Through a community-based experiential learning project at the University of British Columbia, myself, Lauren Ebert, and my fellow student, Naomi Lee, interviewed a community garden coordinator to gain insight into the successes and challenges of Vancouver Community Gardens. We had the pleasure of virtually meeting Cheryl, one of the coordinators at Brewery Creek Garden in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver. The garden is located in Guelph Park – known to locals as Dude Chilling Park – and operates in coordination with the Urban Diggers Society and Vancouver Parks. It is a lively garden nestled in a rich local community with a goal to help meet the increasing demands for urban agriculture while building community.
Cheryl shared that the diversity of the neighbourhood is reflected in their garden participants, “They come from a variety of age groups, from young families to single people, and many different backgrounds. We engage young people through our little diggers program, and we also have a garden for older adults, so our garden membership kind of reflects the outside community that we are a part of.”
This community aspect is a fundamental piece of the Brewery Creek Garden. When you walk through the main gates of the garden, to the right you will see individual garden plots on raised beds, and to the left is the communal garden which also includes the work shed, and patio area. Cheryl explains:
“I would say pretty much 50% of our total area is dedicated to community space. As a garden, we really want the outside community to take ownership of the garden as well, not just those gardeners that have their own plots. We want the community to take part and feel involved.”
The communal garden is seen as a “food forest” where community members are encouraged to explore the beauty of the garden and to harvest from the fruit trees and herb plants in this area instead of from the individual garden plots. In order to engage the community in an inclusive way, two accessible garden plots were built for those who need mobility support such as seniors.
However, this year at the garden looked a little bit different. Cheryl explained, “[COVID-19] really changed how we view community in our garden. We used to get together with work parties every month, and see each other face to face, so that has changed that aspect of our garden communities.”
Brewery Creek also had to suspend their popular Little Diggers program, which is a children’s gardening club that runs every year in the spring. Children from ages 3 – 10 years old are assigned to a small garden plot and receive mentorship to learn how to grow a variety of vegetables. While the program is held early in the year, children often continue their efforts well into the fall months, so that they can see the growth of their plants. This program encourages families to get involved with their kids at the garden and cultivates excitement in gardening and local food which often continues as the kids grew older. Today, a father and son who had participated in the program have their own individual plot at the garden, showing a continued engagement in growing food that was introduced to them through the program.
Throughout our conversation with Cheryl, we noticed a common thread appearing. Although the pandemic halted a lot of their usual programs and engagement strategies, the community had come together to find new, adaptive ways to keep a sense of community while staying safe and healthy. We heard many examples of resilience and community at Brewery Creek that speak to their desire to keep growing not only food, but a sense of community.
For example, Cheryl shared a new adaptive strategy the garden employed. Through the Responsive Neighbourhood Small Grant, they were able to create a community food share stand. Gardeners with individual plots are encouraged to put their extra harvest in the community food share stand, which is located at the entrance of the garden. It usually has kale, zucchini, and other such vegetables. Having this community food share stand is a way that Brewery Creek Garden has been able to adapt their sense of community even during a pandemic, and to help strengthen food security in the neighbourhood. Cheryl describes the benefit,
“The community food share stand opens the door to allow people to get involved, even just by enjoying the fruits of the garden… There is a lot of food insecurity and lack of community engagement because of COVID-19, so the community food share stand was our response to that.”
Another adaptive strategy that the garden has employed was creating “community corners.” Cheryl mentioned that the garden used to host work parties once or twice a month throughout the growing season to help maintain the garden. The parties help with weeding, watering, and special projects like building accessible plots. However, all work parties were cancelled because of the pandemic. In response, the garden decided to parcel out small portions of the communal garden area and assign each of those to one of their gardeners. The gardeners would be responsible for their section of the communal area in addition to their own individual plots. Cheryl mentioned the benefit instituting “community corners” has brought to the garden,
“We actually got people who weren’t usually involved to be more involved. People who wouldn’t typically show up to work parties were able to participate since it was a little more flexible in terms of when they could come in and participate.”
Cheryl also explained that participants felt a new appreciation for the garden after being in lock down. The members took value in their garden spaces, and expressed enthusiasm to be out in nature growing food and making use of the space. The community food share stand also contributed to this renewed vigour that gardeners experienced, as they could share their harvest with the community.
Even through these examples of resilience and community building, Brewery Creek still faces challenges. One of the challenges they experience is getting more people in the community to be aware of their communal garden space. The garden is looking into methods such as garden signage and promotion on their Facebook page to let people know that the communal space is open and welcome to them. Interested gardeners are encouraged to reach out to Brewery Creek through their website and Facebook page. Another difficulty that the garden faces are vandalism and theft. Cheryl described:
“Theft can reflect the socio-economic nature of the neighbourhood too. It’s a neighbourhood in transition with people from all walks of life. Not to say who is stealing the food, but we see someone stealing because they need it, so we kind of try to let it go, but it’s still disappointing to see.”
Despite these challenges, the garden has experienced many successes. Cheryl highlighted that Brewery Creek Garden was most proud of its ability to maintain their garden in a beautiful way for the community to enjoy. Compared to an empty space that was next to the tennis court before, the garden now has a bee garden with lots of flowers, and it consistently garners a lot of compliments from people who pass by.
About the authors: Lauren Ebert and Naomi Lee are Land and Food Systems students at the University of British Columbia working on a community project in collaboration with Can You Dig It.