Vegetables and flowers in a City of Victoria boulevard (Photo courtesy City of Victoria)
THE COVID-19 pandemic has seen a surge of press about victory gardens recently. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Australia’s Broadcasting Corporation are all talking about the vegetable gardens planted during the First and Second World Wars, when governments encouraged residents to grow food as a way of freeing up national production and shipping capacity, raising local food production and increasing food security.
As COVID-19 tracks a course around the world, many are asking questions about food security on Vancouver Island, the available stock in grocery stores and individual self-sufficiency that haven’t been asked since the conformities of the 1950s, when victory vegetable gardens were swept away by Kentucky bluegrass lawns.
One benefit of this pandemic could be the return of local food systems, grown in neighbourhoods near you. In support of community resilience, on April 2, Victoria councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday announced a City project to grow food seedlings in the Beacon Hill municipal nursery. Between 50,000 and 75,000 plants will be distributed along with soil and educational resources this growing season in response to Covid-19.
If you want an example of successful boulevard gardens, take a physically-distanced walk to the corner of Haultain and Asquith Streets, where lawyer and boulevard gardener Mike Large and local neighbours have created street-side gardens that could easily (and do) feed more than a few families through the year.
The Haultain Corners—where a coffee shop, a grocery and a few other stores anchor the community—supports three boulevard gardens. Self-seeded arugula pokes through the grass; raspberry canes hug a bus shelter. Miner’s lettuce and chard nestle around berry bushes and well-trimmed fig trees. During my walk with Large, we each pick a bag of greens as he describes the gardens and their neighbours, the current and former owners who have stewarded these parcels.
Boulevard garden near Haultain Corners Village
When Large first came upon a couple tending vegetables on a boulevard on Fernwood’s Haultain Street, about a decade ago, he admits to me, “I didn’t even know how to plant a potato.”
Large graduated with enormous debt and a law degree in 1998; he went to work for private companies and government in Ontario, but it wasn’t his calling. He returned to Victoria to complete a Master’s in Law in 2008. The boulevard garden, planted by his friends Margot Johnston and Rainey Hopewell, struck him as an exciting opportunity to get directly involved in bottom-up change in his city. What else is there other than the state, he wondered. What tools can we use to enact positive change in our communities?
A lot has changed since that first meeting.
Large met Ben Isitt in 2014. Isitt thought he could get votes on council for support of new boulevard garden guidelines. Victoria had just passed a new Official Community Plan that seemed to support innovative urban food production. Gardens were already common in many areas of Victoria but no official support for them existed.
By 2016, Large had worked with council and 12 local community groups to draft and pass an interim, then an official guideline: “Growing in the City.” You don’t need the City’s permission anymore to dig up that grass.
At Haultain Corners, “there’s never a raspberry to be found, in summer,” he laughs. People graze while they wait for the bus. The verdant, chaotic, early-spring greens muscle their way out of the earth. Mike picks up a pair of secateurs he knows must belong to a woman who tends the edges of the largest garden and returns them to her shed. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “It’s slowly dawning on people how fragile a system we’ve built.”
Now that we are increasingly confined to our own neighbourhoods, it may be time to put away the lawn mower and start sowing carrot seeds. “Everyone should be able to feed themselves,” argues Large. Gardening also presents an ideal opportunity to stay social while physically distancing. Get your beds ready; Victoria’s nursery seedlings will be ready to hand out to residents soon.
Still, there are logistical challenges with matching gardeners with land. Many live in rentals or apartments and don’t have the space to garden. Next week, I’ll look at Large’s new project, which he hopes will link the community garden model with boulevards perfect for gardening.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.