Dr. Bonnie Henry Commemorative Garden

This week, we took a trip to the neighbourhood of James Bay to take a look at a handful of the many garden initiatives located on Lekwungen homelands, now known as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.

I met with Julia Canton, the Marketing and Sustainability Manager at the Huntingdon Manor Hotel and long time community garden advocate in the City of Victoria, Kathryn Pankowski from the James Bay Neighbourhood Association. Julia came up with the idea during the COVID-19 pandemic to turn the private property lawn of the Huntingdon Manor Hotel into a 12-plot allotment garden.

The garden is in partnership with the Huntingdon Manor Hotel, James Bay Neighbourhood Association, Victoria’s Food Eco District, Discovery Coffee, the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR) and the City of Victoria Get Growing intatitive. 

Julia shared her reflections of how the idea came to fruition: “The hotel here went through a rough time losing all of our revenue but we still wanted to support the community in other ways because in dire times we want to come together and support each other.”

To establish a garden on public land, the process can take a year or two. Due to the location on private land, this garden space popped up in record time to support residents in James Bay in need due to the ongoing pandemic. The allotment garden, similar to the Yates St. Community Garden did not break ground but instead built 12 plots using pallets and jute bags.

Julia described the origins of the garden space: “I got in contact with Holly [Dumbarton] from the Food Eco District because they were doing the My FED Farm Initiative [that was] giving food gardens around the city to families that needed them because there [are] a lot of insecurities in terms of the food supply down the road. We didn’t know what was going to go on with a pandemic. The idea came as we have all these beautiful gardens and all the space that we won’t be able to cater the way we normally do. It’s the pandemic so might as well put them to use and we offered them to the community garden… Holly put Kathryn in contact and we talked about it and put the idea together.”

Julia continued, “I think a lot of red tape [was] put aside and people were very willing to support us like FED played a huge role in providing us the planters and the seeds… and then we got financial support from CRFAIR [and their] Growing Together Program. Discovery Coffee gave us the palettes and [jute bags]. A lot of people came together to put this project together.”

“The hotel here went through a rough time losing all of our revenue but we still wanted to support the community in other ways because in dire times we want to come together and support each other.”

Kathryn added, “I was working on all my ongoing projects and some new ones, but this came out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning. It was such a good opportunity that I dropped everything I could drop and we focused on this and we did it in what was it… seven weeks?”

In record turn-around, the garden came alive just past their deadline of May 30th.

“We were up against a deadlock, because we first started talking about this in April and the growing season was upon us. Our target was the end of May, because we felt [it was going to be hard to get]  the summer crop, and I think we got things in the first week of June, so we almost made [our deadline].”, Kathryn explained.

Offering a tribute to the beacon of hope for B.C. residents, the garden has been named the Dr. Bonnie Henry Commemorative Garden. As you enter the space, a welcome sign reads, “A Place of Hope, Kindness, and Unity- these garden plots are provided for the local community members through the James Bay Neighbourhood Association and the Huntingdon Manor Hotel. Inspired by the leadership of Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, during the COVID-19 Pandemic. ‘Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.’”

Aside from the tributary name and the speed at which the plots were realized, the garden has more unique features.

Julia pointed out, “Well, first, it’s on a hotel grounds. That is quite unusual, but I think it’s wonderful as well, because it shows a bit of outside-of-the-box thinking and it might build a trend of other hotels or other private properties who have the space to do community and support urban gardens to push it forward. I think that that is quite unique on its own, being a property that pushed that forward. And it’s lovely for our house guests to see what’s going on, it’s amazing to see the plants grow so fast and beautifully, and to see the evolution.” 

Kathryn agreed: “For me, it’s two things. One is the growing on private land, but with allotments that are publicly accessible. That’s one experimental thing for us because James Bay does have some other allotments on private land, but they’re mostly for residents of the complex. So this is like a whole new venture for me, trying to work out how this works and use it as a model.”

Reimaging public space is a key feature of community gardens and maintaining green spaces in an ever-expanding urban landscape. These creative ventures are crucial to model the importance of urban gardening.

Kathryn lit up at the mention of “importance of urban gardening”, “I think it’s absolutely essential. I think it’s a much broader thing that we’re pursuing now. I think right now, the focus has been primarily on food production, which is a valuable thing. But I think urban greening is [a] bigger issue and can be so much more. This is where it links into public health. As we get denser communities, it’s important for our mental and physical health, to have communities that have easy access to nature, even if that’s your pot on your windowsill. I think there are whole realms that Victoria is not exploring very thoroughly, yet. That would be everything from, de-paving, rewilding, water management features. I get really excited when I read about the National Park City movement. I also think it’s an important part of reconciliation as well; care for and nurturing of the land and ecosystems. I’d like to also see us explore things that aren’t straight colonial models, [like], ‘We’ll cover these little square boxes and grow vegetables in straight lines.’”

