Learning From a Happy Mingling of Beans & Zinnias

From an article originally published in the Horticultural Societies of Parkdale & Toronto newsletter, September 2007.

What can I say? I’m a designer—trained to be a control freak. In my work, I assess a problem posed by a client, develop a plan and then follow through. With a few twists and turns, the finished solution is usually not far off the original plan. It is a controlled outcome. And this is the way that I have approached my gardening—that is until this spring when I got involved with the Grafton Parkette Community Garden.

In the garden that I share with Bea, I make a lot of decisions. I assess the project at hand using my gardening experience, consult books and friends, then with a loose plan in place, I move on to the execution. There will be a few diversions, including irresistible impulse plant purchases, but the plan takes shape. Then I nurture, fine-tune and maintain the vision that I have created.Grafton Parkette before May 2007

The community gardening experience worked in a different way. I was involved with the project from its very early stages, but I was not in control. I wasn’t following through with a plan. I honestly didn’t have a sense of what the finished community garden would be. Carolin Taron was the visionary, the instigator and the energy behind the establishment of the Grafton Community Garden. She has been involved with at least 9 community gardens in Toronto since 1990. With her experience, she knows how to get a community garden project moving.

I had dreamed about improvements to the Grafton Parkette, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. I wanted to salvage the poorly maintained, grassy, dog pooh parkette at the end of my street. It would be planted with lush beds of select perennials and shrubs, creating an object of beauty that would be admired, but not touched, by the large number of pedestrians that walk past every day. My earliest involvement with parkette improvements in 2004, when I attended a few community meetings, resulted in what I thought was a rather unsatisfactory, postponed solution. $10,000 was allocated to the Grafton Parkette in the 2012 capital budget for a basketball half court.

Carolin moved into the Roncesvalles neighbourhood last year and immediately saw the potential of the Grafton Parkette as a location for a community garden and a place to grow food in the city. Working with Amy Johnston, Assistant to Councillor Gord Perks, she took the important first steps in the creation of the garden.

  • Involve a core of people with a sustainable interest in the garden location. DONE.
  • Get approval for a community garden at the Grafton Avenue location. DONE.
  • Get a city crew to strip the sod off the site and rototill the exposed, compacted soil. DONE.
  • Get another city crew to deliver compost and wood mulch. DONE.
  • Get the existing water source in the parkette repaired and a communal hose supplied. DONE.
  • Convince the right person in the city that the garden needed soil improvements delivered ASAP—specifically 100 bags of organic sheep manure. DONE.

Those were the logistics of getting the garden in place. By the middle of May the garden was set to go. Our small group had built it. Now, would anyone come?

I was truly amazed at how the garden developed. So was everyone in the neighbourhood. But we all did it together—as a community.

The physical presence of the rototilled, open plot drew people to the site. Some were openly skeptical that anything would grow on the site of an old used car lot. Mostly by word of mouth, Wednesday evenings were established as the time to meet and work in the garden. Two large areas, one at the back of the garden for native perennials and the other in the centre of the garden for food plants and annuals, were designated for communal enjoyment and casual garden visitors. The rest of the garden, that would be the responsibility of individual gardeners, was divided into small plots radiating out from the centre area. Plots were assigned on a first come, first served basis.

I took a plot back in May when there were few people willing to commit to the maintenance of a plot for the whole season. I planted 3 kinds of tomatoes, eggplants and a few Brussels sprouts for fall interest. No flowers, just food plants. What did I have to lose? Even if, as I suspected might happen, all the produce was taken by street people, I would always have more than enough from the country garden. My planting was orderly and typical of a tiny vegetable plot.

The communal areas developed in a more organic, spontaneous way. Carolin and other gardeners brought seeds and plants, and every Wednesday everyone pitched in with the planting. The neighbourhood children were the most enthusiastic planting beans and zinnias in abundance. Not always in the most ideal locations, but no one wanted to stifle the incredible energy. The kids were learning about plants and food and having fun too.

As the garden started to grow green and lush (thanks to the sheep manure), people were drawn from their homes on Wednesday evenings. Everyone was overjoyed that the empty grass area was being transformed. They were amazed and delighted with the garden. We have a Toronto microcosm along the one block length of Grafton Avenue. At the top is a 20-storey apartment building with many new Canadian families. The houses along the street have a mix of people and ages, with singles, retired couples and families that include teenage kids and lots of toddlers.

The people with gardening experience helped and encouraged the novice gardeners. The native plant activists contributed seed and plant divisions. The young families on the street brought their toddlers to help plant seeds and water, water, water. Children from the big apartment building planted seeds and annuals that would fill in beautifully. People that I had seen when walking the dogs in the neighbourhood, but had never spoken to, were handed a trowel and few snap dragon plants as they walked past the garden one Wednesday evening. And they knew what to do. Dig a hole, pour in water, set in the plant and fill with dirt. Voila! This is my garden too. Instant gardening friends. The parkette belongs to the whole community now. There is a sense of ownership and pride that a wasted corner of the street has been made productive and beautiful. Yes, homeless people are still sleeping in the back corner and they help themselves to a few tomatoes, but there has been almost no vandalism and universal appreciation. People walking, running, cycling and driving past have happy, encouraging comments. The garden brings a smile to everyone’s face. And now there is a lot of interest expressed in getting plots for next year.

The spontaneous way that the garden developed meant that the happy mingling of beans and zinnias was just meant to be. Letting the kids plant seeds and strawberries and potatoes and see the wonderful results was an inspiring experience that had nothing to do with control and garden design. It had everything to do with openness, and sharing in the uplifting spirit of gardening.

And then there was “Salsa Night”, a magical Wednesday evening event. The entire street came out to enjoy delicious salsa made from tomatoes and greens grown in the garden accompanied by salsa music and dancing. It goes without saying that Hort members want to become better gardeners. You know, fewer plant failures and more gorgeous “photo-op” successes. In other words, better control of the garden. But the Community Garden experience has led me to believe in letting the garden go its way and being open to the moment. I’m not the creator of this garden but I participated in its creation. I have a lot to offer the garden and the novice gardeners working in it. But the garden has given back to the whole community in a very big way.

In the end it is worth letting things run a bit out of control. I want to encourage every Hort member to get involved with a community garden project. For a few hours each week, leave your “gardens of controlled outcome” and spread your experience out into the community. We can encourage and develop new, young gardeners, beautify neighbourhoods and nourish our own souls.

Richard Kerr

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