Gardening in Toronto: Across Ages and Cultures

In late June, I had the fortune of attending a tour of urban gardens in Toronto, conducted by the Toronto Urban Growers. This was a day before the Scarborough Fare, which I was also attending (and which is the subject of another post!).

 

We visited 4 gardens by bus, subway and walking–lots of walking and talking! I took lots of photos, so let’s zip through what I saw.

 

Garden #1: Ryerson University’s Urban Farm

A view of the skyline, and no exhaust fumes from neighbouring malls!
A view of the skyline, and no exhaust fumes from neighbouring malls!

 

Hakurei turnips, fresh and SUPER crunchy - we got to try one each!
Hakurei turnips, fresh and SUPER crunchy – we got to try one each!

 

Garden Background

You might not be there but a 360 degree view should do part of the trick!
You might not be there but a 360 degree view should do part of the trick!
  • With the passing of a new by-law by the Toronto City Council, all buildings over 6 stories and 2000 square feet now have to have a green roof. Rrun off into the sewage system was getting so bad that they had to make garden plots mandatory.
  • Seeds travel by birds, so the roof was colonised by natural spontaneous vegetation.
  • Ryerson had a group of people and students who worked cross faculty to identify underutilised spaces, they were invited to also look at roof top spaces. They started with a 100 sqaure foot plot (with the help of some engineers).

 

Garden Horticulture

  • Farm size: Quarter of an acre
  • Sheet mulching first – let weeds grow to knee length, and cut and covered with tarp.
  • Made raised beds and cut paths. Soil went from 6 inches to 10.
  • 2 inches of compost are added every year.
  • 30 inches with 18 inch path, following the concept of Human Scale agriculture (Quebec based Jean Martin-Fortier, with his Acre and a half farm that makes a 100,000 dollars without tractors.
  • Grew vegetables – they grow better here than on the ground, maybe because the weeds have been growing and dying here and the soil is more alive – in that the bacteria on the roots of soil (rhizosphere), in the top 2 inches of soil is more alive. Sheet mulching means you keep the soil layer intact which is better for the soil.
  • 5 year crop rotation. Each section is one plant family. Plant families share the same pests and diseases. They also share similarities in how they use the soil. Legumes – beans and peas Nitrogen fixers. Clover as a cover crop. 15 to 20 degree Celsius. When it gets colder- they grow winterlife (which, I just realised, is recreational cannabis!) which scavenges nitrogen.
  • Also grown: Borage, nasturtium, kale, calendula

 

About the Green Roof

  • After the 50s, most modern buildings are built with less infrastructure. Green roof has to have less stuff on top and higher load bearing capacity).
  • Green roof – water roofing membrane (geotex, dimple board, rocks, roof membrane – usually needs to be changed every 10 years but with green roofs some in Germany are 100 years and going)
  • Safety for humans working on it is paramount.

 

Finances

Ryerson Farmers Market, Wednesdays, street level.
Ryerson Farmers Market, Wednesdays, street level.
  • They are a market garden – that means they go to market.
  • CSA model: 25 dollars a year for members. Member farmers pay 5 or 10, and work a few hours or days a week.
  • Once a week, 30 CSA members help on the farm. Same complexity as a 1 or 5 acre farm.
  • Member farmers are students and staff. The staff can cross the street and show up to get something. The students come during exams because they want to be here. It’s de-stressing to work on the farm.

 

Check them out here.

 

Garden #2: Allan gardens

Allan Gardens worked with architects to create gabion boxes capable of storing upcycled materials. Nifty and pretty! Great design in our opinion.

Allan Gardens worked with architects to create gabion boxes capable of storing upcycled materials. Nifty and pretty! Great design in our opinion.

20160622_125637

 

Garden Background

  • Managed by a coordinator at Building Roots, the garden came together around multiple moving components and eventually settled around 13 groups, a conservatory where events could be held, and the concept that it should be a public space open to all. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s inspiring to see how these threads have come together.
  • Greenhouse from University of Toronto where some food plants are grown.
  • Building Roots worked with a group to design the space, including Friends of Allan Gardens.
  • Building Roots tries to collaborate with developers and others to do projects that one can’t do alone. 13 different groups have adopted the plot. There is a club with homeless men, an after school programme, a people with aids group. MDPs office.
  • Decided to have a presence in the park NOW, rather than wait for longer term plans.

