Urban gardeners aim to feed the city

In cities all around the world, urban agriculture is growing in scale and popularity and Yukon community organizations are keeping up with this trend.

Miche Genest

Special to the News

In cities all around the world, urban agriculture is growing in scale and popularity and Yukon community organizations are keeping up with this trend.

In addition to rural farming, Yukoners are busy growing food in our towns and communities. As a result, community gardens are recognized in the territory’s local food strategy for their contributions to local food security.

In the spring of 2016, community gardeners from across the Yukon assembled in the meeting room at the seniors’ residence on College Drive in Whitehorse. They had come for the third annual Community Gardener Gathering, hosted by the Arctic Institute of Community-based Research, providing an opportunity to discuss the challenges and solutions common to northern community gardens.

There were representatives from several First Nations, seniors were there in force, as was a resident of Whistle Bend who wanted to start a garden in his raw and un-greened subdivision. There was a representative from the Whitehorse Food Bank, plus master gardeners, greenhouse builders, first-time gardeners, teachers, mentors and students.

Garret Gillespie finished his talk on municipal de-centralized composting and the roomful of 60 or more people broke into discussion groups. “Worms!” cried a woman from the community garden in Teslin. “Try worms. We love them.” Such are the topics on the table when community garden enthusiasts share their stories and expertise.

Community gardens in the territory range from neighbourhood greenhouses to not-for-profit operations to long-established ventures such as the Little Salmon and Carmacks greenhouse, which has more than 10 years in operation. The term “community garden” doesn’t fully capture the diversity of these projects, but they all have one thing in common: the work benefits the whole community.

The benefits go beyond access to fresh, local produce. Community gardeners talk about health and wellness, about regaining a connection to the land, about the value of teaching kids and young people to love vegetables, about healing, and about the pleasure of being able to distribute food to those in need.

* * *

The Whitehorse community garden spreads out on bumpy ground near the bottom of the clay cliffs at the north end of town. Here, as well as growing organic vegetables for their own tables, the gardeners grow 500 pounds of fresh produce each year for the Whitehorse Food Bank through the Plant a Row, Grow a Row program, a national initiative designed to feed people in their own communities.

Kathryn MacDonald has been coordinator of the garden since 2004. She says providing food for the food bank is “the community part that our gardeners like a lot.” The gardeners always try to exceed their goal. Work bees are on Wednesdays, and food is delivered on Thursday mornings, washed and bagged in family-sized portions. Wykes Your Independent Grocer donates the bags. “They are really great at helping out,” says MacDonald.

The Downtown Urban Gardeners Society (DUGS) was started by Whitehorse residents Joan and Doug Craig in 1997 and incorporated that year. The first gardens were planted in 1998 and today there are about 70 raised beds in the north and south gardens and there’s a year-long waiting list for a bed. Gardeners come from all over the city. There are office workers who garden on their lunch hour “working out the stresses of the day,” there are condo and apartment dwellers, there are property owners who could garden at home but who like the social aspect of gardening here.

Communal tools are stored in a shed. There is a greenhouse, there are berry bushes and rhubarb plants scattered throughout the garden and around the perimeter. Outside the fence the gardeners have planted raspberries and Saskatoon berry bushes for people in the neighbourhood, both as a friendly offering and a deterrent against garden raids.

On any given evening you’ll find a quiet scene of raking, watering, weeding and digging in this peaceful corner of the city, where outfitter Charlie Baxter once grew hay and kept horses at the turn of the century, and where a ramshackle community of so-called squatters thrived from the 1940s to the 1970s, until the city expropriated the land because the cliffs were liable to slump. Now, a different kind of community has taken hold.

* * *

A few blocks south and west, the Whitehorse Food Bank sits amid a sea of asphalt on a corner where there’s hardly a tree in sight. But just down the street is an assisted living building for seniors, which houses a lot of people interested in gardening, exercise, and community involvement. Food Bank executive director Tristan Newsome says that interest from volunteers and from local seniors — many of them food bank clients — inspired the food bank to apply for a federal New Horizons grant to transform the parking lot into a community garden. The yield will eventually stock the shelves with fresh produce.

In May 2016 the lumber was purchased and ready to be transformed into raised beds, a greenhouse and a shed by members of the Challenge program, which provides work opportunities for people with disabilities. But fence construction, by a private contractor, was delayed and the project was late getting started. Newsome hoped the entire facility would be ready in time to plant some leafy greens, a popular item at the food bank.

Despite donations from the Whitehorse community garden and other sources, greens can be scarce. “The way the food bank works, clients can come once a calendar month,” says Newsome. “We see a vast influx at the beginning of the month, because people come as soon as they can.” That’s when the greens run out. Newsome hopes the food bank garden will help to fill the gap.

There are plans afoot to get seniors involved in making a recipe booklet featuring less familiar greens like kale. “A lot of people see kale and they don’t really know what to do with it. But they’re open, because why not? It’s there, it’s free, it’s nutrition,” says Newsome. Eventually there will be about 14 raised beds filled with vegetables in the empty parking lot, greening the city and people’s plates, and bringing community members together in the common endeavour of growing healthy local food.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.

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