Digging, planting and watering together produces food, strengthens community and helps the bees help us.
THERE'S NOTHING QUITE LIKE planting a garden in an urban area to garner attention. It raises interest, creates detractors and supporters, and gets people talking—to one another and to those doing the transforming. And when that garden gets built in a municipal park, over top of a former lawn, there’s a sense of revolution—taking back the history of lawns as European pleasure grounds, as demonstrations of wealth or conformity. We can do so much more with a patch of earth than grow a ground cover that doesn’t feed anyone.
Thanks to the Gorge Park Community Gardens (GPCG) team in Saanich, led by Gabe Epstein, there’s a new example of what a lawn can become. The transformation is strengthening community, building biodiversity, supporting pollinators and providing a beautiful way of feeding a neighbourhood. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s giving people a concrete and positive way to connect with nature when they gather in a public space.
“Because of this project, I now talk to my neighbours,” Epstein tells me, sitting with fellow GPCG members Jane Bond, Laurie Jones and Brenda Pilon in the shade of the gardens’ tool shed, as pollinators float through the warm air around us. All four serve as coordinators for the site. Pilon is the native plant expert. Bond, who is the site manager, concurs with Epstein: “We help each other. That’s what it’s all about here for me. I come down and get talking to people and build that association.”
Jane Bond, Gabe Epstein and Laurie Jones (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
Epstein, the spearhead organizer for the GPCG, first held a visioning workshop on the future of Gorge Park (at the corner of Tillicum and Gorge Road) in 2011. Epstein, who used to be president of the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers group, is a retired school teacher and was looking for a way to focus on food security in his neighbourhood. The park was underutilized, and drug use was common. One suggestion that came out of the visioning workshop was a community garden. After consulting with Saanich, whose vision statement includes a plan to create a community garden in 12 neighbourhoods by 2036, GPCG polled neighbourhoods to determine levels of support; after a two-year process, the gardens gained approval in November 2013.
The difference between an allotment and a community garden is key for Epstein, who rallied during the gardens’ planning process for the latter. He wanted a garden that could serve the needs of a diverse population, including native species. And he wanted the focus to shift from only private plots to a more inclusive model. “Communities grow in community gardens,” Epstein tells me. Brown concurs, telling stories of apartment dwellers who met at the gardens, then ended up holding communal dinners with neighbours they’d previously only passed in the hall.
Gardens are proven to help us connect to nature, even if we are growing kale and carrots, not camas. Soil microbes have been shown to have an anti-depressive effect on those who sink their bare hands into the earth. Learning the timing for plantings, ways of building soil health, and seed-saving connects us to the seasons and to our neighbours. Educational events held at the GPCG foster informal conversations, which build knowledge and passion. “There’s a thread of environmentalism spread out as we talk with one another,” says Epstein.
Design of the GPCG involved consultations with First Nations; Earl Claxton and Judith Arney came and sat at the site before building began; Will George participated in the gardens’ groundbreaking ceremony. The coordinators are hoping that future collaborations might involve First Nations and nearby schools, which could use the site as an outdoor classroom.
Several groups collaborated to initiate the GPCG, including the Gorge Tillicum Community Association, the District of Saanich and the Capital Regional District, along with many community members. Each group provided something towards the construction and maintenance of the gardens. In 2013, GPCG was awarded a $20,000 startup grant from Saanich, which paid for archaeological assessment of the 1600 square-metre area; the CRD contributed $10,000 in storm water management, and many of the supplies for irrigation and the garden shed were donated by local businesses. Total cost for the gardens so far has been about $65,000, says Epstein, with money now coming in from allotment rentals, plant sales and other fundraising activities.
Community gardens have a long history in the CRD. The Spring Ridge Commons, a thriving food forest in Fernwood, was a parking lot rescued by nearby residents in 1999. Saanich’s Capital City Allotment Gardens were originally started in the 1970s on Crown land, which was transferred to the municipality in 2005. Many smaller gardens around the city have similar histories—locals gathering together to take back an unused parcel of land and make it productive and beautiful. But increasing development pressures mean that it is harder and harder to find an unused piece of land that a developer doesn’t already have eyes on. Hence, the transformation of grassy spaces in parks.
What the GPCG plants in the gardens interests Epstein and his fellow coordinators as much as who comes to use and visit them. Saanich forbids any use of pesticides or invasive plants, but provides free deliveries of compost and wood chips for paths and winter mulch. The GPCG strives to use plants that either feed people or wildlife, and encourages drought-tolerant choices. It’s a choice that will contribute toward the creation of pollinator corridors that many are arguing are a way to save native bee populations, like the yellow-faced bumblebees that took up residence in my swallow nest box this spring. Use of native flowering shrubs in the GPCG—red osier dogwood, snowberry and red-flowering currant—also provides food for insects and birds, as well as nesting material. Readers may notice that non-native shrubs like laurel and boxwood hedges tend to attract invasive house sparrows; native bushes attract and support native birds and insects.
The construction of the gardens has also had some fortuitous benefits. Hummingbirds, Jones tells me as we walk around the site, use the spider webs from the garden’s rock walls to line the insides of their nests.
The plan includes a living arbor over the event space that could turn the gardens into a neighbourhood hub. That will take long-term vision, which the coordinators are hoping to receive from neighbours. “We want to encourage people not to just plant seeds, but to volunteer, and actually get involved,” says Jones.
Epstein and his colleagues are happy about the outcome of the gardens, though they’re hoping that the model they’ve created—collaboratively managed, with opportunities for residents to become members even if they don’t have a garden plot—will encourage a succession plan that includes ways to get involved that are both large and small.
When describing her hopes for the future, Jones quotes Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” She smiles, “There are people looking at this place and seeing what we’re doing, and it has an impact. It’s a way of modelling behaviour.”
After our talk, I pluck a leaf of spinach from one of the common beds as I’m leaving. Nearby, kale flowers are loaded with bumblebees and mason bees. The leaf tastes like summer, and like hope.
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.
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