Vic West Food Security Initiative

This week, we explored the Rayn or Shine Community Garden, Banfield Commons and Banfield Park Orchard which are all under the umbrella of the Victoria West Food Security Initiative located on Lekwungen homelands, now known as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.

The Rayn or Shine Community Garden, located behind Fry’s Bakery in the Vic West neighbourhood, is a small allotment garden similar to the Yates Street Community Garden (learn more about that garden here). 

Banfield Commons on the other hand is a permaculture food forest. Not sure what permaculture is? Let’s explore a quote from Bill Mollison, who coined the term in 1978:

“The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

– Bill Mollison
Or, in other words, “…permaculture is a holistic, living-in-harmony-with-nature worldview, as well as technical approach for how to do so.

Banfield Commons

Project Food Forest defines a food forest as, “… a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature.” Banfield Commons exemplifies the heart of permaculture by transforming an underutilized space into a thriving public food forest with fruit trees/shrubs, perennial and self-sowing annual food plants, and medicinal and culinary herbs that are open for anyone to harvest.

Banfield Orchard

Finally, there is the Banfield Park Orchard. An orchard is simply land with fruit trees (more than just apples!); which is exactly what you find when you explore Banfield Park.

All of these projects have been over 15 years in the making that come from a collective of passionate volunteers like Patti, a long-time volunteer, gardener, and food activist. Let’s explore the fascinating history and concepts behind each garden project.

Rayn or Shine Community Garden

Patti: There was a project called Vic West Vision. It was like a community-wide visioning project that went on for eight months in 2003. At that time, Vic West was going through a lot of interest in development. We had a lot of vacant land, industrial land that was being bought up by developers and projects were coming online. This was a project of the Victoria West Community Association and I was on the committee for that. [It was the] first time I actually have ever been involved in community activism. My neighbour who was Chair [of the Committee] brought me in. Out of that came the overall realization that we needed to somehow create some way to engage the residents of Vic West to voice what they wanted in their community beyond the visioning. Out of the vision, we created the Vic West Visions Map. It’s actually a map of the community and on the back of the map are some action projects that we came up with based on the feedback that we got through the eight months visioning. And one of them was the Food Security Collective. At the time, it was called [the] Vic West Community Garden Project and Food Security Collective but then we joined together. I was the one that was interested in gardens because I’ve gardened all my life and I like to grow my own food and inspire other people to grow their own food. I took on the creation of a community garden which was built in the back parking lot [behind Fry’s Bakery].

We wanted to try to create a network of pocket community gardens, not a big huge one, just to enhance the neighbourhood [and] have these little niches, little spots where people could go and grow food.

There were five women that joined the collective. It was myself, a woman who was really interested in getting a food market going, a woman that was interested in doing a Food Co-Op, and two other women who [thought the project was] cool. One was a dietitian and [one] had a degree in, I believe, urban agriculture. We had a map of Vic West, and we just rode our bicycles around identifying potential sites for community gardens and this parking lot came up. [At the time], the Community Association was giving the owner of [the] building a community award because he renovated the front of the building and at that award ceremony I went up [and asked], “When are you going to start on the back? Because I’d like to help.”  So, we met and I [asked if] he was interested in kind of giving up some of the parking space because [at the time], it was the wayward home of homeless couches, TVs, and different people were dumping garbage. He was all over that idea; he was very supportive. We started [the Rayn or Shine Community Garden] in 2004 on private property. There was no policy at the time for [creating gardens] on public property. I did a lot of research, talked to different community gardeners, the Compost Education Centre site manager, and just went around and saw what they had.

Rayn or Shine Community Garden

[The Rayn or Shine Community Garden is] very small. [Our Collective motto is] cultivating community by growing and sharing food. We wanted to try to create a network of pocket community gardens, not a big huge one, just to enhance the neighbourhood [and] have these little niches, little spots where people could go and grow food. That was the first one [and] that’s our only allotment garden. We have nine plots there, so it’s quite small. 

