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.

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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

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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

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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!

 

 

Food Story Map

In our last outing at the Open Farm Community social market, we asked many of you to add a pin to our offline map. A few of you also shared a bit on your motivations for going to the market, and what you would like to tell our local farmers.

It’s a bit delayed, but here’s a simple story map on the market visitors, made using online tools: http://arcg.is/1SK24ch

Map from Open Farm Community Social Market

Help us make this a better map!  Tell us what other layers you want to see in a story map like this. If you were one of the people at the market, share with us your photos, videos and perhaps a short memory or two, and we will help you add them into our story map.

Never Did I Expect To Get This In Return

The Twelve Okras
The Twelve Okras

We look for reasons to plant, but what if we do so without any at all . . . . .

The weather is getting wetter nowadays but the morning sun is still as comforting as can be. We have to be thankful that we are not robbed of the opportunity to connect to the earth, at least.  The early few hours of bright warm light is generous enough for urban farmers like me to get into some serious action.

I was so delighted to plant my Vietnamese mint cuttings, or what we call laksa in local context, this morning. It was the second variety of laksa plants that I have collected.  That moment, I saw the next door uncle at my gate gesturing for me to go over.

“Okay, my plants have crossed the boundary yet again. I have to promise him to trim it,”  I thought.  Feeling guilty, I walked to him pretending to be relaxed.  But I felt really relaxed when I saw a plastic bag in his hand as I knew I was about to receive some goodies!

Twelve nice okras, not too long and not too short, of the exact size and ripeness that an auntie like me would like to pick up in the wet market. Uncle said to me in Hokkien, “These okras are for you.  They are from the seeds that you gave me a few months ago. And these few seeds are for you to plant.” I was speechless but I knew I had to say something so I told him to keep it for his family, and . . . . . and so on so forth . . . . , but my disobedient arms reached out for it.

Just Plant It!

When I started serious gardening five years ago, I did not expect an exchange of harvest to happen between me and my neighbours. It has since become a common scene between us.  So, why give yourself a serious reason to plant, when planting will yield some unexpected significance in the later part of your lives?  Well, just plant it!

Before uncle left for home, I asked him “Does auntie cook laksa? I have plenty of leaves!”

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.

Garden visit ~ Open Farm Community

Huiying & Cuifen of Foodscape core team went to check out the edible garden at Open Farm Community, and of course we had to try the delicious food served at the restaurant too!

But first, the edible garden. It’s been quite some months since we visited the place, and the food garden has taken shape. Edible plants are being grown and landscaped into the area surrounding the restaurant. There’s a mandala garden at one corner, and terraces in another… A handwritten note on the wall proclaims >40 types of herbs, and >12 types of vegetables can be found in the garden.

Amongst the green, are mysterious-looking clay sculptures designed by a local ceramist and fired at Thow Kwang, one of Singapore’s historic dragon kilns. The sculptures were designed by the ceramist, Steven Low, as part of his exploration of seed metamorphosis, as life emerges from within. Love how the garden blends 2 locals – local food, local art, and even local history into a single space!

And then garden to kitchen. Right at the doorway, there was a hand-written board proclaiming what’s harvested from the garden. There’s cat whiskers! and also basil, thyme, rosemary… We got to try 4 different dishes, and what can we say… they are good!!! Will go there again, just to sample the food again.

We learnt that some of the restaurant staff are into learning more about local food farming too. It’s interesting to hear that they have local farm visits every 2 weeks, just so that the chefs really get it, get it!

Black boards with quotes
Black boards with quotes
art sculptures amongst the green
art sculptures amongst the green
foodscaping
foodscaping
fhe restaurant
fhe restaurant
eggplant from the garden
eggplant from the garden

Potluck: Geok Kuan’s Home Garden

We had delicious food and great conversation that evening!

 

On the Menu That Evening

Blue ginger drink and laksa pesto pasta, from Terence

Suzanna’s beetroot salad

Tofu and homemade chilli from Auntie Theresa

Geok Kuan’s drinks: Blackface General drink and two others 

Cui Fen’s leafy greens

Chickpea salad from Huiying

 

LG's homemade bread
LG’s homemade bread
Auntie Theresa's beancurd broth
Auntie Theresa’s beancurd broth
Terence's Laksa Basil Pesto Pasta (what a tongue twister!)
Terence’s Laksa Basil Pesto Pasta (what a tongue twister!)
Edibles from Cuifen's garden
Edibles from Cuifen’s garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evening’s Events

Our garden visit and dinner wrapped up with Geok Kuan handing out sampling of shoots to propagate, and a conversation about Foodscape Collective’s work and ideas for the future.

Ideas and conversationDSCN9270

After introducing our work, Cui Fen shared about her interest in learning about others’ gardens. Hang Chong gave input on why learning about food security locally is important, giving lots of anecdotes.

