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: 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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