Turning your yard into an urban food farm is a hot trend in Victoria and its easy to do.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Victoria is known as the City of Gardens but these days food may be edging out flowers in the urban landscape.
You might have noticed a pocket garden of vegetables squeezed between two buildings on a downtown street, a box filled with frilly kale and edible herbs on a city sidewalk, or a collection of pots, connected with drip lines and bristling with salad greens, along your favourite biking trail.
Whether it’s an interest in eating healthy local food or doing their bit to fight climate change, Victorians are tapping into a budding urban agriculture movement.
The City of Victoria encourages urban food production with it’s Growing in the City initiative and Urban Food Table food policy advisory group.
“Urban gardening and food production contribute positively to health and well-being, social interaction, connection to nature, and environmental education,” states the City’s published mandate
Which may be one reason why Victoria is such a hotbed of garden-to-table green thumbs. A recent Urban Food Table survey found some 300 Victoria gardeners growing food on 2 acres of urban land. Most of them were new to the gardening game, gardening for less than five years, but they grew nearly 2,400 grocery bags full of food.
And the City wants more urbanites to pick up a shovel and get growing on public and private land, with a bunch of progressive policies to make turning that backyard or front boulevard into a garden of eating.
Seeds have the power to preserve species, to enhance cultural as well as genetic diversity, to counter economic monopoly and to check the advance of conformity on all its many fronts.
— Michael Pollan
GROW WHAT YOU EAT
There’s no doubt growing your own food, even if it’s a pot of herbs on the balcony, makes for fresher flavours on the plate. Chefs have long known the value of the potager (kitchen garden), and more locals, especially those who love good food, are replacing their grass with greens.
“My yard is a project,” says Toni Desrosiers, who has been slowly turning a former flower garden into a very productive food garden.
“We started in the back, replacing the ornamental grasses and rhodos with herbs and tomatoes, and a raspberry patch,” she says, stepping around the tidy raised beds that run from the front door to the street. “Last year, we moved into the front yard, adding blueberries and strawberries, garlic, cucumbers, peas and carrots.”
“I think front yards need to be front farms.”
The mother and small business owner (Desrosiers is the founder and CEO of local Abeego beeswax food wraps) says she’s busy but gardening is “not as much work as people think.” It’s a hobby with benefits — “last year we grew at least 40 pounds of tomatoes, 200 bulbs of garlic, and I ate bowls of strawberries every day.”
With trellises covered in scarlet runner beans and cucumbers, giant pumpkins and colourful chard, Desrosiers says her food garden is also a magnet for curious neighbors, a connection to community and way to teach her young daughter about the value of fresh, local food.
“In summer we save a ton of money — we don’t buy produce in summer,” she says. “The biggest challenge is using all of the food we grow.”
IF THEY BUILD IT
These instagrammable gardens are an offshoot of the urban homesteading movement, a return to a self-sufficient, DIY lifestyle that includes backyard chickens, beekeeping, cheese making, and food preservation. Desrosiers hired Hatchet & Seed to help her transform her city lot into a productive food farm.
The company, run by Solara Goldwynn and her husband Tayler Krawczyk, specializes in both small and large scale edible landscapes, and has designed many such urban food gardens, including the productive pots and planters outside Nourish restaurant in James Bay.
“Every garden is different,” Goldwynn says of both the process and price. “We ask people to do a survey online to assess their goals, how much time they want to spend, what’s the aesthetic, and we hear all kinds of different things.”
Hatchet & Seed will construct curvy ferro-cement raised beds, build stone rain gardens to capture and divert excess water, create permaculture landscapes and food forests, and set up self-watering “wicking bed” planters to keep vegetables healthy and hydrated.
Many of these sustainable ideas are showcased in their own home garden, a productive collection of raised beds filled with perennial and annual edibles, a compact greenhouse, wriggling worm compost bin, and clever chicken coop that lets their hens recycle food scraps and garden waste on site. It’s a tidy, closed system that provides their small family with vegetables and eggs for most of the year.
But not all of their projects are entirely food focused. Goldwynn says edible landscapes can be both stylish spots to sit on a summer day, and productive places to grow healthy food.
“A lot of people just want to spend more time in their yards,” she says, “and they want their gardens to feed them in different ways.”
You can plant what you like to eat and things that you can’t easily buy, whether it’s an heirloom tomato, a rare fingerling potato, or a unique wild edible. Desrosiers chooses vegetables “that don’t really taste good from the supermarket” and Goldwynn cultivates unusual ingredients including wild miner’s lettuce and nodding onions, goji berries, Asian pears and medicinal herbs.
Working outdoors in a garden offers physical and mental health benefits, but many gardeners are driven by larger issues. Growing your own food is a way to protect local food sovereignty, genetic biodiversity and bees, and fight global warming.
“Gardening is something tangible that people can do, to create change and be part of something bigger,” says Goldwynn. “A garden produces food but also inspires and feeds the spirit.”
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.
— Alfred Austin
THE BUSINESS OF URBAN AG
Growing food in the city can be both practical and political, but it’s also a sustainable business model.
Look up beyond the new lobby at the Fairmont Empress Hotel and you’ll see a rooftop garden filled with healthy herbs and vegetables for the hotel chefs. Step behind The Market Garden, a stylish green grocer in Vic West, and you’ll find an organic vegetable plot that fills the store shelves with beautiful food.
In Fernwood, there’s Mason Street City Farm, a longtime model of small-scale, urban agriculture in the inner city. It’s a ¼-acre Fernwood food farm and edible nursery that feeds a local CSA program and a number of local restaurants with a variety of fresh vegetables, herbs, greens and berries. It’s also a great source of vegetable transplants for home gardeners.
TOPSOIL is another example of how urban farming can work. At his 20,000 square-foot Dockside Green garden, Chris Hildreth grows vegetables in portable, above ground geo-textile pots, for sale to city restaurants and at a seasonal market stand. Hildreth is now sharing his vision — hosting workshops to encourage commercial property owners to invest in his system for their own grow spaces, and training a new generation of urban farmers at city schools.
Meanwhile, the non-profit Food Eco District (FED) celebrates the city’s obsession with local, sustainable food purveyors with a collection of mini food gardens, many set up in front of the green-certified restaurants under the FED umbrella. Whether it’s native plants like sea thrift and coastal sage, or herbs and vegetables more specific to the restaurants that harvest them (think curry leaves, shiso, basil, garlic, chives, beets, and bok choy), the FED street side garden boxes are educational and showcase what can be produced in a small space.
“The community boxes are for everyone to use,” says FED project manager Holly Dumbarton of the 31 planters that will soon have signage describing the edible plants and how they can be enjoyed.
Dumbarton says she’s hopeful that locals will simply “slow down for a moment” to learn more about the food that’s growing on the street, snip what they need for supper, and be inspired.
“It’s not meant to feed everyone,” she says, “but it’s just nice to see something growing in the middle of the city, and hopefully get people hooked into growing their own food.”
GARDEN SAVVY CITY
Victoria has many places where budding gardeners can sharpen their skills.
At the Victoria Seed Library, in the downtown public library, you can literally withdraw free seeds to grow in your own garden, then return the seeds you’ve produced in the fall for future borrowers.
The Compost Education Centre offers free Saturday morning gardening workshops, drawing eager acolytes.
“Every workshop sells out and there are often 50 people on the waiting list,” says Kayla Siefried of their popular Grow Your Own Food 101, and Boulevard Blooms and Street Greens courses.
Demand is fierce for urban gardening plots, too — many neighborhood allotment gardens have waiting lists of up to 10 years. The Yates Street Community Garden, Victoria’s first and only community garden, will soon be surrounded by high-rise towers, and beyond boulevards, there’s little other available land.
The City wants developers to build rooftop gardens and green spaces, with the goal of doubling community garden space, but it’s all voluntary.
“It’s a lofty idea but there’s no mechanism, no way of doing it,” Dumbarton admits, adding FED is working with the City to map the downtown to identify “the top 10 or 15 sites for urban agriculture,” likely on existing rooftops.
Still, those in the gardening trenches are hopeful. Leah Seltzer, LifeCycles’ Growing Schools manager, ran a six-week Seed the City project last summer with TOPSOIL, teaching high school students how to build and run a successful urban food farm.
“This project gave these teenagers ideas about how you can have a solution-oriented livelihood, and create the kind of world you want to live in,” says Seltzer.
“Growing food it gives you hope. It’s an example of the difference you can make in the world.”
Hatchet & Seed
Victoria Compost Education Centre
Food Eco District Victoria
Growing Schools Program
LifeCycles Project Society