After walking through the garden space, we sat down to chat about challenges and successes and the future of the Dr. Bonnie Henry Commemorative Garden for James Bay residents.

Phoenix: Do you have to be a resident of James Bay to have been a part of this programme or was it open to all City residents?

Julia: No, it was specifically for James Bay.

Kathryn: That’s one of the differences about being on private land. This is the only publicly accessible allotment on private land in James Bay. The [gardens] on City land all work on a certain, you know principle of fairness, which is you put your name on a waiting list [that can be] is three to five years long. The first person at the top of the list is the person who gets into the next allotment. Because this is on private property, it was up to the hotel to pick the plot holders. [We set] two parameters: they had to be residents of James Bay, the closer the better for people walking and biking and coming by every day, and they had to be in some way affected by COVID-19. Need doesn’t factor into the wait for the City allotments. So that makes this project a little bit different.

Phoenix: Do you see this project continuing in the long term for the hotel?

Julia: Yeah, absolutely. When we first initialised the project, we talked about this being a trial year, because there were so many parameters that were different and unique. It was new for us, it was new for Kathryn, it was new for the Neighbourhood Association. We didn’t know how it was going to work with the guests. But actually, it’s been working wonderfully and so far, I can’t think of an issue that we’ve been having at all. The idea is hopefully to continue that as a permanent community garden.

Phoenix: Have you faced any challenges with this space?

Julia: Right now? I can’t personally think of any. It’s been working well, the plots themselves. They’re temporary plots, so it gives a bit more flexibility if for some reason we didn’t want to continue or pursue forward. If we decide to make [these] permanent plots, then we’ll have to address possible challenges there. 

Kathryn: From my point of view, the one risk factor is that it is on private property. So, right now we have a letter of agreement that goes to April 30. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. But that’s always a risk, because businesses come and go and change ownership. You never know. There are also a lot of advantages and one of them is the amount of services. We’re getting water, there’s a hose, there’s various lovely staff people wandering around to help with things, they take the compost away. And there’s security, which has been a real issue for a lot of community gardens, particularly during COVID. 

Phoenix: What do you define as success for this garden?

Julia: Well, for me just actually seeing the plot holders being happy and satisfied with having the opportunity to have a garden. I know they’re all very happy. You can tell by how they care with their plants, because all the plots are beautiful. This has been a very difficult year for a lot of people. So for us, that’s the satisfaction right there. 

Kathryn: Yeah, it is for me too. I think this garden is very much about people. It’s whether the plot holders are happy, eating well. Part of it is getting fresh food and part of it, I think is, without wanting to go into individual people’s circumstances too much, we have people who it’s great that they have sort of a destination where they can go everyday, you know, particularly ones that were at home with small children. I think it’s just about supporting people trying times.

Phoenix: Do you have a specific story of success to share? 

Kathryn:  Yes. I just happened to be here when the parents were giving their child the first taste of the first cucumber out of their plot and it was so great.

Phoenix: What were your strategies for community engagement?

Julia: In terms of challenges in the neighbourhood? [None] at all. That’s the advantage of us owning this entire block. [Which is] a big benefit. Everybody at the hotel was very supportive of this project, so that wasn’t a problem at all. And in terms of the word of mouth of this project going on, it actually went really, really fast. I know there’s a lot of people that are interested in a plot. I know there’s quite a high demand here in James Bay, and just by talking through the James Bay Neighbourhood Association, we did have the press involved initially to get the word out. CHEK news did a nice story about it, [and we] got a lot of applicants going through that. It wasn’t a problem at all getting that word out. The Beacon did a story of it afterwards, and it’s all been really well received.

Kathryn: I think one of the things that we’re working on that is on our endless to do list that isn’t getting done yet, but it will, is building a sort of sense of community within the garden. It’s difficult with COVID because people don’t want to get too close to each other or be here at the same time. We are thinking about what we can do to set up something like a little chat board or a Facebook group or something where somebody can say, “Hey, I bought a six pack of this and I’ve only got room for four, does somebody want [some]?” I think there’s still some potential for community building within the garden and we both [have] things to think about if it goes on for more than one year, because when you get long term plot holders, it can turn into a slightly different kind-of thing. Right now nobody has any expectation or promise of being here beyond the winter.

Phoenix: Is there something you wish the public was more aware of about the garden?

Julia:  I think the garden really symbolises how we can work together to support each other [in these challenging times]… and I hope it spreads the message to other businesses that you’re not alone. And by working together, we actually can bring the positivity and bring lightness where there’s darkness and build something nice out of something that was difficult. 

Kathryn:   Yeah. I think for me, the main thing is trying to spread the word [about the garden model] among tourism and hospitality businesses, and see if anybody else picks up on it.

Phoenix: How can the public support the garden?

Julia: We encourage people to come and visit their gardens.

Kathryn: And have tea while you’re here. Sit on the bench, read a book there.

Stay tuned as we travel back to James Bay to explore more garden initiatives!

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.