Planting season in Toronto: A look at the growth of urban gardening

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Photo: Synapticism / flickr

Our Earth Week coverage continues all this week, coinciding with our Vegan Challenge and leading up to Earth Day itself on April 22. Later today we will feature another piece on food security in Canada by Hannah Renglich. 

After a long, unusually white winter in Toronto, spring is coming back to the city. For many in Canada's largest city, and North America's fourth largest urban center, the seasonal change means little more beyond business as usual. But for a vocal and seemingly growing few, it means it's time to start planting.

From the downtown core, to suburban locales far from the city centre, more people and communities are changing the landscape with gardens of all sizes. Some gardens take up large open spaces of land -- many acres in the further reaches of the city -- while closer to the built up parts like Parkdale people squeeze their growing produce into whatever available spots exist between buildings, or even on their rooftops and balconies.

Urban Agriculture Summit

 In August 2012, Toronto saw the first Urban Agriculture Summit where various community leaders, educators, architects, urban planners and activists involved in grassroots movements came from around the world, with about 500 people attending.

The purpose of the summit was to share innovative methods of gardening, as well as a place to meet other people committing to turning a sustainable future driven by grassroots organizing a reality. In the past three years alone severe droughts in Russia, the United States and parts of Africa, massive flooding of once fertile land in places like Pakistan and Thailand, and the existence of "superstorms" have made it clear that the stakes are getting higher.

Climate change and its detrimental effects have been made completely clear and the destruction of massive food stocks and rising food prices has to be addressed in some way and people are looking for relief from this reality. The United Nations rapporteur, Olivier De Shutter, visited Canada last May to warn Canadians about the food insecurity in Canada. While Canada has a high standard of living, De Shutter explained, inequality is rising with around "800 thousand households … considered food insecure." With governmental policies doing so little to change this reality, I wondered what alternatives people could take up to make change?

A visit with Farmer Bob

Almost exactly a year ago I embarked on a mission to find some answers to this question. I met with an old high school friend who had become a farmer. He goes by the name Farmer Bob. We met at Downsview Park, a former army base/airport being transformed into a national park in North York (the northern suburb of Toronto's megacity).

I had been spending a lot of my time at Occupy Toronto downtown and was telling Farmer Bob about the talks we had down there about building community-based alternatives to the present system, where inequality and insecurity are on the rise.

Farmer Bob admired those activists but chose to start his own kind of action in his own way. He showed me many tiny infant plants he had been growing inside one of Downsview's three large greenhouses. Farmer Bob had a different way of looking for change. As we sat on the grass he picked up a dandelion and started eating the pedals. I just hoped there wasn't any pesticide used. His art was forest gardening, a technique that has actually been in practice for thousands of years. The forest gardener doesn't line up their vegetables in rows out in the open, but rather grows everything together, forming a combination of plants that complement one another.

Farmer Bob discussed the techniques of creating different combinations of plants that create unique scents which attract wanted insects such as bees, and at the same time can repel certain pests. The art of forest gardening requires minimal maintenance, creating a self-sustaining micro-system that nourishes itself, producing a bountiful harvest at the end of the season.

Occupy Gardens

Later I ran into a group of people whose loosely organized movement sprang directly out of the larger Occupy movement. This was Occupy Gardens, a group of Torontonians who started a makeshift garden called The People's Peas Garden at Queen's Park just south of the legislature building.

I spoke to one of their members, Jacob Keary Mooreland, about the purpose of this endeavor: "The goal is to literally grow an abundance of free fresh nutritious food for all, by growing gardens all over the city and making them freely accessible to all to participate and grow. Underlying this goal is a desire to achieve social and economic equality and ecological harmony, while creating a healthy nourishing culture to grow and evolve."

Last summer I got a tour of the garden, meeting many of the people involved and seeing their produce, which consisting of various vegetables (tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, squash, as well as various flowers that had uses as oils and dyes).

I asked Keary Mooreland about the benefits of community-based gardening.  "Countless," he said.

"Community gardening in particular acts as a holistic therapy simultaneously addressing local and global issues from hunger, poverty, mental health and diet related illnesses, climate change, ecological decline, and political and economic inequality, by empowering individuals and communities to feed themselves and have control over their own lives. By growing free food in public, people become aware and educated about the causes and solutions to the food and climate crisis, interwoven with other global crisis such as the debt crisis and democratic crisises facing the world. The gardens become a space of resilience and resistance and foster further social change."

On September 18, 2012, the day before harvest, the People's Peas Garden was demolished by city workers. It was deemed an "illegal" garden.

The Occupy Garden movement will continue this season, setting forth to challenge concepts such as the legality of community gardens on city land. It should be interesting to follow Toronto's urban gardening scene in the season ahead.

At a time where immense challenges are fast approaching we will be able to see how people adapt to them on a local level. This movement should continue to grow in Toronto and many other urban centers across the globe.


Jesse M. Zimmerman is a freelance journalist with an interest in issues involving food security and indigenous issues. Zimmerman follows various social movements in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada and in the world.

Photo: Synapticism / flickr 

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