Gardens - Specialty Gardens

From ad hoc guerrilla gardeners to groups with savvy global Web sites, community gardening has come a long way—and the growth spurt isn't over.

Gardening is normally done by consenting adults and protesting children in the privacy of their own yards. But sometimes, in inner cities, little oases of flowers and vegetables blossom on neglected land amidst the bricks and asphalt. These are group gardens, co-operative gardens, community gardens, allotment gardens. People love them. Sometimes city governments love them, too.

Gardening is normally done by consenting adults and protesting children in the privacy of their own yards. But sometimes, in inner cities, little oases of flowers and vegetables blossom on neglected land amidst the bricks and asphalt. These are group gardens, co-operative gardens, community gardens, allotment gardens. People love them. Sometimes city governments love them, too.

The guerrilla gardeners of north Montreal in the 1970s, for instance, were mostly immigrants from Italy and Portugal. Their crowded homelands had teemed with vines, flowers and leaves. In their new neighbourhoods, they saw vacant lots. Unused land. Who owned it? Mamma mia, who cared? They began digging and sifting, seeding and watering. Vegetables ripened. Flowers bloomed. The blighted lots turned green.

City officials noticed these little spontaneous gardens, sprouting like grass through pavement. Some cities react to such unauthorized uses of vacant land with vigorous disapproval. Others ignore them. A few—notably New York, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani—regard them as social weeds, and take drastic action to eradicate them.

Instead, Montreal embraces them. The director of the Montreal Botanical Garden, Pierre Bourque, agreed to oversee a support program for community gardening, and under his guidance, the gardens flourished like sweet peas in the summer sun.

In 1985, after a rigorous review of the program, the city recognized community gardening as a major recreational activity for Montrealers, like football or aerobics or music. It created specific community garden zoning, apparently the only city in North America to do this. It agreed to provide space, soil, manure, fencing, water, tools, toilets, clubhouses and tool sheds. It mailed registration forms with each household's monthly water bill, inviting new gardeners to participate. It hired a team of "horticultural animators" to act as liaisons between the city and the gardeners. (They answer gardening questions, distribute the garden plots, report maintenance problems.) In response, all community gardeners agreed to pay $5 annually for their allotments, to participate in an insurance program, to grow their gardens organically, and—since there was an energy crisis going on that created concern about food supplies—to raise at least five different vegetables. Bourque went on to become the city's chief horticulturist and associate director of parks. He clearly saw gardens as places where citizenship and learning would flourish along with plants. In 1991, he wrote in a magazine article that "people who grow plants out of love, without any financial objective but often with remarkable expertise, perform an essential but often overlooked service in educating both the young and the general public with respect to the environment."

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