Back to the garden

Urban agriculture growing fast in the community gardens of North Vancouver

Inside one of the large "hoop houses" at Loutet Farm, under the plastic sheeting that traps the warm summer air, a heady scent rises up from a bright green sea of basil plants, thick and pungent.

Overhead, a bee lands on a delicate yellow flower of a vine, the cucumbers hanging below in long pendulous curves.

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Outside in the garden rows, the peas are finished but there are still forests of kale with bubbly grey leaves. Sunflowers nod toward the light, heavy with seeds.

Scarlet runner beans have climbed to the top of their trellises. "Beans are just going wild right now," said Heather Johnstone, manager of North Vancouver's Edible Garden Project.

Twice a week, the farm sells the vegetables ready for harvest - everything from carrots to beets to salad mix - directly from the gate.

"It goes quickly," said Johnstone. "There's more demand than we can possibly meet - except for cucumbers."

Selling directly from the farm where the food is grown is part of the point of Loutet Farm, operated by the Edible Garden Project on land owned by the City of North Vancouver at the corner of Rufus Avenue and East 14th Street.

The Edible Garden Project, run out of North Shore Neighbourhood House, works to promote urban agriculture, knowledge about local food and the sharing of locally grown produce with food banks and community kitchen programs.

At Loutet Farm, "We work to bring the community into this space as much as possible," said Johnstone.

The rows of carrots, onions and waving yellow arugula flowers are a relatively recent development.

In the 1950s and '60s, the half-acre site actually operated as a landfill, said Johnstone - later capped with five metres of subsoil.

For a long time after, the land sat vacant, parkland that was mostly scrubby gravel and mud puddles, used primarily as a dog walking area.

That changed about five years ago, when the property caught the attention of the Greenskins Lab at the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, a group that was looking to launch an experiment in urban food production.

After the city gave the project its blessing, Edible Garden Project staff and volunteers took over the practical business of horticulture on the site. "We brought in a whole lot of soil," said Johnstone - about 14 dump truck loads from the Fraser Valley.

"The first year we struggled with soil quality," she said. Some seeds didn't germinate. Other plants grew spindly.

Volunteers spent time building compost piles and adding horse manure from a nearby stable. Gradually and steadily, the garden improved.

Fortunately, soil is "one of those things you can build," said Johnstone. "You can start from nothing. But you always have to be putting energy into it. It's hard to have an instant fix."

Loutet Farm itself represents much that is the opposite of the instant fix society. Its underlying purpose - and that of the Edible Garden Project - is to reconnect us to our food and where it comes from.

Earlier generations understood that through necessity. Growing food was what everybody did. But decades of social change and cheap processed food altered our habits, said Johnstone.

A lot of people don't cook anymore. It takes too much time.

Fewer people have gardens.

Many kids don't really understand how food grows - or even what vegetables look like in the ground, before they get to the grocery store.

Collectively, we turned away from the soil. Loutet Farm and other projects like it on the North Shore aim to change that.

"Food is a big deal," said Johnstone. "Having an understanding of where our food is coming from is incredibly important.

"The farther we are from the food that's being produced, the harder it is to understand what's in the food."

Seeing how food is grown changes people's relationship with it, she said.

They start to think about whether that lettuce was grown in the Fraser Valley or California, whether it was sprayed with chemical pesticides or not, whether it was put on a plane before it landed in the produce aisle.

"If you go to a farmers market and you're walking through and you see someone's beautiful carrots, you can understand how much time and effort, energy, care and love went into those carrots.. .. That someone planted those carrots, they weeded them, they thinned them, they washed them.

"It's so easy to not even know." Johnstone isn't a purist when it comes to local food. She said it's not realistic to imagine food for an area like North Vancouver can all be grown here. But even getting people to think about where and how their food is produced is an important step.

That's why Loutet Farm was deliberately sprouted in an urban area, right next to an elementary school.

"This is where the people are and this is where the people will see it," said Johnstone. "If you don't see it, you don't think about it."

Two beehives - behind steel bear-proof cages - are the most recent addition to the farm this year, along with a small garden A4 -North Shore News -Sunday, August 25, 2013 Growing food without chemicals is inspiring From page 3of bee-friendly flowers like catmint and montbretia. Bees will add honey to the mix of homegrown produce available at the farm, as well as reminding people about their essential role in food production. "Pollinators are in real trouble around the world," said Johnstone. Pesticides are one possible culprit, along with disappearing habitat in the path of urbanization.