 

Some highlights of the conversation:

  • Reiterating that the offline component is integral to our work, much as we are trying to build an online community for knowledge sharing. Farming isn’t only about one thing; we want to understand individuals’ motivations–everyone has their own interests, and understanding these interests, and creating a sustained knowledge community around these interests, helps us work towards a common goal.
  • Why is our work different from other online communities like Facebook groups on gardens? Responses: there is a diversity of questions and interests (e.g. what heirloom plants do we still have? everyone has a different interest in food. an online collaborative platform helps us share information about this)
  • LG pitched in, talking about her interest in gardens, and some work she has recently started doing, wanting to document the deep knowledge that a 70+-year-old gardener, Uncle Tan, has
  • Lots of sharing from Terence, Kian Wee, Geok Kuan and others that evening, which was very heartening!
People!
People!

Possibilities that have opened up

  • Huiying shared about Edible Gardens’ interest in working with community gardeners to plant and sell or barter harvests, with a moderately good response
  • Sharing excess produce for cookout at migrant worker dormitories with Geylang Adventures
  • Working with LG’s team to support archival of oral and video recordings about plant knowledge

 

Garden Stories: An afternoon at South Central Community FSC

One year ago, far from the better-known bustle of Tiong Bahru’s contemporary cafe circuit, the first community garden at South Central Community Family Service Centre (FSC) was built. The proposal for the garden was supported by the FSC, after social workers worked with residents to learn their interests. The garden was a boon; with it, people started coming more often to the FSC.
 
The garden as it looks now.
We (Huiying and Elizabeth) visited the garden on a Wednesday afternoon at 5pm, having heard that the FSC is open then. We’d hoped to see some bustle, but it was quieter that day–as we arrived, our guide, PK, told us one of the gardeners had decided to go home earlier that day, so we’d just missed him. But no matter! There was still plenty to see…
Our visit lasted 1.5 hours long (we left when the sun was just setting), with lots of stops to take pictures and ask questions.
Open FSC space
The FSC workers made it a point to bring people in right from the start, so people take ownership over their space.
Open hot desk concept -- social workers are easy to reach and speak to in an informal setting
Open hot desk concept — social workers are easy to reach and speak to in an informal setting

The garden did well, so permission was gotten to spread to three gardens. Now they have herbs in garden #1, crops in garden #2 and the beginnings of a flowering blue pea dome in #3.

Garden plot #1. #2 is further behind (you can see the fronds peeking out) and #3 is further back, behind that
Garden plot #1. #2 is further behind (you can see the fronds peeking out) and #3 is further back

 

Challenges

Like any garden, challenges over decision making, planting styles and harvest times, a sense of collective shared harvests versus personal harvests, and community space versus personal space exist here. Every community garden has similar issues, and they’re necessary issues to overcome (without this happening, you’ve either got a very homogeneous mix of gardeners, or great planning and communication, or the garden’s still young!). But this FSC’s garden faced some unique problems, which were solved innovatively:
  • Reliance on FSC’s water for daily watering–>FSC built a water tank in the garden, so residents could water the plants even when the FSC was closed at night and during weekends.
Water tank for storage --and so the residents can water the plants when the FSC is closed.
Water tank for storage–so the residents can water the plants when the FSC is closed.
  • Some parts of the gardening was backbreaking work for the elderly residents, so the FSC workers suggested to APSN Tanglin School, a school for children with special needs, to have some of their students go over to help with gardening. It was a success–the children were conscientious gardeners, and became the seniors’ mentees and support for the heavier lifting tasks.
  • The garden is also home to some great ideas, like this decision board:
Their decision board--add in marbles to show which option you want! At this point, they were choosing between three different herbal plants to plant next.
Their decision board–add in marbles to show which option you want! At this point, they were choosing between three different herbal plants to plant next.
Something Special
The FSC has a number of innovations that won’t be covered in this article (so a visit there is worth the trip). These include a frozen food plan they have with a local business. Kerbside gourmet brings frozen food in from hotels to the FSC, where the packaged, ready-cooked food is stored in a  freezer and can be re-heated for individual and collective meals.
The FSC is home to a number of other spaces, which make it a dream place for community social experiments. There are success stories in this FSC, such as when kids in the area who hadn’t known each other previously started playing soccer together near the FSC’s open areas. The social workers have started on one experiment again recently–they’re trying to bring the gardening group together with the FSC’s community kitchen group. Both groups have different demographics (ethnic mixes are different), so language differences are a real thing, but they’ve recently found that some individuals in both groups can speak and understand a little of each others’ dialect/language.
The FSC’s social workers are very open–they welcome visitors who can inject a little bit of something to the garden, and anyone who’d like to do something in the space. Some of these include:
  • injecting fun and perspective for the gardeners
  • being a  bridge for different groups that use the FSC’s spaces, and creating more connections between groups in the space. One way is simply to translate! Malay, Mandarin and Chinese dialects are the most common here.
  • doing events with the garden and community kitchen, and/or other spaces to enliven the place and bring the resident groups into more contact with each other
Other things we’d like to know
 
There were many things we didn’t collect that day, including information about the plants grown there.
If this post has suddenly inspired you to DROP EVERYTHING AND VISIT, tell us! It’d be VERY immensely helpful too if you could help us look out for the following:
  • plants grown in the garden: number and types

We do this as part of our Garden Stories Collection, which promotes awareness of our potential sources of local food security, and helps us keep track of the plants we DO grow in Singapore–so that one day, we can say with more certainty if urban farming can make a different in Singapore!

 

For more pictures from the visit, check out our photo album on Facebook.