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”.

8 Replies to “Urban farming: seeding a movement”

    1. Extremely satisfying, I say..
      When I had the Village Coffee Lounge, we planted a very productive garden strip in front of the CAW building at 709 12th Street. A very sunny location with the soil cultivated with coffee grounds, which are full of nutrients. The strip produced lettuce, tomatoes and cauliflower.
      I know the cauliflower found it's way to a needy person as the leaves, peeled off in transit, led to an apartment a half block away. Lettuce was taken as it matured with tomatoes lasting the longest. They disappeared as they ripened while the last of them being taken while still green.
      Unfortunately the strip sits unused waiting for a green thumb to replant. Al at CAW is very cooperative and would encourage an urban gardner to take on the project. Maybe next year!

      1. Hmmm…. maybe this is why the city doesn't provide any public space for community gardens….

        To keep the Veggie crime stats low ?
        Commie gardens to red a concept for the orange town ?

        Seriously though. It's sad that a citizen has to resort to negotiating with a private company, who pay much higher taxes, for a small plot in their parking lot to grow radishes and lettuce.

        And that thing about needing 7 ha to feed a person is most definitely a mistake, but I salute your effort. Now the city should step up to the plate and give the people a plot of Pier Park.

        1. Hey Rick,

          I guess I don't think it is too sad. I really respect the restaurant for striking up a bit of a partnership with local residents. I think it would be great for more cooperation in the future between businesses and residents.

          Check out the article below for where I got the 7 ha statistic.

          1. Hey Neal, I can understand that you don't feel the same as I do, I have the luxury of going into my yard and digging up a patch if I so choose without having to ask anyone. I have no problem with Burger Heaven per say, as I mentioned I salute your efforts, and it's VERY GENEROUS of them to allow you to use the land they pay taxes on, and take on the additional liability. I think you'll find few business will allow that, who knows what toxins might be lurking in the existing soil of commercially zoned land, where they are exempt from the pesticide bylaw. From your picture, it looks like old Creosote treated lumber bordering the plot with vegetables you intend to eat. If it was a lawn before, did the maintenance company use pesticides on it ?

            Now, as for your link, I would suggest you more closely examine the facts they presented at the end, because the good Professor is lacking in his math skills.
            (cut and paste from article)

            0.5 hectares: amount of land required to feed a single person based on the typical North American’s high-protein, meat-rich diet, with most of that representing grain, roughly equivalent to six city lots

            600,000: Vancouver population
            300,000 hectares: land required to feed Vancouver
            Which equal the .5 ha = 1 1/4 acres per person Not 7 ha = 17.5 acres, if this was fact, the entire land surface of the earth would barely support 500 million people.

            I'll sequester my remarks as to the professors educational background….

        2. Wrong Again, Rick.

          The City has indeed stepped up and provided public space for a thriving community garden at Simcoe Park, and have also provided in-kind services and some (excuse the pun) seed money for equipment.

          I think now that the viability has been established (with two more gardens opened on Church lands), the biggest question the Community Gardens Socisety has to face is: Where next?

          1. (I'll be good this time)

            YOUR RIGHT PAT !

            In fact you encouraged me to do some digging, and my knowledge about the cities community garden programs has grown. http://www.newwestpcr.ca/parks/park_amenities/com

            In order to be allowed to participate, you must first PAY to the local CG society, and then APPLY for the privilege of a plot for the season, in the case of the Port Royal CG, you also have to buck up an additional 25 dollars a year, for the use of a 7×8 plot.

            You probably already all know my stance on Pay-to-Play community involvement, and in this case 5 dollars doesn't sound bad, if it was going to the parks board. But here we have two distinctly individual societies who are essentially in control of taxpayer provided equipment and amenities.

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