"Their food sources are disappearing," said Johnstone. "It's hard to eat concrete."

Food, she said, is "absolutely essential to the whole environmental discussion."

Growing food is a small, tangible way to make change - a simple act against the larger often-overwhelming issues.

"Being able to grow food like this without any kind of chemicals at all is exciting and inspiring and reassuring."

In another part of the city, next to a busy construction site and close to a traffic thoroughfare, Scott Meadows is also cultivating his garden, pulling potatoes out of his plot at Queen Mary Community Garden.

Meadows - who lives a few blocks away - has been growing vegetables on this plot for three years now.

"We planted potatoes at the end of March," he said. "We'll be done pulling stuff out at Christmas."

Typically he and his family grow carrots and beets for juicing, plus fancy varieties diffi cult to fi nd in the stores. "We're trying to grow as much food as we can," said Meadows. "Things that will make a dent in how much we buy from the grocery store that's imported."

Meadows' garden is one of 56 plots at Queen Mary Community Garden - the fi rst of fi ve community gardens run by the North Shore Community Garden Society (northshorecommunitygardensociety. ca).

Like Loutet Farm, this community garden - opened in 2008 - sits on municipal land. The fi rst garden not on municipal land opened with eight garden plots at St. Andrew's United Church this year.

"The demand is so great," said Maja Regehr, president of the

community garden society. "Over the long haul we won't always

be able to count on the municipalities."

Community gardens have grown in popularity in the last

decade. In North Vancouver, where there are already 270 families

on the waiting list, the society has used a lottery system to award

177 garden plots to interested residents, who pay between $20

and $50 a year.

Once people start a garden plot, they usually stick with it, said

Regehr. "People like to grow their food," she said. "They feel a

satisfaction knowing they've produced this."

In the Queen Mary plots, there are stargazer lilies next to blueberry bushes, poppies next to a rose. A row of pale green cabbages seem to glow against the earth. In two plots, greenish yellow silk trails from the heads of plump ears of corn.

Community gardeners aren't told what they should grow. One woman grows dahlias and donates them to community groups, said Regehr. Another man grows fl owers for bees. But "by and large people grow vegetables."

Gardens have to be organic and "you can't grow something that's going to shade your neighbour," she said. Invasive plants like raspberries are also frowned upon. But community gardens are about more than food. People meet each other over their lettuce patches. They chat to their neighbours. "It has a ripple effect," said Regehr.

Meadows agrees. It's one of the reasons he tends his community garden plot. "Fundamentally community has always been based around sharing things," he said.

"There's not a lot of those kinds of opportunities in our society," said Johnstone. "Everybody eats." Back at Loutet Farm, Johnstone does a walk around the "back 40," where she pushes aside a tangle of massive leaves to reveal globes of orange pumpkins nestled on the ground. There are large Cinderella types, already two feet wide, small sweet varieties, red kuri and butternut squashes, from pale salmon to deep sienna.

They're planted directly into a thick layer of compost.

"You plant them with their like varieties and they just mix themselves up," said Johnstone.

Like a lot of small farms, Loutet does not make money. "Food is cheap," said Johnstone. "Making money with smallscale agriculture is incredibly challenging."

It costs about $55,000 to operate the farm with one full-time farmer - Gavin Wright - and a healthy crew of volunteers. This year, sales of produce are projected to bring in about $30,000. The shortfall is currently made up through grants - Vancity's enviroFund is a big sponsor, along with contributions from other local corporate, government and non-profit groups. The eventual goal is to break even. Growing your own isn't always foolproof, Johnstone is the fi rst to acknowledge.

"Every year there's something that doesn't work. Last year we struggled with carrots. We'd plant them and the slugs would eat them before they even really came up - an entire 100 foot bed of carrots"

"Gardening is one of those things that's really unpredictable . . . you always have to be fl exible. You always have to be willing to try something new."

But "plants are pretty incredible and pretty resilient," she said. And reaping what you sow has a special satisfaction.

"You can't grow anything if you never plant a seed."

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