 

Garden #3: Spruce Court Public School

Managed by Green Thumbs

20160622_132127

 

Background

Green Thumbs started with the garden when they realised the teenagers who had started the garden didn’t know what they were doing. Strawberries are planted outside to encourage people to pick. There is a lot of taking but they are sure it’s by people who need the food. They have a full time crew, 6 jobs paid for by the federal government under a summer programme that is part of the community engagement strategy (harvesting and planting, youth rotate and run programmes for the community). 

 

Garden #4: Regent Park gardens

And last but not least, possibly our favourite for the work it does in a historically rich and challenging place.. but it’s hard to pick a favourite!

Repurposed wood, made to reflect a bird's eye view of the community food centre and surrounding areas.
Repurposed wood, made to reflect a bird’s eye view of the community food centre and surrounding areas.

 

 

Background

20160622_134243

Regent Garden is a public housing community that was built on the–at that time–cutting edge garden city model developed by Ebenezer Howard in the 1960s. Sounds similar to the Singapore model, only this community’s gardens were actually tended to by the communities living within it. Over the years, garden produce reflected the ethnic communities that came and went – till today where South Asian Bengali produce comes up next to Chinese Pak Choy and sweet potato leaves.

In recent years, revitalisation was called for, and the City Council decided that it would be good to develop property downtown. Now, it has 4 market units for every social housing unit.

It’s not been smooth for the community–along with losing their homes, people feared losing the community gardens that had become a vital part of the area. Of the things people wanted most to stay were the community gardens, or at least, a space to continue gardening. Gardens were not a hobby but a way of having healthy meals, not needing to buy low-nutrition, fast food.  

To draw the different groups working in the area together, and to allow for this transition, Regent Park Community Food Centre was opened, along with a park – meant to be a neutral space that brings the market flats and social housing flats together.

 

Community food centre: Defined as a community centre where everything is around food. Grows, shares, advocates around food.

 

Focus area: Social justice and food access

  1. Downstream problem – people are hungry: emergency meal program. What this space provides: 1) Healthy food, served with as much respect as possible. Community meal cooked with a permanent chef on staff, cooked from chef. Good produce from local farms and good produce the equivalent of that which goes to good restaurants. No judgment. Volunteers craft meals and serve. 150 to 250  for lunch, 250 to 300 dinner, recently in summer the meals have gone up, word has gone out. And, 2) Space to hang out. With supervision, families and women started coming too. Totally free, no means testing, no keeping track.
  2. Mid-stream – Food skills programme. Capacity building. Healthy cooking and recipes with broccoli. Breakfast that you make yourself. Community kitchens with different groups. Community cook-in – open to all to get together to prepare a meal and cook enough for 2 days. 10 weeks of this. Peer teaching programme – sharing skills that are useful: Showing people how to demonstrate while letting them do their own thing. Ask the group what they want to learn at the start. Asks people to teach each other.
  3. Way upstream. Advocacy even though government doesn’t provide funding. Identifies people who need support, come for 15 week training to get through the bureacucracy (housing, work skills etc). Train 15, hire 6, and they continue the next time. [Structural and emotional support.] It wants to solve the upstream problems that lead to people needing food. Raising awareness about the support that is needed.

 

Check them out here.

 

As revitalisation is happening a lot of garden plots are being lost. A lot of people living here from Bangladesh and are used to having their own plots. Now they are going to have communal plots as a compromise solution.

 

So a non-profit, Friends of Regent Park, partners with 15 local agencies to work with the communities that are already attached to them, to use this space. These are highly diverse, but gardening is a common language. 50 languages spoken in this neighbourhood, and different social milieus beside – some groups include a South Asian group, maternity club, and people with AIDS. 

 

Some really know what they're doing! Check out this group - they mulched first, then
Some really know what they’re doing! Check out this group’s soil – they mulched first, then started planting. 

If you liked this post and our work, please consider supporting us. You can do so by volunteering your time (writing this takes time too!), or telling us how you’d like to help. Get in touch at foodscapecollective@gmail.com. Tell us about yourself, and what you do. Every token of love goes a long way!

