A garden revolution in Vancouver

Gardeners at the Strathcona Gardens look at the fruit of their labour.
Photo by Tina Maria, Flickr

It is hard to imagine Vancouver without community gardens, but Joanne Hochu, a founding member of Strathcona Gardens, remembers when the idea was met with confusion and resistance. In 1985, Hochu and a group of community members established Vancouver’s first community garden.

Inspired by the P-patch gardening started in Seattle, Wash., the notion of a community garden grew out of the need for green space. For Hochu, it was important in building a sense of community and developing a garden by building up the soil.

At the time, city politicians were wary of using public land for a private venture.

“It was the same as a soccer field in terms of people being able to utilize the land for their own purposes,” says Hochu.

Overhauling a large, empty lot in East Vancouver, Strathcona Gardens appropriated a space that has been used for things as diverse as “a hobo jungle” in the 1930s, where unemployed men would camp out to look for work, a military training ground in the 1940s and a city works yard in the 1960s.

“You see the changes of the city reflected in the garden,” says Hochu.

There are many elderly Chinese gardeners because of a seniors centre close by. Likewise, the number of people from rooming houses who partake has diminished with gentrification. Since it is a “landing immigrant” community, there is a broad mix of people represented by the garden.

As well as inspiring other community gardens, Strathcona Gardens and its founders anticipated the increased awareness around composting and the popularity of farmers markets. They continue to be sustainable by raising money for their own projects and creating structures like the Eco-Pavilion, built in 2007, which uses sustainable, reclaimed material and solar power.

With their continued development comes the evolution of what community gardening can accomplish. Located on the rooftop of St. Paul’s Hospital on Burrard Street, the Downtown Intercultural Gardeners Society (DIGS) started from a desire to integrate non-Canadians.

With a grant from the Canadian government and using an area initially set up as a garden but no longer used by the hospital, the program mandates that 40 per cent of the gardeners be immigrants. Because gardeners must also live in the downtown peninsula, DIGS is a relatively accurate representation of its immediate community.

Wayne King of DIGS says that this kind of diversity extends to the plants and plots, which are limited only by the gardener’s imagination.

King tells the story of a Chinese gardener who grows uncommon vegetables from her culture. Since many of the seeds cannot be purchased in stores, the woman shares her own with her fellow gardeners. King’s hope is that the integration of the garden extends its reach, and this is encouraged with events like lemonade socials, potluck dinners and field trips.

With more than 75 community gardens in Vancouver and waiting lists for DIGS, Strathcona and many others in the city, their popularity continues to flourish.

While King hopes that more people will get involved so DIGS can develop new locations, Hochu sees a contrast between what the city says and what it does.

With the proposed Malkin Connector, which would widen Malkin Avenue and cut through part of both the Strathcona and Cottonwood Gardens, there is another fight for the importance of community gardens.

“This is just another wave of that resistance,” says Hochu.