Community Garden Success in the Great White North

By Joe Hyer

The shorter the growing season, the harder the gardening, so we’d expect our neighbors to the North (Canada, friends, not Tacoma) to have challenges with community garden programs.  Not so, it seems.  We checked in on Strathcona County, Alberta, a suburb of Edmonton that has quite a sophisticated program up and running.  Like many urban and suburban counties in North America, they’ve been working on an Urban Agriculture strategy  to ensure local food systems are ready to provide nourishment long into the future.

During public engagement sessions, community gardens came up again and again, raising the programs priority level and allowing it to be launched early in the implementation.  County staff indicated that residents were excited about two key outcomes- learning about and growing food, and also connecting with their neighbors.

In all their information, Strathcona County is inclusive, declaring the program ‘for all county residents.’  They offer three guiding principles:

  • Walkable- used and enjoyed by those who live in the community
  • Inclusive – welcoming and gathering space open to everyone
  • Community-led – designed for the community, by the community

There’s currently 6 gardens in operation around the county, with encouragement for residents to talk to their neighbors, organize a group, and propose locations.  They have a simple one page PDF, Let’s Get Growing, describing the steps to create a garden.  And while they say they can only add a few gardens each year, wait until you hear what they offer their gardens.  County Staff:

  • Builds and installs garden boxes (10x4x2, custom sizes considered), including soil
  • Performs moderate site landscaping, as needed
  • Mulching as needed
  • Provides garden signage
  • Offers liability insurance (on public land)
  • Has grant opportunities
  • Offers planning support and expertise
  • Administers Community Garden License Agreement.

What do the gardeners provide?  Labor, of course, but also leadership, organization and structure. The program is an effort in community building as much as it is agriculture.  This is a wonderful example of government doing the perfect amount- providing infrastructure and expertise to support engaged citizens organizing for the common good.

The resources on the website alone were phenomenal.  A 56-page manual called Community Gardening 101, all about how to organize, manage and ensure success.    A link to a ‘Community Garden Handbook’ – actually a product of Alberta Health Services, but still a great resource. to learn more.  Click through to community programs, and you will find a County really focused on its food system, the core of which is people growing some of their own meals.

Just above the link to community gardens was one I couldn’t help but click as well, Communities in Bloom.  It focuses on program of community beautification through plants, flowers, and other means.  In 2016, they earned a five-bloom silver rating.  Now, the whole scoring is a mystery, but the concept is rather, er, huge.  It encompasses graffiti removal, trash pickup, roadside cleanups, parks maintenance, tree planting, composting and recycling, historic and natural preservation, urban forestry, landscaping and more.

What I thought was a program about growing flowers encompasses so much more.  A community in bloom is healthy in more ways than just aesthetic.  But the bloom is the symbol of that Health.  When we see it, we know there’s far more than just a flower at work.  It takes a system working in complex ways to produce the beauty, wonder and perfection of bloom.

The underlying lesson is that too many urban agriculture programs forget the flowers.  Yes, food is essential.  But a community in bloom also has flowers just for the sake of flowers- beauty because we can.  Never forget the flowers, they nourish the spirit like carrots nourish the body.