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Food and drink

Green guerillas unite Another front in the organic revolution grows at Pemberton Creek

The Liz Christy Community Garden, New York’s first community garden, circa 1973, is named for gardening activist Liz Christy. Along with her fellow Green Guerillas, Liz was known for sprouting revolutions by planting random window boxes and vacant lots with “seed bombs”. Located at the corner of Bowery and Houston in Manhattan, the site was formerly part of a large farm owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam (“bouwerie” is Dutch for “farm”).

The bohemian and brave San Francisco of the 1970s was famous for its free food given out by the Diggers as well as its community gardens, later organized by SLUG, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners — another vein of hip, urban guerrilla-ism meant to fuel community, foil the military/industrial complex, and get people in touch with their roots — literally and metaphorically.

In Havana, huertos populares — popular gardens — were created after the fall of the Soviet empire and Cuba was short on chemical fertilizers, food, and just about everything else. These communal gardens are now a critical part of Havana’s food supply and a model for organic gardening known around the world.

Los Angeles has something more like a community farm in the 14-acre community garden right downtown on Alameda Street. Closer to home, Calgary, Richmond, Vancouver and Prince George all have their community gardens, all of them treasured by those who use them and those who view them.

According to Laura J. Lawson’s City Bountiful , the concept of people gardening communally where and how you might not expect them to be — community gardens, war-relief victory and liberty gardens, Depression-era relief gardens, vacant lot gardens and school gardens — dates back to the 1890s in the U.S. (sorry, couldn’t find any references to Canada’s own community gardening history).

And so it is that landless gardeners in Pemberton are joining this noble tradition at the Pemberton Creek Community Garden, now flourishing organically in its second year. With 40 plots — all of them, except two, are taken — and an enthusiastic community digging in, this endeavour has broken new ground, some of it political.

The idea sprouted a few years ago with Richard Gadoury and his wife, Oshun Seed, owners of Solstice Organics in Pemberton. They had been involved in community gardens for at least 10 years while living in the Victoria area.

“We bought a condo in Pioneer Junction and as we walked everyday on the dyke we always looked at this one vacant piece of property and said, that would be a perfect spot for a community garden because it gets full sun all day,” says Richard, whose grandma always had a garden while he was growing up in Montreal.

The couple learned that the 2-acre site, in the northeast corner of One-Mile Park alongside Pemberton Creek, was owned by the Village of Pemberton. Next they lined up Serge Cote, the developer of Pioneer Junction, who agreed to pipe in water to the site — for free — which he later did. They did their homework and approached the council of the day for permission to use it as a garden. The answer was no.

“They were worried that the food would attract bears,” Richard recalls. “We weren’t concerned about animals, but council was looking after the best interests of the people, right?” He and Oshun were discouraged but didn’t give up, convinced as they were that it was a “no-brainer.”

Fast forward a couple of years to 2005 when Jordan Sturdy ran for mayor. He made it a campaign promise to do what he could to establish a community garden. “I asked, why didn’t we have a community garden,” says Mayor Jordan. “People told me that Richard had brought it forward and it was turned down, and I said, that’s ridiculous, especially in an agricultural community like we have. So when we came into office, that was one of the first things that we did.”

Jordan put forward a proposal, council endorsed it, and the village provided a couple of grand in seed money to get it going. “As soon as we had approval, the first thing I did was get my tractor out and rototilled the whole thing,” he says.

They added manure, compost and bark mulch, put an ad in the paper for volunteers, and last summer the site saw its first proud gardeners.

People pitched in to organize the plots, build the storage shed with its amazing green roof, and keep it all going. Overall, it’s been a genuine shared experience, right down to watering for somebody else when they’re on vacation or just hanging around with your kids on a sweet summer evening, pulling weeds and munching raw carrots glazed with a bit of dirt.

From day one virtually all of the community gardeners have been people living in nearby condo developments, especially Pioneer Junction and The Peaks, where they don’t have a patch of ground to scratch in. But they all love to garden, and most of them grew up with one.

Like Jo Kirchner (McCarl), who answered the ad and ended up co-chairing the community garden committee along with Lisa Griffith. Jo has gardening in her genes. “My dad had a garden centre back in Huntsville, Ontario,” she says. “When my sister and I were old enough to pretty much move out, he filled our swimming pool in and made the garden even bigger, he was so into gardening,” she says.

The thing is, something as fundamental as a garden slices through time, memory and generations.

Tina and James Walt, another pair of proud community gardeners, have planted all kinds of good things in their plot — radishes, eggplants, zucchini and beautiful red-and-yellow dappled Borlotti beans. But it’s peas, in fact three kinds of them — snow peas, snap peas and regular old shelling peas — that are most treasured.

“Our three-year-old, Henry, is fascinated with peas,” says James, who’s the executive chef at Araxi when he’s not out in the garden. He grew up in the Ottawa Valley, where everyone farmed and his parents and grandparents had gardens.

“We have a young family and it’s a good lesson for us all,” says James. “I’ve been around produce and farms, buying farm-direct and all these things, all my life, but I just never grew my own, so it’s something we all can learn from.

“First and foremost, it’s good for the kids. Henry can see things grow. He has his little gardening set with his miniature tools and wears his little gloves and his belt, so it’s just kind of neat.

“It doesn’t demand a lot of time, and we’re pretty happy with the way it’s going — to see the kids eating peas out of the garden, those are things I remember as a child.”

Next month: Whistler’s community greenhouses


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who grew up with potatoes growing in the front yard for a few summers to break up the hard-scrabble prairie earth.