Urban farming: seeding a movement

A view of Neal's urban garden. Photo: Neal Michael
A view of Neal's urban garden. Photo: Natalie Whiteway

“You look like you could use a beer man!”

Though I certainly appreciated the beer he promptly offered me, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, despite what it might have looked like. Kneeling on all fours in an overgrown planter in the parking lot of Burger Heaven, a small spade in hand tearing irregular sized chunks of weed infested sod out while a light rain fell, I was taking the first few steps to becoming part of the burgeoning urban gardening movement.

Since moving to the downtown area of New Westminster over three years ago, I had toyed with the idea of seed bombing one of the many derelict areas near the tracks or guerilla gardening in the unused parking lot across from our condo. The planter at Burger Heaven, however offered an ideal location given its proximity to our apartment and generous size. Motivated by an interest in urban farming projects in cities across North America and a promise to myself to be more action-oriented, I decided to indulge the itch to grow something and go for it. After a few e-mails to the owner of Burger Heaven and a couple of meetings, I began working on the garden.

A growing movement

Beets harvested from Neal's garden. Photo: Neal Michael.
Beets harvested from Neal's garden. Photo: Natalie Whiteway.

Urban gardening has been getting a lot of press these days, most notably for its role in helping cities improve their urban environment, while also providing fresh meat, fruits and vegetables to cash-strapped citizens trying to reduce their rapidly increasing food budget. With global energy demand rising, food costs around the world have also risen substantially making gardening an attractive and reasonably easy way to offset costs. Given that the average Vancouverite (and one can only assume resident of New West) requires approximately 7 hectares to feed him or herself, it would be next to impossible for an urban farmer to grow all the food he or she needs year around. However, what they do grow helps to lowers their household food budget, while also serving the city in a variety of ways.

An increase in green space provided by parks and urban gardens can help cool down a city by as much as 4° Celsius due to the cooling effect of water evaporating from plants. As well, food grown or raised locally cuts down on the emission of CO2 associated with the global food trade, as it doesn’t need to be shipped or flown in from another region. And though sometimes overlooked as an important factor, urban gardens improve the overall aesthetic of a community. With rich colours and textures, gardens bring to life what are sometimes lifeless urban areas that have been built with little regard to design or good architecture.

In the trench

Given that I knew very little about gardening, beyond some reading online and having attended a one-session balcony gardening course a few years back, the garden is doing surprisingly well. In terms of actual yield, I’ve got a bucket full of radishes, a few rows of lettuce that will be ready soon and some arugula that needs another week or so. The tomatoes, zucchini and beans need a whole lot more sun before they’ll start to really grow.

The benefits of the process have gone well beyond the actual yield. Many people, including the employees at Burger Heaven, notice that the garden has improved the look of the area and cut down on the amount of garbage. Interest from local residents has been great. Many people have stopped by to chat, to give a much-appreciated tip, or just to inquire as to what was going on. Its amazing to see just how many people are interested in gardening and have a real enthusiasm for it.

A call to spades

Though just a small project, the ability of a garden to build a greater sense of community is evident. As New West grows and increases in density, we will need to continue to improve our urban environment through small community driven initiatives and creative thinking. Blank walls, small patches of unused earth or a long abandoned rail line can be re-imagined as canvases, gardens or other projects that will improve the sustainability of the community. Who knows, if you look desperate enough while building your own garden you may just earn a few free beer out of it too. In the words of X-tina, “lets get dirty”.

Garden Nerd Series: Seed Bombs

The Garden Nerd series will look at gardening issues in New Westminster. Suggestions for topics, guest submissions, and questions are all welcome. We’ll try and address it all! You can find other posts, as they are added, by clicking here.

This past week I popped out to my favourite seed store, West Coast Seeds, and picked up 225,000 mixed seeds in a blend called “Pacific Northwest”. It contains a mix of 17 different annuals and perennials, and all of the plants are indigenious to BC and our zone. They are also low-to-no care once sprouted. I like saying I picked up 225,000 seeds, but really, it’s a teeny paper bag with 225 grams of seeds, about the size of a healthy Rice Krispie treat. I bought this wee little bag of gold in preparation of making seed bombs.

Seeds bombs are a little act of green terrorism, also known as “Guerrilla Gardening”. The idea is that you make this little packet (recipe below) and you toss them into empty lots or in little green spaces not being tended to increase the green in your community. Great targets are those closed down gas stations with horrifically boring fences around them for years at a time, or perhaps property being held for future development by offshore owners. I also like traffic circles not being looked after, orphaned pieces of civic property… the possibilities are endless. 

