Growing your own food for the first time can be a surprisingly empowering experience for many of us who grew up having their food come from grocery stores alone. Everything from peppers, tomatoes, and chicken thighs were (and often still are) sold on styrofoam trays and wrapped in cellophane — grown or raised, if one thought about it at all, in distant parts unknown. We knew that if we were going to begin to address food insecurity in our neighbourhood we wanted to include garden education as a significant part of our programming. Fortunately, we inherited a sizable greenhouse and outdoor space at what used to be a farm equipment and feed co-operative where we located over 8 years ago. We immediately built around 40 raised beds where we were able to hold gardening classes for community members and grow a few special things (especially fresh summer herbs) for our community meals programs.
However, our garden program took a giant leap forward 3 years ago, when, in partnership with the City of Stratford, a small crew of enthusiastic and dedicated staff and volunteers jumped on the opportunity to develop some underutilized, city-owned property a few blocks from The Local, turning it into a beloved community garden that includes 50 individually assigned garden plots (and 50 more in development), a large area for communal gardening, and longterm plans to plant an edible forest full of nut and fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, and bushes. Holes have been dug and trees have already been planted. Lots more still to be done. Yet, the Dufferin Park Community Garden & Edible Forest has already become, even in these early stages, an inspiring monument to local food security and, we think, a model for how shared vision and labour can transform an empty and unused public space into a place of beauty and utility about which people genuinely care.
A look back at our community gardens program before the pandemic…
A COVID-19 pandemic, however, threatened to derail our fourth growing season at Dufferin Park. Community gardens were originally categorized in a group of recreational activities that were prohibited by provincial order. We know firsthand that these gardens have become a significant source of accessible healthy food for many of our community members as well as an activity that improves physical and mental well-being. Under the leadership of Sustain Ontario and Ottawa’s Just Food, we called on the province to recognize community gardens for what they are — an essential food service that can be managed as safely (or safer) than a trip to the grocery store. Petitions were signed and letters written to MPPs across the province. Happily, our politicians listened and, under the guidance of Perth Huron Public Health, we found ways to allow safe and legal community gardening for an increasing number of people interested in growing at least some of their very own food at a time when the precariousness of industrial food chains have been exposed. The support for existing local food systems and its further development has never been more obviously important to community resilience.
Below are a few tips and tricks for starting or continuing to manage a community garden in the age of coronavirus: