Many novice gardeners dreaming of an overflowing horn of plenty soon learn how much work is involved in tending a plot.
The experience can be discouraging, but one North Kamloops group has come up with the answer: a communal garden.
“I think gardening is a lot more fun when you have people to do it with,” said Margaret Barry, who came up with the idea of a group garden while pondering a community kitchen for the Elizabeth Fry subsidized residential complex, Hilltop Apartments.
The experienced gardener wanted to grow food for such a kitchen and noticed a plot of land behind the Mt. Paul United Church.
She approached the church, wrangled some willing Hilltop neighbours, contacted City community gardens co-ordinator Shelaigh Garson for help and next thing she knew, produce was feeding eight families with enough left over to donate to the church’s soup kitchen. (The communal kitchen idea was abandoned.)
“It only takes four or five people to get together and even grab a couple of community plots. It doesn’t have to be a full garden. And they can grow things together. It’s amazing,” she said.
The Hilltop gardeners include a wide variety of low income folks such as single mothers, mentally or physically challenged residents and senior citizens.
They pulled out waist high weeds, seeded, tended, harvested and canned together last year.
Tomatoes were the most popular, and the work yielded untold cases of canned tomato products like spaghetti sauce, salsa and chilli.
They also harvested beets, cucumbers, lettuce, beans, carrots, peas, spinach, chili peppers, bell peppers, celery, squash, cauliflower, raspberries and more.
The savings in quarts of tomato products alone is staggering. With each family receiving about eight dozen quarts of spaghetti sauce, usually costing $5 each at a grocery store, that’s $480 saved.
Barry is passionate about teaching people, especially those on lower incomes, how to garden.
The cost of planting and canning is about one 16th of the cost of buying produce.
“Any way that you can grow your own food and learn to freeze it or learn to can it is going to help. I know the amount of food that we put into the garden is so little for the amount we get out of it,” she said.
She and her 25-year-old daughter, who has special needs, also invited friends from the People in Motion group for disabled youth to drop in for tutelages.
“They were pretty amazed at being able to pick things off of a vine and eat it. Like taste raspberries right off the bush,” said Barry.
“Some of them I don’t even think knew that a carrot came out of the ground. So it was actually quite neat to watch.”
But the garden’s brought much more to the residents’ lives than just food. It’s a bona fide way of life for dozens of its users and visitors, who enjoy the social support network.
“There are lots of rewards,” said Dean Regnier, a Hilltop resident with cerebral palsy and a new avid gardener. “Veggies can be so expensive. And you get to try stuff you wouldn’t normally buy. Also it’s getting out in the fresh air, hanging out, you get to know people more.”
Hilltop resident Barry Dooley is among the longtime gardeners helping to teach the skill to others. Dooley laughingly said he learned how to tend a plot “at the toe of Dad’s boot.”
“It was ‘You got five rows of peas to weed,’” he said.
It used to be a household chore, but now it’s a pleasure.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I like growing things, digging in the ground.”
Gardening appears to have come full circle. Dooley, like many of a certain age demographic, grew up with the daily chore of planting seeds, weeding, watering and harvesting. But somewhere along the way, the activity was lost from city life.
Little more than five years ago, “urban agriculture” returned as a trendy alternative lifestyle. Gardens spread instead of weeds in backyards and on empty city sites.
It’s caught on so much in Kamloops that the City’s community gardens co-ordinator can’t keep up.
“There’s been a huge amount of interest. Huge demand,” said Garson, a master gardener and landscape designer contracted by the City through Interior Community Services.
Around 278 gardeners are listed with the City as working on its eight community gardens, and Garson has a long wait list for more.
She said the boomer generation is her biggest demographic and although they typically have the income to buy produce, many other reasons compel them to till the soil.
“There’s a lot of concern about organics, pesticides, GMOs, people wanting to know where their food sources come from, costs, our imprint on the land. Why are we shipping strawberries from California when we can grow them here?”
Garson is also a member of the Kamloops Food Policy Council.
The organization was established in 1995 as an umbrella, providing an opportunity for food security projects and advocacy groups to co-ordinate their work.
Garson said locals may not realize how insecure their food sources really are.
“If a natural disaster such as a tsunami happened in Vancouver and we were cut off, Kamloops would be out of food in four days,” she said. “Grocery store shelves… gone.”
Since most food comes from the Pacific Rim and California, Vancouver ports are the entry point for a huge proportion of edibles.
“So people need to be prepared.”
Interior Community Services is currently working on a handbook for Kamloops residents wanting to start a community garden, and Garson said she’s excited to count a communal garden among local examples.
“It’s really given them a sense of ownership and a little more control over their food source. They say money is power but really when it comes right down to it, food is. He can look after himself is going to be the one who comes out on top.”