There’s an intriguing sign that can be found on Laurier Avenue. You will see it along with twenty or so raised garden beds in front of a large old stone church. The sign says “Urban Shades – Communal Community Garden”. In smaller print the sign explained further “We’re Hosting “Work Bees” Every Sunday at 2 pm. Come and garden with your community.” It’s an interesting new twist to the familiar concept of community gardens.
Community gardens are a great way for city-dwellers to gather. It’s an opportunity to meet neighbours, learn about what’s happening locally, share a common passion to be outdoors and active with others and in the end gardeners also reap an amazing reward for their toils. Many people in cities don’t have properties where they can garden themselves so gardening in a community location makes sense. Available land in cities can be hard to come by though. Some of these gardens are in local parks, while others are located in available land through collaborations with other key community organizations such as the communal Urban Shades one, located in Sandy Hill on the front property of the past Anglican All Saints church.
These gardens in a sense are a community hub similar to what faith communities are, so it is not surprising that faith communities have started looking at their own properties with new eyes and seeing the potential. As Jordan Bouchard, Coordinator of the Community Gardening Network of Ottawa explains, community gardens that are initiated at faith communities are a great addition to the local gardening network. “Faith communities are great groups to work with – dedicated volunteers, fairly often have large tracts of land, and supportive administration!”
There are various reasons faith communities will start community gardens. Sometimes it’s the need of specific members who want to garden themselves. Other times it is the faith community’s mission of offering social community outreach programs that can then be expanded to include community gardens. Many times they find partners with similar values and missions and welcome the opportunity to open their doors for the larger community to gather. Community gardens are very visible and often express without words how the community and the gardeners want to make change locally.
The Urban Shades Communal Community Garden was a unique approach to sharing gardening space and expanding this type of mission. Members do not own individual plots, in fact there really aren’t “members” at all. Anyone from the community is welcome to come on a Sunday and help in the garden and also bring home some of the “fruits” of their labour. This is communal in the true sense.
Gloucester Presbyterian involved their youth in the planting of several batches of seeds indoors in February and March and then transferring the seedlings of hot peppers, lettuces, tomatoes and herbs outside with the children in May. Their garden pilot program has been a successful initiative, says Godlove Ngwafusi, Garden Project Lead & Church Elder. There are plans to replenish the garden’s nutrients in the fall after the harvest and expand next year.
South Nepean Muslim Centre (SNMC) joined Just Food’s Community Garden Network last year and received support from the organization to help start their garden. It was a fortuitous timing with members of both the SNMC and the Nepean Community Garden board looking for an opportunity to help gardeners in the community who may not have the land themselves. While the garden plots at South Nepean Muslim Centre are located in the suburbs, “members of the garden plots, live in higher density units without private backyards or joined the community garden in order to benefit from the experience of other gardeners” says Elina Elnione, Secretary of the SNMC Community Garden. She also explains that the visibility demonstrates the possibility of growing food locally. “The linear community garden is along the fence with the school. There is a great curiosity about gardening activities among the children from the school who play outside during break times.”
Even without large properties some churches are seeing the potential. Centretown United on Bank Street and St. Luke’s Anglican on Somerset West Street both have garden beds adjacent to sidewalks. The garden beds add a sense of wonder and animation to the streets and have been respected by passersby. St Luke’s hope is that the gardens provides a visible sign of creation and open up the community in a way it hasn’t been before.
Many faith communities are able to enrich their community food bank shelves and drop-in centre meals using their garden’s harvests. This is not a new concept for community gardens – many times one plot is set aside for these types of community food donations. With some faith community gardens – the drop-in centre or food bank is located on the same property. Ottawa has some great examples including St. Joe’s Supper Table on Laurier, Westboro Region Food Bank at All Saints’ Anglican/First United Church and Centre 507 on Bank Street, where the food can go right from the garden to the shelves or to a preparation counter in a matter of minutes. And food bank and drop-in centre members can see where the food is growing, what is ripening next and even participate in the gardening themselves if they wish!
For all of these faith community gardens there is a common thread whether intentional or not. These gardens are an extension of a faith community’s desire to care for creation and share in the bounty of the land. They take under utilized space and transform them into vegetable plots that feed and nourish those around them. They bring communities together and help reconnect people to the earth.