Banfield Commons

Patti: In 2005, I partnered with the Lifecycles Project. They wanted to develop a food action plan; a neighbourhood food action plan process. But at the same time, I wanted to build a food forest. I became good friends with the site manager [at the time] at the Compost Education Centre, Jeff Johnson, who was responsible for Spring Ridge Commons in Fernwood and I learned about permaculture from him and about food forests. I’d also taken some workshops with Mark Lakeman from [the City Repair Project] in Portland about building little villages. So, I partnered with Lifecycles to do a project called Good Fruits and Greenway, where they partner with, I think, five neighbourhoods, to identify places along the City’s Greenway. There’s a Greenway system for alternate forms of transportation, walking and cycling, and Lifecycles wanted to plant food plants along the Greenway and that was a [year-long] project. Lifecycles was the spokesperson for all the neighbourhoods, and they took it to the City and the City [told them that they] can’t plant food plants on public land [because the City doesn’t] have a policy. I talked to our Council Liaison [at the time], Denise Savoie, and she [suggested we] get some like- minded people together, [gather] some policies from other Canadian cities, and she [would] present it to council, make a motion, and get staff to create a policy. But in the meantime, Lifecycles had purchased all the plants, so I planted them kind of all over the place but I kept a large portion of them waiting for the policy to come into place because I knew I was going to do a food forest. The policy was approved about a year later in 2005, that’s when the Banfield Commons [came to be], which is a food forest. 

Banfield Orchard

Patti: [At that point in 2005], I partnered with Lifecycles to do Food Action Planning, just to make sure the collective was doing what we thought the neighbourhood should do. I won a free permaculture design for some garden somewhere in the neighbourhood. There [were some] neighbours on Hereward Street [and a] number of fruit trees planted at Hereward Park and they wanted to enhance the park. I picked that location and got a permaculture design and was going to start the process of developing that site. [At that point], the City came to me and said they wanted to pilot a community orchard in a park and asked if we were interested, and we said yes. And so, Banfield Orchard was born in 2012. Some of those plants from Good Fruits and Greenways project from 2005 / 2006, I had planted on a boulevard at the end of Raynor Street in a little street called Evans Street [and now] there’s a little community orchard there [as well].

After learning the history behind these initiatives, I spoke with Patti about each of the garden projects and the future of community food growth in Vic West.

Phoenix: Can you describe to me what you see when you walk into the [Rayn or Shine Community] Garden? 

Patti: Something [we’ve] always tried to do is look at underutilised urban space to create gardens rather than private space because prime space already has some sort of ownership, [or] informal ownership. Dog walkers [are] big one. What I see is a great transformation of underutilised urban space to create something that benefits so many things. Visually, what I see is just you know, food growing. Like a green oasis in a barren gravel parking lot. Which is cool. 

Rayn or Shine Community Garden

Phoenix: What are the challenges that you face with these spaces? 

Patti: Getting volunteers. It’s all volunteer based, except we now have a staff person through a grant through the city which grassroots people advocated for. That’s a bit of a struggle. Before [the City position], as a volunteer, I was organising all the volunteers and doing all of the liaison with the city and all that kind of stuff. 

Our objective is our goal is cultivating community by growing and sharing food.

Our objective is our goal is cultivating community by growing and sharing food. When you start a project, there’s this excitement around it. [People] want to go plant the tree, so [they] plant the tree, but then getting people to come back to pull the weeds that have grown? That’s a little bit more difficult. The challenge for me is my time because I’m a volunteer and I’ve taken on so many things. So, [I need] more volunteers to help me coordinate. I [rejoined the Vic West Community Association] board of directors. I was on the board for many years because of this project and I’ve rejoined because I didn’t really have representation there. I wanted to take a step back to see if somebody else would step up and go, “Hey, what you’re doing is great. How can I help you coordinate this?”

Phoenix: Do you have any challenges in regards to location or any of the spaces?

Patti: There’s starting to be a little bit of a theft issue in the lawn garden. I guess there’s a couple of the residents [that have] been going down and picking food, harvesting food.

Communal Bed in the Rayn or Shine Community Garden

That’s manageable just through signage and talking to people and coming up with other solutions [like] having like a free box for people to take. We tried to make them fairly visible to raise awareness [that] there is a place for food growing in an urban environment. It’s kind of on a busy street; it’s busier than it used to be. Having a nice tranquil garden that you go and sit in [is possible sometimes] but sometimes it’s pretty busy.