Here’s my disclaimer: guerrilla gardening is technically illegal.  But you don’t need to trespass to plant a seed bomb – you just chuck them over a fence. But if you decide to make some bombs, and for whatever reason you get arrested, you did so on your own accord. But as I said to one friend, what are they going to do? Charge me with selflessly beautifying my community? The act is not one of defiance, rather, it is one of beautification.

There are lots of recipes out there, and lots of activists out there, too. This is the one I am going to use:

  • 1 part seeds
  • 1 part really good high quality compost
  • 5 parts clay – some use terra cotta, some use the grey stuff. You can use premade or powdered. 


  1. Mix your seeds and compost together. 
  2. In a separate bowl/box/container, mix your clay up, if using powdered.
  3. Pinch off a piece of clay, form a ball about the size of a big walnut, or perhaps a smallish fig. 
  4. Using your finger, make a cavity in the ball, and fill with the seed/compost mix.
  5. Pat the clay together, so that basically, you have a seed/compost filled clay Timbit. Mmmm…. delicious!
  6. Let the balls air dry for a few days. 
  7. Drop the bombs in your targeted area. A good time is just as its starting to rain.  The balls will likely crack, but not totally burst when you toss them, and the rain will weave its way into the seed/compost mixture, providing a nice little semi-together environment for the seeds to germinate and do their thing. 
  8. Secretly enjoy the site when you pass in the future, knowing you are a little green terrorist and you contributed to make your community a nicer place. 
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A Generous Garden

A reliable source informs me that a property owner in the Connaught Heights area would like to see an area of land used as a community garden of sorts. In true Royal City style, this currently anonymous owner is offering the space for interested gardeners, free of charge.

If you are one of the many New Westminsterites out there hankering to till the soil and raise your own veggies, but you don’t have a plot to plant in, contact us and we will pass on the info!

Simply leave a comment on this post. Leave your email on the comment form but not in the comment text. We will see your email but not the world. Use your first name somewhere so we know who to ask for and remember; serious inquiries only! If you know you will use the space all through the season, ask away. If not, help a neighbor pull weeds.

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Garden Nerd Series: Timing

We’re kicking off a new series here at Tenth to the Fraser. The Garden Nerd series will look at gardening issues in New Westminster. Suggestions for topics, guest submissions, and questions are all welcome. We’ll try and address it all!  You can find other posts, as they are added, by clicking hereToday’s post is written by Ross Arbo, CHT. Ross spent 14 years as a landscaper on Vancouver’s West Side. He also happens to be married to Jen Arbo, a regular contributor, and occasionally authors posts over at the Arbolog.  

That Time of Year

Around now, the weather is getting (noticeably) warmer, the last of the snow is gone and many people start to think: gardening.

Not everyone enjoys or appreciates gardening but I find those that do cannot be categorized. Some like a few pots on their balcony that they can throw a bit of water at and are content. Some like to go out into their patch with the clippers every chance they get and weed/cultivate meticulously and water every second day. Still others like to focus on vegetables; sowing seed early in neat rows and waiting with baited breath for their harvest to mature. Whatever type of gardener you are, this is an exciting time of year. Here’s a short list of what I do now:

  1. Pruning – specifically deciduous shrubs & trees. A lot of people recommend major pruning – the kind that removes up to 1/3 of the plants branches or growth – for the more dormant months of January and February. For less severe pruning, wait till March-April when the buds are-a-poppin’.
  2.  Weeding – weeds are just starting to show. Grab them out of your garden beds now before they seed/spread too far and you can theorectically have yourself a worry free May. You will definitely be weeding by June 1st. Be sure to prolong your great weeding job by running a cultivator through the bed after.
  3.  Dividing – most perennials can and should be divided at this time. I don’t know how many garden beds I’ve seen with HUGE clumps of peonies, just starting to stretch that are begging to be divided. Get out there with a sharp shovel and start dividing already!
  4. Soil Amending – mix a bag (or 6) into your beds/pots or simply ‘top-dress’ as both will add great nutritional value to your existing soil. Choices these days are endless; from good old ‘mushroom manure’ to ‘locally sourced, sterilized, organic worm castings’. Remember that the operative word is amend; adding too much can shock and burn new roots/shoots.
  5.  Enjoying – gardening does take some time and effort but, in the end, you must enjoy your little patch. No matter what you do, make it your own.

One final word:  for any of you dying to buy and plant that technicolor flat of impatiens you see on sale at Home Depot, Safeway, or any other place, please wait until Mothers Day (May 10, 2009); it’s still too cold at night. I can’t tell you how many times I have to tell my wife to be patient! The flowers will just get shocked and die and then it’s a waste.

Happy gardening!