 

 

Connecting Growers and Chefs

Foodscape Collective connects growers to chefs and designers creating experiential events for others. But it’s not always easy going from one part of the island to another to deliver fresh produce. So why do it?

In a conversation one day, Cuifen and I realised that it was probably a good idea for me to share more about why I’ve decided, on several occasions, to spend good parts of my time delivering produce from gardens to kitchens. I stick to the route of ‘doing it myself’ because only by experiencing it and putting in the time for it, can I really know the value of this work that customers at the end will not see. And we would like to involve others in this, someday soon.

You can join us as a volunteer in being a Connector – to learn more about what farm-to-table really means, and to get to know the individuals that are building the momentum for a real food revolution, right here on this island. For now, read more about our experiences in Connecting others!

Continue reading “Connecting Growers and Chefs”

Community fruit forests: picking (un)wholesome fruit?

Credit: P. Gonzalez

While visiting the garden of a friend last week, we came upon the topic of community fruit orchards and the tragedy of the commons. In this case, unlike the usual parable (popularised by Hardin), it wasn’t an orchard that gradually became barren through the selfish acts of fruit-pickers, but a grove of trees that slowly accumulated sweet fruit that rotted from neglect–because no one dared to pick the fruit.

 

This was lamented at some length by our friend, P, who said, “The breadfruit trees near my house are always bearing fruit, but no one picks them, and when I tried to, I was told by a passer-by, ‘you can’t pick it!'”

 

A breadfruit tree in a neighbour's yard.
Breadfruit trees in the neighbourhood.

Singapore is home to many trees–just how many is a question for the public, but not one the National Parks Board is alien to. Each tree is an administrative unit governed by the NParks. While heritage trees are marked out on OneMap.sg, the location of each tree isn’t considered public data–though it’s hard to tell if this is simply due to the extensive nature of the database or high security protocols (around trees). Who knows?

 

During our conversation, different people spoke about the consequences of planting trees on the walkways outside your home, which are legally public property:

 

  1. Warnings are given by visiting authorities.
  2. Not all officials seem to mind. Anecdotes were shared of rogue trees growing peaceably in certain wards.
  3. After a few warnings, the tree is cut down.

 

The felling of trees seems relatively harmless in Singapore; no one really gets injured. This takes on quite a different tone in countries where trees and crops are an important source of income and food for people (also see this).

 

In Singapore’s context, it’s baffling and slightly ironic to think how good fruit is simply going to waste.

 

Jolly old breadfruit!
Jolly old breadfruit!

 

Having people look after existing fruit trees also provides a service to the community (so we don’t slip on rotting fruit, and fruits don’t fall on parked cars or passersby). Looking back in history, the government of Singapore planted fruit trees in abundance (while legislating fines to make sure people didn’t uproot or deface the trees) until realising that fallen fruits were rotting, with insufficient manpower to pick them (see Nature Contained for more on Singapore’s greening policies).

 

Yet, as someone pointed out when we continued our conversation later in the week, some interesting initiatives have been initiated, by a range of actors, to do more with the fruit of our soil:

 

  1. With the dry spell in 2009 (the same one that caused sakura blooms all over the island, for those who remember) NParks held their first charity give-away of mangoes picked from the roadside trees of Tampines.
  2. Community gardens have initiated fruit tree harvests in the areas surrounding their gardens
  3. Individuals are considering the possibility of starting neighbourhood community fruit harvests, or of beginning plots of fruit orchards on the grounds of private charities.
  4. We most definitely aren’t the first to think of this! These concerns have been raised over the years (as in this recent discussion organised by SMU). The only thing different now is: we definitely know there are communities of people interested, and we aim to spread this circle as wide as possible.

 

There are plenty of new ideas we can work with. I’ll leave you with an inspiring piece on fruit foragers, maps and biking trails in Germany–one for cyclists, health and map nuts!

