If you live in a city, you need a backyard to grow your own fruits and vegetables, right? Not if there’s a community garden in your neighbourhood.

More and more, urban Canadians are discovering the benefits of growing their own produce in community gardens.

What are the benefits of community gardens?

The Ontario Health Promotion E-Bulletin (OHPE) is an online newsletter from Health Nexus, a long-established, research-based health promotion organization. According to OHPE, community gardens can have a wide range of benefits.

Here’s what some of those benefits look like:

Social benefits. Getting your hands dirty alongside neighbours of all ages and backgrounds promotes friendship and understanding. You can swap gardening tips, seeds, recipes and produce – and discover the delights of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. Then you can celebrate together at harvest parties and other special events. The whole community can benefit, too: community gardens help stock food banks and other aid agencies. Some host field trips for local schoolchildren. As well, turning vacant lots into gardens can cut down on illegal dumping. The community gardeners become “eyes on the street,” which can discourage theft and vandalism. And changing eyesores into flourishing green spaces can even lift local property values.

Environmental benefits. Growing food so close to home cuts way down on your carbon footprint. It reduces the need for packaging, in-transit refrigeration and long-distance trucking. Community gardens, while not usually certifiably organic, tend to be free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Another benefit is water. Gardens help keep storm water – straight from the sky or collected in rain-barrels – from overflowing storm drains.   

Economic benefits. Growing your own produce is usually cheaper than buying it. Take a tomato plant, for example. You can grow several from a $3 or $4 packet of seeds. Or buy a tomato plant, for about $10 at most. Add the cost of water and perhaps some tomato food. Either way, you could harvest more than 11 kg of tomatoes by season’s end for less than $15. The same amount of supermarket tomatoes, at around $4.65/kilo, could cost over $50. This is especially helpful for families with lower incomes and those living in “food deserts.” Those are neighbourhoods without supermarkets, where affordable and nutritious food is out of reach.

Physical and mental health benefits. Aside from the cost advantage, fresh and tasty just-picked produce looks better than much of what’s in the supermarket. So it’s not surprising that, according to OHPE, community gardeners eat more vegetables than the rest of us. Gardening is also terrific exercise. It can improve your strength, endurance and flexibility. It’s also excellent stress relief, and helps build networks among singles, newcomers and seniors, and combat social isolation.

How does community gardening work?

You can find community gardens on city-owned land such as vacant lots, parks or hydro-fields. You may also find them on rooftops, on school property and next to seniors’ residences. You might pay an annual registration fee to help cover the cost of things like water, tools and compost. You may even qualify for a reduced fee. Many community gardens encourage seniors and people with physical challenges to take part, with features like raised beds. Organizers may also ask gardeners who are able to pitch in with shared maintenance tasks.

Ecosource is an environmental education non-profit group. It organizes and manages community gardens in Mississauga, Ontario. Kat Gibson is the Community Gardens Program Co-ordinator with Ecosource. She describes how their community gardening program works:

“Every site has a shed with tools, hoses, gloves and other items that gardeners need,” Gibson says. All have rain-barrels as well as city water hook-ups. Gardeners need to bring their plants, seeds and desire to get their hands dirty in the garden. That means digging, planting, weeding and harvesting. Most Ecosource gardens have raised beds, which makes gardening easier for folks.

“Our gardeners come from all walks of life and bring their unique skills,” Gibson says. “Along with many seniors, we have families with young children, apartment-dwellers and newcomer families. The newcomers bring a tradition of growing their own food with them. Plus, they plant fruits and vegetables that may be new to the average Canadian.”

Gibson says the most common crop across all the gardens is probably tomatoes: “That’s because there are so many different recipes that call for tomatoes across cultures.”

How much can you grow in a community garden?

Many factors can influence the size of your crop. One is the length of the growing season in your region. Another is the size of your plot. Plot sizes vary. For example, the plots at Toronto’s Fort York Community Garden average about 30 square feet. Plots at the HOPE Community Garden, also in Toronto, are closer to 80 square feet. Montreal has been in the forefront of the Canadian community garden movement since 1975. There, plots in the Habitations Jeanne-Mance Community Garden measure 200 square feet. In Vancouver, the growing season is long and the rain plentiful. There, city guidelines recommend plots of at least 24 square feet.

Community gardens are so popular that there may be more would-be gardeners than available plots where you live. That can lead to long waiting lists. Gibson says there are about 1,000 families and individuals on Ecosource’s Garden waitlist. Ecosource adds about one new garden site each year. But the waiting list is still about two years long. Wait times are even longer in some other cities.

Don’t want to wait for a plot in a community garden? Look into starting your own. Many municipalities encourage citizens to submit their proposals and plans. They may offer detailed guidelines, tips for lining up sponsors and funding, and even subsidies and property tax breaks.

To learn more, visit your city’s community gardening webpage.


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