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Entries in community gardens (12)


What about Local Seeds?

You know where your meat comes from, but what about your seeds? I watched this video by Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds of Italy / UK and it inspired this post.

This is the time of year when we gardeners go a bit squirrely. Thankfully, the seed catalogues arrive and we thumb through the full-colour pages and dream of having bumper harvests of Calabrese broccoli or Romanesco, another broccoli that produces those gorgeous fractual florets. But where do these seeds come from? And how do I know what varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and such will grow easily, ripen and taste the best in my own garden in Western Canada?

I've been thinking about seeds a whole lot in the past year. Seven or eight years ago, I bought some green shiso seeds (Perilla frutescens, variety crispa) and grew beautiful bright green bushes of the floral Japanese herb that belongs to the mint family. I didn't save seeds and have been unable to buy the seeds ever since. Everywhere I asked, no one could give me an answer as to why this seed was impossible for me to find. When an answer was offered, I suspected it was a guess. I was told it wasn't a 'good seller' but really no one knew why I couldn't buy green shiso anymore. I just couldn't.

A couple of years ago, a chef friend had some red shiso growing in his rooftop garden his hotel in downtown Toronto. One of the plants had bolted and I asked if I could nick some of the seeds. At least I'd have red shiso, but it wasn't the same. The red leaves are tougher, furrier, and have a muskier aroma. It is no substitute for the crunchy, light, clean mint-basil perfume of the green.

This may not be the best example of what happens when a seed variety does a vanishing act, but imagine this happening on a massive scale. Many seed companies, producers of those drooly catalogues, don't actually produce their own seed, but buy from other sources. As the concentration happens, the selection withers. And some varieties just don't make the cut in a mass-market scenario. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost in the global food supply due to globalization and concentration of seeds under the commercial control of a handful of companies. (See The Economist, March 10, 2012, Agricultural Biodiversity: Banking Against Doomsday.)

It's all economics. Seed companies in countries and continents on the other side of the globe are simply not going to be interested in preserving local varieties of carrots, peas, tomatoes, etc. that have been developed to survive in places like Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, or Kelowna. There is no money in it on such a local scale. Unfortunately, this means that often food grown locally will be a homogenous, standardized, product. Sigh.

What to do? I encourage you to buy seeds from the catalogues, but hopefully you can find local seed producers as close to your garden as possible. There are a number of great seed producers who are keeping the variety in our food supply alive but definitely need us to buy their seeds to keep their businesses viable. Seeds of Diversity has a fairly good up-to-date list of local seed producers here in Canada. I'm partial to a Kelowna seed producer, Jon Alcock, of Sunshine Farm. In the US, a good place to start is the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue and website. In the Eurozone (inlcuding UK), Franchi Seeds - a generational seed company from Italy - seems to be a good choice. But also in the UK, you can tap into the Heritage Seed Library and become a "seed guardian."

And after you've marked up your seed catalogues, the seed exchanges will begin in February. Go to the Seedy Saturday or Seedy Sunday exchanges in your community and buy seeds. They're cheap. I have packets of seeds that I bought just for fun. One day I'll plant them. Seeds are amazing structures. Kept in a dark, coolish location, you can store them for a few years until you're ready to watch them sprout.

Here's a listing of Canadian seed swap events from coast to coast via Seeds of Diversity.



Meet Your Urban Farmer, short film series from Vancouver, Canada

There's a chapter in my book on Vancouver, Canada. I describe it as being one of the greenest cities I've ever been to:

In other cities, I had grown accustomed to creeping along hte streets looking for a square of green that would let me know that I had finally found the urban food garden I was looking for. In Vancouver, I often had to confirm that I was in the right community garden, on that block!" (excerpt from my book Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, p. 162.)

