Cowichan Valley Gothic
by Ashley Gaudreault
I haven't pictured myself in overalls in awhile. In fact, I threw every pair I had away years and years ago. Don't own a pitchfork either. Not even a small shovel. I'm going to need some gloves, probably a rake too. Have to fork over some cash for seeds and add a couple buckets to my list.
Might need some gardening advice, too
Judy Stafford might be just the person to provide it. She's the executive director of Cowichan Green Community (CGC), the community gardens group in my hometown of Duncan, B.C. My roommate Jen and I are considering trying our hand at growing our own vegetables. But before we give it a try, I decide to ask Stafford just what we'd be getting into.
I'm disappointed to find out there's a huge waitlist to get a chunk of land. Cowichan's community gardens are so popular that this year's plots are already called for. According to Stafford, a ton of people like Jen and I have the same idea.
"There is a general interest surging through the community now," she notes. "We had 30 people come and help at the Harvest Festival we held last September. Our board members are volunteers and there are about 10 active ones. Overall, the concepts of what we are doing are well received. There is a lot of interest and media coverage around food security as attested by the hundreds of people who attended the Seedy Saturday we organized in less than two weeks."
Fortunately, CGC regularly hears from those willing to let their land be used for a community garden, so there's hope yet for Jen and I yet.
For inspiration, I decide to visit CGC's primary community garden site, Kinsmen Park. The park is located on a residential road and surrounded by apartment buildings. Eighteen plots are enclosed by a chain-link fence. Each garden box is unique. Some are weed-stricken, others look to have been mastered by a green thumb. I see lettuce, strawberries, rhubarb, and a variety of herbs.
This must be what landscape architect, psychologist, and community activist Karl Linn had in mind. Linn believed that gardens cultivate peace and community spirit, and was known for inspiring and guiding the creation of "neighborhood commons" on vacant lots in East Coast inner cities from the 1960s through to the 1980s. In the 1990s he found himself another calling: community gardens. Some were devoted entirely to creating ecological green spaces or habitats, and for growing flowers; others provided education or access to gardening to those who otherwise could not have a garden.
That's where people like Jen and I come in. We're both extremely grateful our community is able to provide us with space. As the anticipation builds and thoughts purée in my mind, I can't help but picture the old American Gothic painting, with Jen and I standing in for the old folks, staring solemnly at the viewer, foursquare and ready to plant.
We could add a co-worker of mine to that portrait as well. Her name is Sarah Simpson and, though she isn't going to be growing a garden with us, she is trying what's said to be extremely hard to do in the Cowichan Valley: grow grain. Simpson says she spent Sunday raking the 200-square foot plot she was given at Makaria Farm in Duncan. "There's something really special, primal even, about growing your own stuff," she says. "Whether it's grains or vegetables, it's a really an empowering feeling."
Like Jen and I, Simpson lives in an apartment and that's why she decided to look for a bit of arable land. "This grain growing exercise is a good first step toward taking control of my own personal consumption," she says. "There are many reasons to grow your own food and it seems new reasons pop up every day. Global food shortages and high costs of transportation, not to mention the closer it's grown to your table, the less chemicals that need to be used to preserve it."
Established in 2001, CGC promotes food security through several community projects, including the gardens, the first of which opened in 2002. They also sell Salt Spring Seeds, host workshops, and undertake promotions and other activities relating to food security and sustainable gardening. To CGC, food security means all members of a community at all times have access to nutritious, safe, and environmentally sustainable food obtained through normal distribution routes. CGC has developed The Cowichan Food Charter plan, designed to reduce the restrictions on local food production. According to CGC's website, the Charter acts as a set of guidelines for local governments and citizens to enhance food security.
Back in 2002, CGC identified potential sites for their first garden. Their priority was a spot at Centennial Park as it's only a few blocks from Duncan's City Hall. A committee of volunteers now run the site. The Kinsmen Park Garden, CGC's current focus, cost $13,000 to start up. A membership in the organization costs just $20 per year, so CGC also looks to the community for donations to make ends meet.
Several other community garden advocates are working to secure sites in areas outside of Duncan. In Lake Cowichan, a 20-minute drive from Duncan, the town council recently approved a piece of land where a group of volunteers will develop a neighborhood garden. Honeymoon Bay, a tiny lakeside community 15 minutes north of Lake Cowichan, has had one for several years.
Stafford says community gardens aren't just a go-green fad either. "It's not a concept that is going away. Quite the opposite. It can work in any community."
According to CityFarmer.org, community gardens first became popular during World War I, when they "provided increased food supplies which required minimal transporting. During the Great Depression, city lands were made available to the unemployed and impoverished by the Work Projects Administration (WPA); nearly 5,000 gardens on 700 acres were cultivated in New York City through this program."
Community gardens recently received a PR boost when Michelle Obama planted one at the White House. The First Lady and students from Washington's Bancroft Elementary School broke ground for the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House in Spring 2009. The students involved will watch as it produces healthy vegetables to be cooked in the White House Kitchen and given to Miriam's Kitchen, which serves the homeless in Washington, DC.
Stafford says a community garden is successful and healthy by definition. "It's community coming together, sharing space, working, producing healthy food, and interacting. When people work together in a like-minded project, the energy is phenomenal. People know they are helping one another and the planet, and the benefits are very high."
Anybody can be a gardener, she says, even people like me who don't have a hint of experience. You can start anywhere there's land. "You don't need to build raised beds. You don't need much equipment either; just use existing soil." Compost, though, says Stafford, is critical to setting up a good growing environment. And, of course, you need seeds or seedlings to start. Participants grow a wide variety of things, from root crops to regular greens, vegetables, and grains.
Though she's not an expert on what grows best here, Stafford does advocate the Gardens' importance and encourages people to join. And it's just plain fun, she adds. "People have a great time doing it and I'm sure you and your roommate will too."