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.

Strathcona Community Garden is in gritty inner-city Vancouver—1.4 hectares of gardens in one of Canada's highest-density, lowest-income neighbourhoods. It has no gates. You approach it through a berm topped with pine trees. The welcome signs are in English, Chinese and Spanish. Inside the berm, the city fades away.

This land was once tidal flats and a stream estuary. It has since been a landfill site, a hobo jungle, a military training field and a city works yard. By 1985 it belonged to the parks board, which had been proposing to create a park on the site for 50 years. But it was still a tangle of junk, industrial fill, brambles and fetid swampland when a group of local citizens gained permission to create a community garden there.

"People thought we were freaks," smiles Muggs Sigurgeirson, a fit, bright-eyed woman who was among the garden's founders. "They were sure it couldn't be done." The group persuaded Finning Tractor to contribute a bulldozer for a day, and a union contributed a driver. The workers hauled out great blocks of broken concrete and levelled the site. They dug thousands of yards of 60-centimetre trenches for water distribution and drainage. Hundreds of people came out to help, many of them "people with nothing, street people, old people living alone in cheap hotel rooms, people like that," Sigurgeirson says.

Today the garden contains three distinct components. The wilderness tract includes beehives, wild trees, a marsh and a pond, which provide habitats for salamanders, frogs and 110 species of birds. The allotment section has 290 individual garden plots, which are rented to people for a $10 membership fee plus $5 per plot. The Strathcona Community Gardeners Society, a non-profit, all-volunteer society, runs it. The common area contains a meeting house, a children's play area, a path under a pergola covered with grape and kiwi vines, clematis, honeysuckle and jasmine, an orchard, a herb garden in the shape of a Tibetan mandala, and the province's largest public collection of heritage fruit trees, espaliered on wire trellises.

Many desperate people live near these gardens—addicts, prostitutes, alcoholics, mental patients—but the gardens are cherished by the community, and there has been little vandalism or other misbehaviour. "Even people who don't have a garden here visit almost every day to walk through the gardens or wilderness tract, or to sit on a bench with a cup of coffee," Sigurgeirson says. "Some even help out in the gardens occasionally just to be a part of the community spirit."

By 1991, the garden's success had induced the society to lease another three acres of wasteland, which the Environmental Youth Alliance converted into a second community garden. Other gardens are sprouting up all over the city.

The original organizer at Strathcona was Leslie Scrimshaw, a volunteer worker with City Farmer. Founded in 1978 as a small, non-profit newspaper devoted to local food gardens, City Farmer now bills itself as "Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture." It has evolved into a leading global information source whose Web site (www.cityfarmer.org) has been consulted by people in 162 countries, and last year transmitted 1.6 million information files.

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