Well, this morning, a friend emailed me a link to a great new short film series from Vancouver called Meet Your Urban Farmer. From the looks of the trailer, this is going to be a look at the people in Vancouver growing food in unexpected places. I am looking forward to the release of the installments starting March 2012. I wrote about SOLEfood farm's on Hastings Street in the Vancouver chapter of the book. Here's a link to the blog posts I wrote immediately after my interviews with Seann Dory. If you can grow tomatoes, peppers and French Breakfast radishes like this on a rehabilitated garbage-infested parking lot on the Downtown East Side, then urban ag is most certainly able to change the world:)



Greenroofs in Paris, via

Copyright: Nature Capitale – A creation by Gad Weil Photo credit : Nature Capitale/Resolute D.R.Paris surprised me last year when I visited to poke around looking for signs of urban agriculture. (Perhaps because I had no expectations, I was totally impressed by what I saw. In fact, it turned out to be the lead chapter of main part of my book on the various cities at the forefront of urban agriculture that I visited.)

First of all, Paris is where many of the elements that we use today in modern urban agriculture came the mid-19th century. (Paris' maraicher district was the primary urban gardening zone of the city...and it was so successful and productive that all over France, urban and peri-urban market gardeners are known as maraichers / maraicheres.)

Today, Paris has a very active urban beekeeping scene. The fact that pesticide use in the city limits has been illegal for over a decade might be a significant element of the success of Paris' urban bee hives. It's also not a city I associate with community gardens, but I found a fantastic one just around the corner from my friends' flat and met a wonderful community gardener, M. Griffault. Here's my post from last October about Paris' urban agriculture.

It's not just food that Parisians are growing...there are around 10 urban vineyards in right in the city, and 132 in the greater Paris metropolitain area.

Today, via a report by Alex Davies on, it seems that Paris is going to surge ahead with 80,000 square yards of green roofs and rooftop gardens by 2020.

Félicitations, Paris!



Sunday Garden Tour: Jasper, Alberta

Kudos to Jasper, a tiny town tucked in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, for the raging success of its new community garden. My parents alerted me to its existence, and took these photos for the blog.

According to a report in the local Jasper newspaper (where I found the background info on this garden), a 23-plot garden near the library began in 2010 as a pilot project. It proved successful enough that the town gave them a nice, new 51-plot space on some prime real estate: the grassy median on Connaught Drive, the main street in Jasper. Normally this space is covered with elk lolling around on the grass. Now with the community garden, it might be interesting to see how involved the fencing will need to be. (Elk are notorious garden shrub and food garden munchers, and the tall eight-to-nine foot fencing around the yards in the Jasper townsite is evidence of elk and deer's keen interest in raiding gardens.

Here are photos (taken by my parents) in Oct 2011. Given Jasper's northern and alpine climate, coupled with the miserably cold and wet summer we had in Alberta, I want to acknowledge how lush and lovely these gardens are looking, well past the "gardening" season in this part of Canada.

Kale and beets, so late-season crops doing well into October!

Flowers, grasses and herbs on a mound. Why not.

Cold frame to keep away pesky frostkill.


Playstation, old skool.Community supported!

Elk-high fencing is a must in Jasper.The very important compost pile.


Sunday Garden Tour: Yellowknife, NWT

 View of Old Town (foreground) and the rest of Yellowknife, NWT, Sept 10, 2011I have to say that going to Yellowknife, capital city of the North West Territories, has been on my wish-list for quite some time. Even though I live in central Alberta (which most Canadians erroneously think of as "the north," anyway), Yellowknife is a good 1500 kilomteters /932 miles up. Anyway you slice it, it's 20 hours of driving north.

Last weekend, I got my wish, as an invited speaker at the Territorial Farmers Association's annual fall harvest event. They invited me to give two-hour slideshow and talk about my up-coming book and the various models of urban agriculture I'd seen on my travels to their members. As it turned out, I had a crowd of about 50-some food gardeners / northern farmers / interested foodies who came from various communities in the NWT.

I hopped on a Westjet flight Friday mid-day and arrived one and a half-hours later in "YK," the largest community in the NWT with about 18,000 residents. (Yes, this is an unabashed shout-out for WJ because it operates direct flights from Edmonton to Yellowknife for about $400 round-trip; and Karl, from the crew, did the best Westjet safety demo version I have ever heard. Go Karl!)