A visit to Geok Kuan’s: Preparations for a farmers’ market

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, I and two others made our way over to Geok Kuan’s place in the east.
Our aim that day was to learn about the work that she and some others have been diligently doing for the past 2-3 months in documenting the knowledge of local medicinal plant varieties.
At the same time, it was also for us to get to know one another. I’d been meeting each of them in different places and situations, and was eager to introduce them all to the work and ideas that they each had. I think I felt underlying currents of similar interest amongst them. And if nothing else, we would at least have gotten to spend some time in a beautiful garden!
We settled into a very comfortable pace, introducing and sharing our stories. Along the way, Geok Kuan gave us tastings of teas she had been brewing. We cycled through them: Honeyed Roselle with its natural red tint, mulberry with red dates and gingko nut, with a little density and sweetness from the dates, and finally a drink made of lime, lemon, cactus and yellow rock sugar, which refreshed our senses.
We talked a lot that day:
  • about local medicinal plants,
  • the difficulty of learning how they complement each other,
  • what quantities to use them in,
  • that regulations on how dried TCM goods are imported, are not clear in Singapore,
  • and that a lot of the plants used by Uncle Tan are native herbs.
All of them interesting for further thought!
Geok Kuan and the team will be creating a website featuring recipes using common herbs on the street, herbal teas that he commonly dispenses (all with fresh herbs) and uses as general remedies,  teas using the plants available in the market, tips on when to add sugar, and recipes for externally applied salves.
We also took a walk around her garden, and I managed to take some notes. Please note that the medicinal property of these plants differ across people and it’s best to read up first before deciding to use a herb.
**
Nan fei ye-lowers blood pressure
Bitter ones are usually for high blood pressure
The less bitter ones are good for overall wellness.
Black face general used to clear toxins
 Wild strawberry
Huo tan mu
Chinese knotweed–funny because it apparently has become seen as a weed in Britain. Its quick growth has been the cause of much government spending, trying to race against the growth of the plant
Xia gu cao, self-heal, good for teas, mild, palatable flavour
Plantain. Ce qian cao.

What are Special Write-ups?

Special Ops, Special Write-ups. We accept ideas for articles, videos, images and any other work that you have made about food, ranging from the mundane everyday bit of information, to the creative and metaphorical. We are not only interested in growing our plants, but in the life cycle of the food product, as it goes from seed, shoot, to fruit, market, our mouths, our heads and stories. Pitch your ideas for this section to us at foodscapecollective@gmail.com with the subject heading: Special Write-ups.

Volunteer

We have more ideas than we know what to do with at present! We know what we want to do, we just need more hands and heads to do them all!

Many people have been asking how they can get involved in our work, so we’ve decided to put up this list. If you are keen on seeing this project as it develops and want to contribute to it in any way, big or small, fill in the form below or email us at foodscapecollective@gmail.com. Big ones and little ones can all do something! Looking forward to hearing from ya!

Here goes:

Small tasks:

  1. Scribes/note-takers. Ad-hoc, whenever we go on a garden visit where we will ask questions and conduct informal interviews with the gardeners/farmers.)
  2. Simple video recording and/or editing. For archival and documentation of the gardens and gardening/farming practices when we conduct our visits

Bigger tasks. We need people who want to volunteer their skills in:

  1. Website design and creation. Help us in setting up a wiki microsite (we are looking at MediaWiki) and linking it to our current site.
  2. Data geek. We need someone with some expertise/experience in working with open-source databases, who can give pointers on the data formats we should offer on the website, and suggest improvements to our platform to make it more readily available and accessible to public use.
  3. Graphic illustration. Create a logo for Foodscape Collective.
  4. Events. Help with coordination of events, posting on Facebook and our Google Calendar. We’ll usually liaise directly with the gardeners and handle all programming, so we just need help making sure things go up online so people know about them! If you want to help with programming though, just say so 🙂
  5. Maps. We’ve gotten some preliminary data, we want to visualise what we already have, and improve our data collection questions to deliver more information about gardens in Singapore. Help with creating map visuals, having some GIS skills in ARCGis, ARCGis Online, Google Maps, or BEST YET: JOSM and OpenStreetMaps would be a great help because we want to work on open source platforms as far as possible. Cuifen and Huiying have some experience with different software for maps, but we’d love to have someone join us who either wants to gain experience, wants to mess around with data, or has an idea for something s/he wants to explore with us relating to gardens, the people and economies associated with gardens, land use, rivers, soil etc.
  6. Data, research leg-work. Supporting the basics of research (cleaning data, transcribing, translating data into machine-readable or software-readable formats) and also interviewing, possibly analysis

Value for volunteering with us: get to interact with like-minded people in the grow your own food movement, get to hone a skill!