Nothing is more rewarding than planting food and watching it grow from seed to harvest. That’s why thousands of people get their hands dirty in community gardens across the country. First and foremost, growing fruits and vegetables provides people with access to fresh food. But community gardens also play a vital role in connecting people to nature and each other, enhancing community resilience and well-being. As DeeDee from Marpole Temporary Community Garden puts it:
“The power of food, placemaking and public spaces is far-reaching and intersects greatly with the issues we are facing today.”
Among the 72 outstanding community park groups awarded TD Park People Grants this year are several that demonstrate how growing and harvesting food is a powerful pathway to cultivating community and ecological resilience.
Since 2016, TD Park People Grants have helped 365 grassroots community groups and community-based non-profits build vital connections between people and parks. Two of the community gardening groups supported through a TD Park People Grant this year are Marpole Temporary Community Garden in Vancouver and the Congolese Women’s Group in Ottawa.
Both groups demonstrate how environmental education, sustainability, and stewardship come together, both joyfully and fruitfully, in gardens that are programmed and animated by communities.
Marpole Temporary Community Garden was initiated by DeeDee Nelson who took it upon herself to investigate a “locked up and neglected” plot of land during the pandemic. As DeeDee initiated efforts to clean the space, she tells us, “people just started poking their heads in and asking about joining in.”
The temporary garden is in Marpole, one of the geographic areas identified by the Vancouver Park Board as an Equity Initiative Zone. A developer provided the space to the community temporarily, just until construction begins. Located on a busy road, with, what Dee Dee describes as “cars whizzing by on Granville Street,” the garden is a green oasis that transports participants from the congestion and busyness of traffic into a lush space that nourishes the community.
One of the workshops organized by Marpole Community Garden to learn how to create a burlap sack garden
The Congolese Women’s Group is made up of 21 new immigrant women living in the neighbourhoods served by the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre (SEOCHC). The group was formed in 2019 after a picnic in the park inspired the group to make better use of outdoor spaces. Euphrasie, who works at the SEOCHC as a Community Developer, noticed that the women were both eager to find affordable sources of fresh food and keen to learn about plants. She humbly proposed a community gardening program, asking participants: “What do you think about starting a community garden? Even if it’s a small one, you can start there.” And with that, the women began growing food.
Also located in an equity-deserving neighbourhood, The Congolese Women’s Group sees the community garden sessions as an avenue to address issues like isolation, safety, and mental well-being in the community. In addition to gardening workshops, a Harvest Celebration will joyfully close off the season.
Members of the Congolese Women’s Group gardening
Access to quality, nutritious fruits and vegetables is a systemic challenge in equity-deserving communities. Food insecurity has become an even bigger challenge for low-income families as food costs continue to rise. As DeeDee shares:
“There are so many seniors on a fixed limited budget, and they have told me specifically that they’re growing their own food because it’s too expensive in the store.”
While both groups recognize the community gardens’ role in addressing food insecurity, they also prioritize sharing the harvests’ surplus with others. At Marpole Temporary Community Garden, participants frequently hand out fresh vegetables to passers-by. In fact, they’ve set up what they call a “Veggie Table” to formalize the generous gesture. When people ask “how much does it cost?” DeeDee gleefully responds,
“It’s free. It’s totally free.”
Marpole Temporary Community Garden’s Veggie-Table
The Congolese Women’s Group also shares this spirit of solidarity. The food collected during the workshops will be distributed to the community during an end-of-season Harvest Celebration which Euphrase shares, will be a “great, great event.” The food from the harvest will be shared with the entire community as a gesture that Eurphase says symbolizes that “yes, there’s something we can do together that can be beneficial, not only to us who are working there but also to everyone in the community.”
The community gardens play an important role in connecting participants to one other and to the broader community. At Marpole Temporary Community Garden, DeeDee has witnessed how engagement in the community garden leads to greater civic engagement overall. She shares:
“All of a sudden people learn they have a voice. They start to realize that the municipal government is made up of real people that can help make things happen. Every citizen can think about what they would like in their community and then ask for it, and that goes not only for public spaces but for land use, active transportation options and virtually anything else that goes on in a community. We have a say in our cities and the more we realize this, the more empowered we are to speak up.”
