This year’s Local/Global Peace Festival featured the Brant-Brantford Roundtable on Poverty, and the Community Garden. A non-gardener, features editor Meagan Gillmore decided to learn more about this simple project.

Dorothy Thom is almost as tall as her sunflowers – and at a few inches over five feet, they’re the small kind.

The sunflowers are only one of the plants she’s grown this summer at the community garden at The Friendship House at 452 Grey Street. Surrounded by office buildings, a school and houses, the abundant flowers, vegetables and herbs may seem an odd sight. This year, it’s worked well though. And, if this past season is any indication, more will be coming.

Brantford’s community gardens first began in the summer of 2009, an initiative of the Brant-Brantford Roundtable on Poverty. But when the former site was sold, a new place was needed.

The Grand River Community Health Centre became involved; the gardens promote health as much as they provide affordable food. While the Friendship House has a public garden with approximately 70 plots, there are also gardens for specific neighbourhoods and groups.

Currently, there are plots at Northland Gardens, Slovak Village, Princess Elizabeth School, Hope Reformed Church and Participation House. Unlike last year when coordinators were at the garden every day, these gardens are run by the volunteers who plant and maintain them. Community Garden Facilitator Gloria Ord, who visits the community garden at least once a week, says they plan to have the gardens in the same locations next year, but are anticipating some new sites.

Community gardens are themselves part of a growing movement. Gardens can be found in several nearby cities, including Hamilton, Waterloo, London and even Toronto.

While the 2009 produce was given to the food bank, this year gardeners chose how to use their crops. Some chose to donate some food back to The Friendship House for their community meals and food bank. Others simply gave to family members, friends, and fellow gardeners. So when Thom learned her children didn’t like tomatoes, she gave them away. And when she had questions, other gardeners would share advice. While she’s always liked gardening, she admits she didn’t know too much about it before she started.

They’ve given her other pieces of advice, too. Thom noticed several gardeners putting plastic pie dishes around their plots. “I thought, ‘What are you waiting for, aliens?’” she remembers. In actuality, they help keep animals away. The sunlight reflects off the plates, blinding animals.

Animals were the least of some people’s worries. Thom, who participated in the community garden last year and now is on the community garden committee, notes the Grey Street is much more open to the public. The possibility of vandalism concerned some. “A lot of people were sceptical,” Ord remembers, “because they didn’t know how it would go.” Vandalism was minimal, almost negligible. Ord said it wasn’t uncommon to finish a weekly board meeting at the Friendship House and see “upwards of 20 people” in the gardens – some working, some simply enjoying the view.

Because more important than producing affordable, good food – no pesticides are allowed, and home-grown food cuts down on costs – the gardens create community. Every Saturday, local horticultural therapist Cindy Brookshaw ran a Kids in the Garden program that taught children how to grow their own vegetables. At other times, a yoga program was held there. And for some, gardening simply allows them a place to think and relax, a helpful remedy for bad moods.

Now, most gardeners are finished for the season, and are making sure they have seeds for next year. Ord hopes to see workshops develop on preserving, canning and seed-saving. She also wants to see workshops on square-foot gardening, a method she’s certified to teach. This method of gardening uses less land and water, but yields the same as conventional gardening.

The same amount of produce can grow in 16 square foot as can grow in 100 square feet, she explains. And because gardeners have to be more intentional about how they plant in the smaller space, less seeds are used. The small beds are ideal for people who don’t have backyard space, and since they can be raised, those who use wheelchairs can also garden.
But for now, the final plants have to be harvested and the plots made ready for winter. And Thom is already preparing to add to her growing repertoire. This year, she added sunflowers. Next year, hopefully corn.