With a Little Help from My Friends – Community Gardening Makes Good Sense and Good Fun

“It’s incredible what you can accomplish with some focused energy, good friends and a whole lotta love.” – Me, 2010

A labour of love.

A labour of love.

The backyard is not just our place of food production. In the spring, summer and fall it is a place buzzing with life and social activity. We chat over the fence to our neighbours. Good friends tend to come straight to the backyard instead of the front door. Our house backs onto a city park and sounds of the basketball court, soccer pitch and kiddy pool create a happy community background soundtrack. (We honestly love it, even when the conversations on the court get a little profane.)

The food production itself is also a social activity. I’ve been pleasantly amazed to discover how social vegetable gardening can be when you really get into it. For the past three years, our garden has been a shared project together with a few dedicated friends who do not have growing space of their own. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying goes. We started working together when, in the spring of 2010, the landlord of a duplex I was living in agreed to allow us to dig up 300 sqft of the front yard to put in a vegetable plot. A similar plot already existed in the large, sunny yard of the rental property – a community garden organized by the Sustainable Living Ottawa West (SLOWest) GrowSLOW Gardens project. (GrowSLOW Gardens partners landowners with gardeners to turn unused backyard space into glorious food-producing, community gardens.) There are quite a number of community gardens in Ottawa for those who might be interested to join an existing gardening space. Check out the Just Food Community Gardening Network of Ottawa for more info.

We started from scratch, turning over sod with pitchforks and shovels borrowed or bought cheap off Kijiji. We had a planting party to start indoor seedlings. To build a raised bed we scavenged wood from reno dumpsters and the curbside. We ordered a massive dump truck full of top soil and splurged on a wicked seed selection at Seedy Saturday. We traded neighbours our excess soil and tomato seedlings for lattice, bamboo, tomato cages a water barrel and all sorts of useful tools and materials. In total, 7 of us spent about $70 each on our start-up costs, which included soil, seeds and chicken wire.

We worked our butts off all spring to get the garden ready for planting by mid-May. We took turns watering and weeding. Everyone harvested delicious fresh veggies throughout the summer and fall, both to take home to their families and to eat together, which tended to happen fairly often. We had some great successes but also suffered an infestation of cucumber beetles and failed to get more than a handful of potatoes from a stacked tire growing method. We all learned a ton about gardening, enjoyed working with our hands and each other, and felt incredible about eating fresh organic produce.  It was an all-round wonderful shared project to undertake with a group of friends. You can check out a little photo montage of the garden on Facebook.

Beans, peas, carrots, cucumbers and friends.

Beans, peas, carrots, cucumbers and friends.

Since Ben and I made the move to our own home, we have continued to make the garden space a shared space. Friends helped to turn sod and build raised beds once again, and continue to periodically come over to share in some of the work and the harvest. We’ve been given seedlings and transplants by various friends and family, including fruit trees and garlic from “Grandpa” Frank and strawberries brought all the way from Mum’s backyard in Rossland B.C. And of course we have been enjoying paying all of this forward by giving seedlings, pumpkin pies, pesto, zucchini loaves and other goodies from the garden. Can you feel the love?! (Speaking of love, sending much to gardener amigas Anita, Vivs, Do, Xime. xx)

I hope this post might inspire others to get together with friends, family and/or neighbours to start a community garden. Sharing the work and sharing the harvest is a practical way to make backyard food production fit into a busy urban lifestyle, and is a beautiful way to connect to the people around you.

Friends with shovels! Anita helps Ben dig out a new bed next to the garage.

Friends with shovels! Anita helps Ben dig out a new bed next to the garage.

The Pop Bottle Greenhouse

Here’s something for those of you planting cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, zucchini or any other crop with wide spacing… introducing the pop bottle greenhouse! Cut the bottom off some 2L plastic pop bottles and put them over your planted seeds or transplanted seedling and you’ve got mini greenhouses which will do wonders for kick-starting seedlings. AND they keeps the squirrels off your delicate little plants! Just make sure to remove them when watering your garden to ensure your seeds/plants are getting enough water. Keep the pop bottle greenhouses in place until your seedlings are growing out of them.

You are probably thinking to yourself: “Gee, that’s a neat idea, but I don’t drink enough pop to do this.” Well, neither do we. Just head out for a stroll around your neighbourhood on blue-box night with a large backpack and I guarantee you’ll collect enough pop bottles to satisfy all of your sprouting needs!

Pop bottle greenhouses over cucumbers, mid-May.

Pop bottle greenhouses over cucumbers, mid-May.

Here you see the greenhouses in action over some cucumber seeds and transplants. Mmmmm cucumbers! This year we’ve planted three varieties:

Oh and while we’re on the subject of cucumbers, here are a couple of tips: 1. Cucumbers don’t like to be planted right next to tomatoes. They do well with beans, carrots, beets and radishes; 2. Cucumbers can be grown vertically! Plant them along the back edge of a sunny garden plot and train them up a trellis… you can learn more about that here.