Nurturing a positive environment for growth in Niagara – both literally and figuratively – a number of community gardens have taken root throughout the region over the past decade. Lending land and support to people without the personal property required for cultivating fruits and vegetables, collectively nurtured gardens are sprouting up; helping Niagara’s food banks keep up with demand for fresh food all while aiding local residents’ in meeting nutritional needs without breaking the bank in the fruit and veggie aisle.

But community gardens do more than simply supply fresh squash and potatoes to urban dwellers.  Besides growing fresh produce, these gardens are renowned globally for supporting and developing effective regional action towards climate change and building positive connections between people within fast-growing, diverse communities.

“Consuming local food is the single most effective action that you can take on climate change,” says the team at Greening Niagara, an organization which fosters over 15 gardens within the Niagara, St. Catharines, Thorold and Welland communities. “It supports the local economy, honours the earth, consumes less fuel in shipment, is less likely to be a genetically modified crop, is less likely to be contaminated with prohibited pesticides and supports the protection of our environment.”

Jo Low, the Garden & Nutrition Educator at Project Share – a food bank that provides emergency food to an average of 100 families per day who are living below the poverty line in Niagara Falls – says the idea to start their own community garden sprouted from their need for fresh, locally grown produce to better serve these families.

“Many of our clients suffer from diabetes and all kinds of terrible things because the food they eat is so poor,” says Low. “The majority of food we get [at the Food Bank] is boxed or canned and not very nutritious. When we get fresh food here, people get very excited”.

Their first community garden grew at Our Lady of Scapular Church in Niagara Falls. The garden hosts 40 individual spots for families to cultivate as well as larger plots at the back which annually produces over 25 hundred pounds of food for Project Share.  Cultivated produce include tried and true favourites lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini as well as unique plants such as Saskatoon Berry Bushes, Walking Onions and Jerusalem Artichokes planted by involved families and volunteers.

“We designed it so families could sign up for an individual plot of land and we would supply them with some seeds and plants to get started and then they were responsible to care for it and what they grew they could take home to their families,” said Low. “The gardens are essentially their backyards; they plant whatever their families would like.”

Low said these gardens are vital in bringing the community together and fighting the stigma around poverty.

“Poverty causes isolation – when you don’t have money, you don’t go anywhere,” said Low. “So having places where you can go, like these gardens, where it doesn’t cost anything to get involved gives people a great sense of well-being.”

Low said the impact these gardens have on the community is next to none; recalling one of their community garden’s plot holders – an 80-year-old woman who is originally from Jamaica – that would travel hours by bus every day to simply spend time watering her portion of the garden.

“She said to me, ‘This garden to me is like winning the lottery; it is like a little paradise’,” said Low.

Community gardens vary widely throughout the world and impact all demographics. While in areas like Mali and Taiwan there is an extensive number of large scale communal urban farms, community gardens in North American and the United Kingdom range drastically in size but generally remain relatively small and central for a specific group of people; from beautification planters within densely populated urban sectors, small sized gardens in areas where people grow small plots of vegetables for individual use, to grand scale greening projects known to preserve natural areas and encourage local produce consumption.

“You don’t get more local then stepping out your door and grabbing vegetables,” said Low.

Jennifer Sinclair, Convener at the Niagara Community Foundation and Niagara Prosperity Initiative [an initiative tackling poverty and related issues across Niagara] says the group annually provides $1.5 million dollar investment to funding poverty reduction and prevention projects.  Since its establishment in 2008 they have supported the growth of a number of community gardens; with the initiative finding that in order to meet the nutritional needs of locals within the poverty bracket, they needed to lower the cost of fresh food.

By 2010, the Community Garden Network was comprised of a group of Niagara based individuals and social service agencies that have an interest in community gardening and helping the projects take root. The gardens not only succeeded in meeting their initial goals of fresh food production to aid poverty, but other results surpassed their dreams: evaluation of 70 participants in the community garden projects provided evidence that these community gardens also contributed to the development of human and social assets, led to enhanced life skills, developed opportunities for children and youth, enhanced their personal networks and increased self-esteem.

Today, Sinclair said the Community Garden Network, in partnership with a number of local organizations including Project Share, consists of 15 organizations and over 20 garden locations across Niagara.

Both organizations note that one of the first steps towards a brighter future is educating children at a young age of the importance of not only healthy eating, but of supporting locally grown food. Project Share is dedicated to hosting workshops for the community at large – with a number targeted towards children that can be brought to local schools as part of a health and science curriculum.

Their newest program, Community Roots, compiles hands-on food literacy workshops linked to the curriculum that makes learning about plants, soil, innovative food gardens, nutrition, cooking, local and global food systems and food justice fun and educational for primary grade students.

“[These programs] fill the nature deficit that kids and schools are experiencing,” said Low. “Kids just don’t get to go outside as much anymore. We host programs through the schools on composting and pollination, planting, growing and healthy eating. We also host nutrition workshops and make meals with the vegetables the kids have grown in their own community gardens – really showing them what eating local really means.”

Project Share’s workshops are held year round and welcome every member of the community to partake. Workshop information can be found on their websites and social media pages.

Tips For Starting Your Own Community Garden

Are you inspired to start your own plot, balcony garden or community greening project to aid your local foodbank and neighbourhood? Jo Low, the Garden & Nutrition Educator at Project Share, along with Yaneth Londono at Links for Greener Learning have lent us some helpful tips on how to start your own community garden adventure.

TIP#1: “Anyone who is starting a community garden should start small,” says Low. By going too big too fast, Low said many gardeners become discouraged and community members drop off before the garden can really take root. If you start small and are successful you can grow from there with ease.

TIP#2: Finding a great location could almost be tied for first most important tip on the list according to Low. Choose a location that is surrounded by a lot of community – such as schools, churches and neighbourhoods – that is also close to a water source and along a bus route or at least easily accessible. This location will help your garden prosper with ease.

“Community means protection, support and champions for the project,” said Low.

TIP#3: Network, network, network. Community gardens are all about building, growing and connecting with members of the community. And by networking with local organizations and businesses, groups may receive donations and contributions to help get the garden off of the ground. Low said a lot of local nurseries and businesses are willing to donate seeds, plants and tools to a get a community project started.

TIP#4: Low said it is beneficial to host events throughout the year where people can join together and cultivate relationships.

“Host a barbeque, have a group planting day,” said Low. “It is community that people really value and will ensure people continue to dedicate themselves to the garden and maintaining it.”

TIP#5: A must read along your community garden journey [and soon to be your gardening bible], Londono’s manual Growing Diversity; Garden Manual is a great resource filled with lots of interesting information and tips about how to plan for any sized garden, planting per produce and season, proper pest control and fertilization and watering techniques. This manual also provides information on how to connect with other community gardens in the Niagara Region. It can be found at linksforgreenerlearning.org/resources.html 

Written By: Gabrielle Tieman