Phoenix: What do you describe as success for any of these spaces?

Patti: I think people are really happy. They think it’s great that it’s in the neighbourhood and I think it’s really raised awareness. I think Vic West was considered a leader at one point in urban agriculture and getting these installed. The preschool and the daycare at the Centre [have] a leader who’s been very dedicated to getting the kids outside. She uses [the spaces] as outdoor classrooms. My neighbor’s children went through that daycare and preschool and I talk to them all the time about the plants they know, you know, the dandelions shouldn’t be poisoned or taken out of your lawn. In fact, your whole lawn should be dandelions, right? So that’s been really good [for] educating young kids. I think that’s been very successful.

Educational Growing Space in Banfield Orchard

I think people are really happy. They think it’s great that it’s in the neighbourhood and I think it’s really raised awareness. I think Vic West was considered a leader at one point in urban agriculture and getting these installed.

Phoenix: Are there any ongoing projects surrounding community engagement at the moment?

Patti: I want to build the collective at the leadership level. I met with a woman two weeks ago who has put in a submission for a Community Garden in Vic West which I [didn’t know] anything about. She doesn’t even live in the neighbourhood. So there’s interest. [There are] people on Hereward street again wanting to reactivate Hereward Park. There’s a lot more interest [with] people contacting me [asking], “How do I create a boulevard garden?” and with COVID, “How do we grow food?” We also [a project called] Vic West Urban Farmers, which is kind of like a garden club but supporting people growing food. That went dormant [unfortunately], but I think there’s a definite need to get that going again. That was a lot of fun. 

Phoenix: Is there something that you wish the public was more aware of in regards to these spaces?

Patti: The whole Concept around the [Banfield] Commons is that it’s permaculture food for us. There’s a lot of less known plants there. I did get a grant for a plant sign project. We did phase one, [which involves] the main sign that explains a little bit, but some plant ID signs [were] a second phase.

Sign in Banfield Commons

The team assigned dwindled away because it was taking a while to get working with the artists and the artists had different views and it was taking too long. I got that grant in 2016 and we realised we didn’t have enough money left to actually do a full job that we [wanted it] to do, [to teach people] what the plants are. That’s something I’m going to be looking at [and try to] find a coordinator to take on that project, either through an online map or [having actual signs]. We’ve been having quite a few work parties recently that I’ve been leading because our volunteer coordinator is sick. Every time we’re there, there’s somebody harvesting. That’s good to see. I always go over and talk to them and ask, “Do you live in the neighbourhood? How do you know about the site? What are you harvesting? What are you going to use it for?” And then I introduce them to other things. I think signage would definitely help. It’s been a long time project that I’ve wanted to do. 

Phoenix: What do you feel is unique about urban gardening?

Patti: I think the scale is smaller. For instance, the allotments that we have [at the Rayn and Shine Garden], we wanted to serve as many people as possible, so the plots are quite small. I was just out at the Agnes Street Community Garden in Saanich [and my] friend has a plot there and those ones are huge. I think in the urban environment, it’s difficult to grow a lot of food because the space is limited. I grow a lot of my own food personally, but I have my garden and two others. In terms of food security, it’s really hard to fulfill or improve food security and urban agriculture if you’re doing personal growing. That’s why our motto is cultivating community by growing, sharing food. It’s more about building the community than actually growing the food. 

Phoenix: If someone wanted to become involved, how would they go about doing so?

Patti: They usually send me an email [laughs]. But like I said, I’m going to start doing outreach again, trying to get people engaged. You can’t sit back and wait for people to come to you. You have to go to them. 

Join us next time as we explore the new Dr. Bonnie Henry allotment garden and seed exchange project in James Bay!

About The Blog:

This blog series explores different community garden spaces around the province to discover all the ways these gardens are developing community connectedness, creating spaces for education, food and medicine growing, and connecting people to land and nature.

About the Author: Phoenix Bain is a communications professional and uninvited settler living and working on the homeland of the Lekwungen people. Phoenix has co-developed this blog series with Aaren Topley, Can You Dig It Provincial Manager as a way of showcasing the amazing community building work happening in gardens throughout the province.