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.

A Word on Walden… Why Thoreau Says You Can’t Afford Not to Grow Your Own Food

Realizing that it has been a month since the last post, there is a LOT to write about! It would seem that between chasing after a 9-month old, trips, summer festival season and all of the time spent out in the backyard, we haven’t given much time to blogging. (Admittedly, since being on maternity leave, I have enjoyed the freedom of being away from a screen, preferring to feel dirt under my fingertips rather than a keyboard.)

Henry David Thoreau. Image from http://lkthayer.wordpress.com

Henry David Thoreau. Image from http://lkthayer.wordpress.com

I also haven’t been making as much time as I would like for reading, but I have been slowly working my way through Walden – a non-fiction work by Henry David Thoreau (1854) in which he describes his two-year experiment of living in a small self-built cabin near Walden pond in Massachusetts. Through Walden, Thoreau – one of the most influential transcendentalist philosophers – emphasizes a life of self-sufficiency and simplicity, including growing his own food, greatly reducing his acquisition of material goods and connecting to his natural environment.”My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.” he writes.

While 1850s English literature might not be everyone’s cup of tea, there are some concepts in Walden that are seriously relevant in 2013… perhaps even more relevant today than in 1854 given the out-of-control nature of our consumerist culture and its dire consequences on the planet. But the best part of Walden is that Thoreau doesn’t write about anti-consumerism and growing his own veggies from a “save the planet” perspective. His philosophies stem from the notion that the ultimate unit of measurement of something’s value is not its monetary worth. It is time. Our LIFE time, to be more precise. Everything we buy with money should be weighed against the hours that it has taken us to earn those dollars. A life characterized by rampant consumerism is a lifetime of servitude in which we are the slaves to our “stuff”, sacrificing time with family, time for self, time for creativity and time in nature so that we may acquire more things.

One of the most common arguments from people against growing a vegetable garden is that they do not have the time. To that argument Thoreau would say that, on the contrary, you cannot not afford to grow your own veggies if we use LIFE as the unit of measurement of value of our food. How many hours must be worked at a desk job to earn the money to buy all of the fresh, local, organic produce you consume? How many hours of joyful labour working your own land would be required to produce the same quantity of vegetables? (As an illustrative experiment to this point, I’m planning to keep track of the tomatoes we produce this year (by weight) and will try to determine how many (after tax) working hours it would take me to earn the cash to buy equivalent produce at the local farmers’ market.)

In the opening chapter of the book, titled Economy (an excellent essay worth a read even if you don’t delve any deeper into the book), Thoreau says that if one wishes to travel 30 miles, they will typically assume they need to buy a train ticket to get there. However, he says “the swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot… The distance is 30 miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages… Well, I now start on foot, and get there before night… You will in the meantime have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.”

Perhaps we all have something to learn from Thoreau – work less time toiling in our cubicles and more time being self-sufficient while being outdoors, moving our bodies and breathing fresh air into our lungs. I have a desk job. We have a mortgage. As much as Walden hits home for us, we are not about to quit it all and build ourselves a shack in the boonies. But it is certainly an inspiration and a motivation for our efforts to live consciously and move towards greater food self-sufficiency.

If you’re looking for some not-so-light summer reading maybe try some seriously powerful transcendentalist philosophy like that found in Walden… but please do pick up a copy second hand, or better yet, borrow it from someone!