A sense of community, a sense of security

Community gardens offer food security and a focal point where neighbours can connect

By Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun April 22, 2010

George Pinch has been hoeing and weeding his plot in the East Boulevard community garden for 25 years, and you could say he learned his craft at the feet of the master.

Pinch took as his mentor University of B.C.-trained botanist Donald Flather, who founded the garden in 1942 to support the war effort. Flather was well-known during his lifetime as an artist and a high school teacher, receiving his doctorate in education and raising three sons who all became medical doctors.

Though victory gardens were common during the First World War, Flather was a bit of a visionary when conflict enveloped the world a second time.

Canadians were slow to embrace victory gardens during the Second World War. They were mainly planted by activists and “empty lot” leagues in Vancouver and Victoria. Indeed, the federal government was loath to risk seed, fertilizer and equipment on dilettante gardeners who might either fail to produce or fail to follow through on their pledge to produce food, and at first discouraged attempts to mount a national campaign to encourage victory gardens.

But a potato blight and carrot fly outbreak combined with agricultural labour shortages to cause serious want and federal agriculture minister James Gardiner finally got behind the plan in 1943.

Of course, Flather and the East Boulevard gardeners had already reaped one harvest and were on their way to a second by then, proving that backyards and empty lots in the urban landscape could play a significant role in producing food.

Flather’s efforts were followed by many of his neighbours, said Pinch. They planted crops in lots sprinkled from 47th Avenue up to near 65th Avenue, though most of the lots above 57th Avenue and below 49th are gone now.

“During the war years there was a whole long line of gardens along East Boulevard,” he recalled. “When the war ended a lot of people packed it in and went back to buying their groceries, but he carried on because he loved gardening.”

Fast forward 40 years and Pinch, at the behest of his neighbour, ambled over to East Boulevard and West 50th to find a plot to garden on. There he found an 82-year-old Donald Flather still happily toiling over his plot and spent the next several years picking the old man’s brain, gleaning what he could from a lifetime of gardening.

Now Pinch is the grand old man of East Boulevard and is still digging the same 60-by-22-foot patch of ground that he took on 25 years ago. When the weather is good, you can find him there most days. But unlike most of the 65 years since the war ended, there is now a waiting list of at least 70 people waiting for a chance to grow a few beets and radishes of their own at the old victory garden.

Citywide, the waiting list for community garden plots is “at least in the thousands,” says Andrew Pask of Vancouver’s social planning department.

As in the war years, any vacant lot is a potential garden. When a gas station was razed at the corner of Davie Street and Burrard downtown the neighbourhood soon rallied to claim the space for community gardens while the owner readies for development.

“It makes more sense than leaving a development site behind snow fencing with weeds and litter on it,” Pask said.

A second privately owned site at Pacific and Seymour is winding down to prepare the site for construction.

Churches and social service agencies are making their yard space available to their clients and other gardeners; even the roof of the downtown YWCA is under cultivation. The organic produce grown there goes to women who use the Y’s Crabtree Corner family resource centre.

Since 2006, gardens have been popping up on city and park board land, especially since the launch of Vancouver’s 2010 by 2010 initiative. The goal of then-councillor Peter Ladner’s plan was to encourage the development of 2,010 new garden plots in the city, adding to the 950 plots that existed at the time.

By Dec. 31, 2009, 2,029 new plots were registered with the city and Pask says another 70 or so are coming online this month. Gardens on city land are usually run by member-gardeners who form a non-profit society. The East Boulevard gardens are administered by the city, as gardeners there resisted organizing.

Gardens range from just a few small box gardens to sprawling operations such as the one in Strathcona Park with about 200 plots. Even a slice of the grounds of city hall is under crop.

About 3,000 plots are being cultivated, but there is demand for many more, said Pask.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to has a waiting list and not just a few names, they are long lists,” Pask said. Many are no longer accepting applicants.

Leading the charge to create more spaces in 2010 is an ambitious program called Can You Dig It by the social service group posAbilities, which works with people who have developmental disabilities. The organization, with help from the Vancouver Foundation, the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby and North Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health and B.C. Social Ventures Partners, is opening six new community gardens in Metro Vancouver this year with plans for many more in the works.

Construction of a new garden on city land at Elgin Street and East 37th Avenue began last Saturday. Over the next three years 24 gardens will be built, mainly in the backyards of group homes run by posAbilities.

During the war there were upwards of 1,400 victory gardens in Vancouver and they were an important component in food security. But beyond that, shared garden space has a way of building community, says Can You Dig It coordinator Cinthia Page, a veteran of rural development projects in West Africa and Indonesia.

The garden is a place where people’s limitations and boundaries are broken down; Page says a disabled person can plant a seed just the same as a rich and powerful person. “It is a place where everyone is equal.”

For posAbilities clients, the experience is empowering.

“Being able to grow something that they can share with each other and with their neighbours is a huge accomplishment,” Page said. “When you give something you grew yourself, you get so much more for yourself.”

A neighbour with fresh vegetables is always a welcome neighbour.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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