Community gardening has become a lot more visible in Nanaimo during recent years. As concern and a general awareness about the origin of our food increases, so does the interest in playing a part in food production—which is inspiring Nanaimoites to get outdoors and into their community. There’s the promise of reward for their hard work in the shape of locally grown, organic foods, and the satisfaction of seeing the process through from seed to the table.
The Nanaimo Community Gardens Society is based out of two locations: their outdoor garden is located on Pine St. behind Nanaimo Foodshare; their greenhouse is behind the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) water treatment plant on McGuffie Rd., just off of Hammond Bay Rd. in north Nanaimo. The Society holds weekly work parties on Wednesdays at both Pine St. and the greenhouse. I toured both locations to see what community gardening is all about, and met a group of men and women of varying ages and saw not just the gardening projects, but also the community behind them.
The Pine St. location is managed by Lee Haleys, and the society has been given permission to use property owned by Nanaimo Foodshare, and a private landowner next door. The Society does not own any land. The gardens are maintained by Society members and most of the work tends to be done at the weekly work parties—with some additional watering time. A Society member, Jenni, gave me a tour of the gardens which consist of several enclosures made of high wire mesh, with the main function of keeping deer out.
The Pine St. gardens use natural deterrents against smaller pests. For example, Nasturtiums are bright red edible flowers that also trap aphids—and make a beautiful garnish on salads. Haleys says that the advantage of having a community garden is the ability to grow a wider range of plants—there is far more diversity than would be found in most backyard gardens. Tall red stalks (which I am told are spinach) rustle gently in the wind, and I don’t recognize many of the plants that surround me—these gardens grow well beyond your basic tomatoes and beans! Jenni showed me the bag of produce that would go into her dinner—a colourful array of fresh-picked vegetables.
The Nananimo Community Gardens Society also has a gleaning program. Residents of Nanaimo who are unable to pick or use all of the fruit from their backyard fruit trees can contact the Society who will send out volunteer pickers for no charge so that the food doesn’t go to waste. Fruit is shared amongst the community and a significant amount is donated to food banks.
Much of the Pine St. crop is used for the Nanaimo Foodshare program. Foodshare offers after-school cooking classes, participates in the Good Food Box program, and the Summer Lunch Munch program for children who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a nutritional lunch at home during the summer months.
Things will settle down at Pine St. once winter sets in. There are a few plants that will survive through the fall—kale, for example is a year-round leafy vegetable, and some kinds of sprouts will survive. In the meantime, the community garden at Pine St. welcomes new members. To get involved, visit a Wednesday Work Party from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
(and sample some of the delicious treats made from the produce grown there) or contact them through their website.
Pat Wells lead me on a tour of the McGuffie greenhouse on a sunny Friday morning later that week. The RDN has allowed the Society to use the greenhouse space at the back of their property free of charge. The space was previously used for sewage treatment, but was cleaned up over a decade ago and the greenhouse has been used by the Society since 2000. The first thing Wells showed me was a large tub that was previously used to hold polymer for settling sewage sludge.The RDN cleaned it out and has given it to the Society to use as a rain barrel.
I was astonished by how large the space is—rows and rows of leafy vegetation fill the three-bay greenhouse, and Wells showed me how they operate, first pointing out a tiny green frog perched on a leaf—those little guys are a good sign of a healthy garden, Wells says. Right now the plants appear to be thriving in the late-summer warmth. Most of the trees are planted in plastic buckets, but some plants are in large bathtubs and there are several planting beds. There are a few more exotic plants in the greenhouses, Wells says. She showed me concord grapes, artichokes, and an olive tree—which produced three olives this year!
During the winter, plants go in a separated section called the tunnel; in the tunnel, plants are kept even warmer with two layers of plastic, and a heater. They stay in the tunnel until they’re big enough and the weather is warm enough for them to be moved out to the tables in the main greenhouse—in about Apr.
The plants raised are sold at plant sales, farmers’ markets, off the back of trucks in neighborhoods, to restaurants, and are also donated to elementary schools where there is interest to start new community gardens. The Society is just about able to cover most costs involved in running the greenhouse through donations (such as enormous palates of sea soil) and by selling plants. But Wells says, “We want to go more in the direction of education, and donating these plants that we grow to school gardens—there are more and more school gardens.” Plants have also gone to other Nanaimo community gardens that don’t have greenhouses. Several have gone to the Young Professionals of Nanaimo (YPN) garden at Turner Rd. and the Beban Urban Garden Society (BUGS). Plants have also been donated to affordable housing projects in Nanaimo.
There are about 20 volunteers (mostly retired women) at the greenhouse, and a core group of about ten who work there every week; it makes for a great social activity. At the busiest time in spring there has to be a morning and evening waterer who closes things up for the cool evenings. Part of the greenhouse does have a drip system which drastically reduces the watering workload. For the past few years the Society board has hired a production manager from Jan. to June—the busy growing and selling period. She directs the planting schedule and plans how much of each plant to grow. Of course a contractor has to be paid. With that system, the Society just breaks even each year.
This impressive space, however, is not at its full glory. Last spring it was reported in the Nanaimo News Bulletin that the RDN needs the greenhouse space back for their expansion of the water treatment facility. “They’ve given us two years notice, so we can’t complain at all but it’s still too bad,” Wells says. They are currently writing up a proposal for the City to present to the parks commission. The City had suggested that a piece of land in Beban Park next to BUGS would be ideal. However, the proposal has not been submitted yet because the City has decided to re-look at the master plan for Beban Park. That look won’t start until Jan., but the Society would like to present their proposal this fall—they have to be off of the RDN property by the end of next Aug.
In the meantime, the society needs to purchase a new greenhouse and make plans for the big move. “Four of us went last week to Fairwinds Golf Course to look at a greenhouse that is made by the company that we’re thinking about buying our greenhouse from, if and when we get the land to put it on.”
The Society won’t be hiring a contractor this year in order to save money so that they can the purchase the greenhouse. Instead, the members of the society are taking on the responsibility of planning the planting season in addition to the day-to-day care of the greenhouse. “There are enough strong, core volunteers that are committed,” Wells says.
The Nanaimo Community Gardening Society isn’t the only community gardening organization in town. The Young Professionals of Nanaimo have two gardens, and produce from those locations is donated to Loaves and Fishes. VIU has a community Peace Garden, and there are several elementary school community gardens—with more schools showing interest each year. The desire for sustainable, local food production is not a passing fad—so look for community gardening opportunities to arise in your neighborhood.
There are many community
garden locations in the Nanaimo area—and likely one near you.
To get involved with any of the projects below, check out:
•Barsby School Gardens
•Beban Urban Gardens
• Bethlehem Retreat Centre Garden
• Brechin Hill CommunityAssociation
•Fairview School Gardens
•The Farm at Cedar Woods
• Georgia Ave. ElementarySchool Gardens
• Ladysmith Community Gardens
•Nanaimo Women’s Centre
• Neighbours of Nobb Hill Society
• Parksville CommunityAllotment Gardens
•Pauline Haarer Garden
• Princess Royal Family Centre
• Protection IslandCommunity Garden
• VIU Community Peace Garden