For the talk, I picked a few chapters from my book and put together a number of slides for each city and cruised through photos of community gardens in Paris, amazing balcony gardens in London, a commercial rooftop vegetable garden in London, SPIN gardens in Kelowna, social enterprise urban agriculture models in Milwaukee, and a vertical farm in the making in Chicago. People asked questions along the way, laughed at a few of the funnier bits, and no one nodded off. Success.

Me, my laptop, and a projector

While I was happy (relieved) that my presentation was well-received, I was most excited to get to talk to these northern farmers. Depending on where they came from in the NWT, they were growing food on the Canadian Shield (YK), or in outstandingly rich floodplain soils of Hay River, or in a repurposed former hockey arena (Inuvik). Subarctic and arctic food gardening might seem like an hopeless cause, but I knew that with a bit of skill and physical effort, the short growing season was more than balanced by the fact that northern gardens got 20+ hours of sunlight in July and August. My aunt, uncle, and cousin live in Hay River...and I've seen the 400-pound pumpkins and the incredible market produce that they get from their gardens in just several weeks from seeding to harvest.

Already, produce was accumulating for Saturday's "bench show," when local judges would decide who got the certificates for the "largest" vegetable, "ugliest" vegetable, etc.

Produce grown by gardeners in Lutselk'e Community Garden, Lutselk'e has a pop of 318; located on Great Slave Lake, NWT

Saturday morning in Yellowknife

With the morning to myself, I explored Yellowknife by foot, soaking in the sunlight through the thin northern fall air. As I walked from the hotel in the commercial part of Yellowknife toward historic Old Town, I saw many front yard food gardens still pumping out produce on September 10, 2011 --- even though there had already been two nights of frost in Edmonton already at that time. The massive lake offers some protection to prolong the growing season past what I would have expected.

A particularly vibrant frontyard garden in Yellowknife, NWT, September 10, 2011

A lot of potatoes in this frontyard garden, with a few sunflowers on the perimeter.

 One frontyard cabbage! Yellowknife, NWT, Sept 10, 2011

Old Town Garden Yellowknife Community Garden, Sept 10, 2011 Yellowknife, population of 18,700, has four community gardens, according to those associated with the Yellowknife Community Garden Collective. Dave Taylor, the community gardens coordinator that I spoke to told me that there are 160 gardeners between these four sites. 

This is one, in the old town, a historic part of Yellowknife. I saw two of three that weekend. Each community garden reserves 1/4 of the plots that the gardeners tend and grow produce for donation back to the community. The two biggest expenses to get a community garden started is soil, because there is very little soil on the exposed bedrock of the Canadian shield rock, and fencing, to protect against animal raids.

From talking to gardeners and growers, the season is pretty much the same as in Edmonton. Plants go into the ground just after the May long weekend or early June, and with a bit of covering for delicate plants like tomatoes, you can stretch the season into mid-September. People were harvesting potatoes, beets, turnips. Looks like cabbage, kale, and brussel sprouts were ready for harvest soon too.View from back of Old Town YK Community Garden, Sept 10, 2011Incredible produce in a subarctic garden, Old Town Yellowknife Community Garden, Sept 10, 2011Brussel sprouts growing in Old Town Yellowknife Community Garden , Sept 10, 2011Purple cabbage, Old Town YK Community Garden, Sept 10, 2011The Canadian shield (very old, very hard, mineral-rich rock) seen behind the community gardenMore Canadian shield in the background of the Old Town YK Community GardenSoil is the major expense of starting a community garden in Yellowknife, making compost as good as gold, Sept 10, 2011


Panfried Whitefish, fries and salad for lunch at Bullock's Bistro, an iconoclastic YK restaurantNatural shoreline on Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife, Sept 10, 2011

After my self-guided walking tour of YK and lunch at Bullock's Bistro, I sat in on The Urban Farmer Ron Berezan's afternoon session Transform Your Yard: Create an Edible Landscape, which was gave me a bunch of ideas for next year's edible garden.

We ended the day at a community garden potluck, an epic communal feast with about 150 - 200 people and incredible northern foods, like smoked duck, smoked fish, delish scallopped potatoes, beets, and a beet-chocolate cake!

Coming Soon...Part 2: More impressive Yellowknife gardens...including subarctic quinoa.