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LA Times gives props to local balcony veggie-gardening program

New West’s Biggest Little Garden program has attracted attention from the LA Times, which has published an article about the innovative community gardening initiative. The program is the brainchild of Fraserside Living Well Program director Diane Cairns, who had to find a solution to increase local food production in a city where 70% of us live in apartment buildings. She wanted to revive the old ‘Victory Garden’ concept of growing your own fruits and vegetables – and sharing the harvest with your neighbours – but how could it take off when so few residents had backyards? 

There was only one solution: Bring the dirt to the people. Despite having no gardening background, Cairns designed a compact, three-tiered planter made of a handsome (and rot-resistant) cedar — just the right size for a small balcony. The 32-by-8-by-8-inch planters are narrow enough to squeeze through small apartment doors, raised high enough so no stooping is required for planting and picking, and built with a trellis on the top tier to support bean and squash vines.
The garden, soil and plants are delivered for free to whomever opts into the program. In return, participants promise to water and weed and to share leftover produce with neighbors.
Cairns hoped to have eight to 10 pilot Biggest Little Gardens in 2007, but the project was so popular in that first year, she wound up with 54. Two years later, 108 gardens are in operation and Cairns has secured funding for an additional 70 in the coming growing season. A community service group in nearby Surrey is planning to copy the program.
– LA Times | Balcony Vegetable Patch


The program is completely free for low-income apartment-dwellers in New Westminster, however you must sign a contract in which you pledge to care for the plants and ensure the produce doesn’t go to waste – any excess must be given to family or friends or donated to the food bank via New West’s Plant A Row, Grow A Row program administered out of St. Aidan’s Church.

I’m one of the lucky ones with a yard in New West, but since spotting the planter and reading about the program last year, I’ve thought I’d like to buy one for my back deck! Those who don’t qualify for the free program can buy a planter for $175 (proceeds go back to the program). 

For more info the Biggest Little Garden, visit Fraserside’s website


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Dig This! Gardener’s Party for Plant a Row, Grow a Row

Plant a Row, Grow a Row, a non-profit agency that organizes the donation of high value garden produce to food banks and low-income families will be teaming up with St. Thomas More High School (Burnaby) for their 2009 programme and to kick things off, the school is hosting a Gardener’s Party on Thursday evening, March 26th featuring presentations and question and answer sessions with the regions top gardening gurus.

Potential guests are asked to bring items for the food bank. More information is listed below.  Claude Ledoux, New Westminster Horticulture manager for Parks and Recreation is an organizer for the program and an avid gardener. He is also a neighbour and we frequently pepper him with questions for our own project, the Tenth to the Fraser Victory Garden. Always ready to help, Claude has encouraged us to grow an extra row for those whose food budgets make fresh vegetables difficult to afford.

Having a garden, especially a vegetable garden is a privileged that many can not enjoy and in many cases the fruits of the season are much more than one family can consume. This national program is a great way to share the bounty of the earth and the fruits of your labours with others.

Plant a Row Grow a Row”


Beginning this spring, STMC will be involved in a Plant a Row – Grow a Row program to assist the needy in our community (www.growarow.org).

Please join us for a Gardeners Party on Thursday March 26th to jumpstart this event.

Plant a Row – Grow a Row builds on a long-standing tradition of people sharing their harvest with their neighbours. It’s a simple but effective idea.

Gardeners plant an extra row or two and donate the produce to the Food Bank.

In troubled economic times like these, it is more important than ever that the Food Bank is able to supplement their supply of non-perishable food with fresh fruit and vegetables.

St. Thomas More Collegiate would collect food items on a Sunday and deliver them to the

Food Bank the following day.

Gardeners’ Party

The Gardeners’ Party will be held Thursday, March 26th, from 6 to 9 PM in the gymnasium of Saint Thomas More Collegiate, at 7450 12th in Burnaby.

  • Brian Minter, co-coordinator of the national PAR-GAR program. Brian is always an inspiring speaker, will kick things off at 6.

  • Claude LeDoux, the local co-coordinator, will introduce an exciting line-up of speakers who will discuss different aspects of vegetable gardening.

There will be coffee and treats as well.

Plan to join us; because it’s not often you have the opportunity to hear so many garden experts in one place,

The price of admission is right — a donation of non-perishable food for the Food Bank!

Speakers for the Gardeners’ Party:

Brian Minter – Co-coordinator of the national Plant a Row Grow a Row

Conway Lum – Gardenworks Mandeville

Jeanette McCall- Westcoast Seeds

Heather Havens – Gaia Green

Daniel Mosquin – UBC Botanical Gardens

June Hewko – Lee Valley Tools

For more information or if you would be interested in assisting with this program please contact David Mattiazzo, Campus Ministry for St. Thomas More Collegiate

604-521-1801 ext 127


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