardening

A number of years ago I belonged to a community garden long before I was aware of all the reasons it should be more widely spread and supported by local governments. Eventually things happened, we both began to commute to the city on a daily basis, the land the garden was on was slated for redevelopment and the garden got move to the other side of town making it just that much harder for us to work on a regular basis. I think somewhere in there was my pouched thyroid and a nasty ass case of carpel tunnel in both wrists making much of the work damn hard to accomplish, we finished the season and gave up our plot.

It has to be 5-6 years later now and while I still commute and now have kids to take up my time, I also know that we can no longer take our food security for granted, so once again I applied for and received one of the few spaces not retained by last years gardeners. What really surprises me about the program is the lack of continuity and the level of support from the town/region. I know that they have supplied land, water, mulch and man hours to the program but in my first year back after a number of years away I find there is still a waiting list to get in, there have been no new gardens or land added to the town’s program and while town population has climbed to over 70,000 there are only 64 plots available, the same as 6 years ago.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing to find out is that the municipality wants its land back and we are moving from a piece of land where people have been working to improve the soil to a new garden with unimproved clay. I would have been ecstatic had they simply added the new clay field as additional plots which could be bettered over time, increasing the towns productivity and enticing new urban farmers into the program, but to once again turf people off fertile soil is both maddening and shows the lack of understanding and commitment from local governments towards local food, not to mention health and poverty. I’m unsure who the land belongs to but I think it’s York Region rather than Newmarket.

There are other things I don’t understand about the way our community garden is run.

You are not allowed access to your plot until a time around the regional frost date and the last date for gardening is in October

I was told this was so they could roto-till the field and restake the garden plots in the spring and since the machines need relatively dry soil they could not allow us into the gardens until late may. This explanation seems like a crock to me because the plots were not newly tilled and there was still a patch of the last gardener’s lettuce waiting for me on possession day, as well as dead tomatoes plants and cages from last year.

The gift lettuce is ready to start eating, Thank you mystery gardener.

Even if they did plan on tilling the soil and it just fell through I can’t for the life of me figure out why they would bother!

The soil is relatively easy to work, the plots are only 10x20, and the tilling limits both the length of the farming season and ability to plant perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, or raspberries because they plan to till your roots. This also stops people from sowing garlic which must go into the ground in the fall, stirs up more weed seeds and minces your worms. No planting until late May means you lose weeks off the growing season for frost resistant crops like lettuce, radishes and peas. With the lettuce and radishes you could probably get a crop harvested before the frost date even arrives, greatly increasing your yield for the year.

Some people might even have the ambition to slap together a cold frame and start frost resistant plants even earlier as my Grandfather used to do with cabbages; you could do the same with lettuce, strawberries, or spinach. The same cold frames used in the fall could keep people in salad greens until solstice. A later closing date for the garden would also improve the taste of some crops like parsnips that sweeten with frost. Since some people are prone to lose produce at home because of poor storage conditions or lack of refrigerated space, if access to the garden was extended later into the year many root crops can be heavily mulched and then dug up fresh right up until a hard freeze.

So while I’m pleased with this opportunity to access to free land, I’m uneasy with the lack of municipal support for the program and some aspects of the implementation which limits the flexibility and productivity of the garden plots. The organization that runs this program, the York Region Food network, has gardens in Newmarket, Aurora, Markham and Georgina. They also run a community kitchen program, the local food bank and a gleaning program, so I know they do good work, but there is room for improvement.

All this said, since I don’t have the time to get more involved and try to change the program from within I guess I should just STFU and enjoy my veggies.

For those interested my plot is now fully planted with, green beans, bok choy, carrots, cabbage, parsnips, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, hot and green peppers, zuks, cuks and a patch of dwarf blue corn.

I’ll be posting pics as things start looking greener.Recommend this Post

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