DeeDee surmises that seniors have been particularly attracted to the garden because many live alone. Particularly during COVID when seniors needed to avoid indoor spaces to protect their health, the community garden gave them a unique opportunity to socialize in the outdoors. She adds: “We are in dire need of outside space for the community. For people to come and spend time in nature and have a community space to gather.”
Two neighbours attending one of Marpole Temporary Community Garden’s workshops
In our interview, Euphrasie from the Congolese Women’s Group shares how the community garden is a vital source of joyful community connection:
“I saw children coming and wandering in the community garden to look at the plants. They started asking: ‘Oh, what’s this? Oh, what’s that?’ It’s a very nice place to be because participants engage with people of all ages. They meet their seniors, they meet their kids, they meet with their parents. And wow, it’s such a place a way to bring people together to break that isolation, to just help people to go beyond what is going on in their life. You know, and when they meet, it’s just laughter. I love it.”
Members of the Congolese Women’s Group at the community garden, 2022
While laughter and glee fill the garden, it’s important to recognize that community gardens do the serious heavy lifting when it comes to building social resilience. As DeeDee from Marpole Temporary Community Garden astutely recognizes, the kind of social resilience cultivated in community gardens will be increasingly important in the face of climate change:
“Growing that community spirit and community connection is I think, totally what makes a resilient community because then if something like the heat dome or flooding happens, we know who’s down the street and who needs help.”
As we recently highlighted in the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report: “There are multiple inequities in the access and enjoyment of urban green spaces, with ramifications for climate justice, equitable park development, and public health.”
Community gardens in equity deserving communities provide people with access to green outdoor spaces that support individuals’ health and well-being. We know that people who spend more time in nature enjoy enhanced cognitive functioning. They are also more likely to report high levels of happiness and well-being.
As Euphrasie from the Congolese Women’s Group nicely puts it:
“Even if you’re not working in the community garden, just going in there, you breathe, that fresh air, you hear the birds singing. This is good for your health, for this environment and for the community.”
One of Marpole Temporary Community Garden’s workshops to learn how to create a no-dig square-foot garden using Cardboard
In all of the programs at Marpole Temporary Community Garden, DeeDee starts with a meaningful land acknowledgement, inviting participants to think beyond how nature can benefit human life, and encourages everyone to think about how they can enhance the natural world:
“If we’re saying thank you to the land, that means we must be getting something. So what are we giving? I like to ask people to consider our relationship within nature just like any healthy relationship, one that has a spirit of reciprocity.”
During the workshops, DeeDee teaches participants to use permaculture and syntropic agriculture approaches derived from Indigenous knowledge to enrich the land. For her, those practices are key to ensuring a sustainable planet.
“It really makes us think about what would be the best way to make this sustainable growth, not just growing for this year, but growing for the future.”
Both Marpole Temporary Community Garden and the Congolese Women’s Group underscored that finding space for community gardens is incredibly challenging. While the Congolese Women’s Group was able to secure space through the City of Ottawa’s Community Garden Program, Euphrasie emphasized how long and complicated the process can be:
“It used to be easier to apply for a plot. You just had to go in person and ask. But now everything is online, which is making it more difficult for us. It takes us more time and energy.”
Marpole Temporary Community Garden is situated on private land. However, relying on the generosity of private land owners is not sustainable over the long term. As DeeDee puts it “We’re enjoying our wonderful borrowed backyard while we have it.”
Given the many benefits of community gardens, we need to ensure gardeners have access to spaces to build meaningful relationships with one another, their community and the natural environment.
As Euphrasie from the Congolese Women’s Group nicely says:
Gardening, “nourishes the community physically, emotionally and mentally. It is a significant reminder of how working together as a community benefits everyone.”
Join us for more than 216 events hosted by TD Park People Grants, taking place from April 17 through December 31. 2022. Visit the TD Park People Grants page to learn about events happening in your community.