The Beit Tikvah Synagogue hugglekulture garden is a superb example of permaculture, polyculture and regenerative agriculture on a small scale in Ottawa. Permaculture garden design is a “whole systems” approach to growing food by maximizing the benefits of natural ecosytem principles into the landscape. Using natural water flow movement, the benefits of woody material decomposition (both for nutrients and water storage) and increasing the seasonal biodiversity of food crops, this hugglekulture garden optimizes nature’s cycles and reduces the work for the synagogue’s gardening community.
(Beit Tikvah's Orchard and Gardens, Title photo reproduced with permission by photographer (2020))
The interest in creating a sustainable garden started when one congregant took a permaculture design course online. This ended up being a mother and son project, where they first experimented in the household’s backyard, receiving a Permaculture Design certificate for a garden design that included a water swale that took advantage of the roof stormwater drainage. After learning through this hands-on effort, they were interested in exploring the potential to create a more extensive permaculture garden at their Synagogue. The timing was fortuitous, as some extra funding was available from a legacy gift that had been given years earlier to the local Jewish high school and needed to be redirected due to its closing.
Using some of the bequest funding for a community food garden felt perfect to the family, as it would honour and reflect what had been important to their family member who had left the legacy gift, including healthy fresh food, gardening and community connection.
Hugglekulture gardening provides so many benefits to those who want to garden this way. There is no digging needed (which was perfect for this spot as there were buried utilities), it is cost efficient both in terms of set up and in terms of water usage (this type of garden stores so much water through its design that it is incredibly drought-resistant) and it requires less volunteers (after the initial set-up). It is also easier on volunteers, with the upright gardening requiring less crouching and bending.
Beit Tikvah is a modern orthodox synagogue that was built in 1985 with around 125 families in the congregation. With the Jewish High School now closed, the demographics are changing and the volunteer base has shifted. Members of the synagogue are all generally within walking distance of the faith community, so that they can walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath, which is their day of rest and worship.
With the Rabbi in favour of the project, the first step was to present a written proposal with drawings of the garden for approval by the Board of Directors. They approved the garden with one caveat - that maintenance costs would be minimal. For example, they didn’t want a significant impact on the water bill. That, plus the flat roof of the building, which was not favourable to rainwater collection, and the long distance from the water supply at the back to the garden at the front meant that the hugglekulture garden was the perfect type of garden to implement. It would not only take advantage of the elevation and rain water flow but also due to the way it was built, it would easily retain the rainwater and not need watering.
The garden design incorporated about half of the front lawn of the Synagogue and included three large hugglekulture mounds (these types of gardens are built upwards in a triangle shape, using logs and branches to create the mounds and hold the soil) and three new horizontal garden beds for fruit bearing trees and shrubs. (see photo of design) The hugglekulture mounds benefit from the logs which soak up all the moisture and breakdown over many years, providing the gardens with water storage and nutrients for the soil.
Twenty-four fruit trees and shrubs were added as part of the permaculture design– creating a mini food forest on the property. They were added to the centre of the new horizontal beds and along the fence line with edible guilds of plants surrounding them. The landscape design kept the large traditional central garden bed in front of the entrance to the synagogue, allowing congregants to still enjoy familiar flowers and access to the 25 year-old Willow tree. The congregation harvests willow tree branches each year for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
While the team was eager to implement the project, it had to be delayed until the autumn due to the hot and dry weather in 2017. However this late start reduced the time available for the team to build the beds as they needed to have it complete before the high holy days started. When the weather cooled they coordinated a few work days on Sundays with about fifteen volunteers helping dig, move material and build the garden beds. Smaller groups of volunteers worked during the weekdays. The design also had to take into account the functioning of the construction swale on their property, so PVC pipes were added beneath each bed to allow for drainage for any excess overflow.
On the first Sunday the volunteers worked on the front beds and planted the fruit trees. The shape of the garden beds were outlined by stones and covered with cardboard and newspaper. New soil and mulch were added on top. For the hugglekulture beds, they arranged to have 12-foot long logs delivered (the number of logs was determined by the length, height, width of the beds) by an arborist who was removing unwanted trees for city construction projects. After the delivery, the logs were cut to size on the shul property by the arborist and over the next few days, with the help of volunteers, they were placed as per the design into three mounds. Some volunteers came during the week, doing some of this heavy lifting plus adding tree branches, leaves and then soil to complete the raised hugglekulture beds. The fruit trees were purchased in pairs as they need to be cross pollinated through close contact with the same type of tree species. Holes were dug for the trees and they were positioned in the new garden beds and in the front of the synagogue property.
Final work on the new garden was done the following week, which included adding all the perennial plants and shrubs, adding mulch and then some seeds when they needed to create a cover crop for the final raised bed. All of the perennial plants had been grown from seed at the home of the lead volunteer and moved over to the synagogue to plant once the beds were ready. These perennial food crops were enough to cover two and a half of the three mounds and then radish and legume seeds were sprinkled over the remaining bed, as these seeds produce almost instant results and would hold the soil until the next planting season. The food crops that were planted on the mounds include: Walking Onions, Loveage, Kale, Rhubarb, Skirret, Sorrel, Patience Dock, Sun Chokes (Jerusalem artichokes) as well as berries such as Currants, Gooseberries, Blackberries and Strawberries and perennial herbs such as Hyssop, Anise Hyssop and Tarragon. In addition, Horseradish was planted, which is used on the holiday of Passover - and usually the beds are free of snow and the soil just unfrozen, so that it can be harvested just in time for the holiday.
(Walking Onion Plant in the Hugglekulture Garden. Reproduced with permission by photographer (2020))
(Hazlenut Tree in the Hugglekulture Garden. Reproduced with permission by photographer (2020))
During the first autumn, while the plants were being established and expanding their roots in their new spaces, the congregants did do some watering if it was a dry week with no rain. This helped ensure that as many plants as possible would survive the first winter and do well in the next season. The functioning of the construction swale with the new garden beds was well tested the next summer as there were very high amounts of rain that year. All the rainfall on the property was absorbed by the new gardens and there were no problems with any overflow so it was a real success. No extra watering was needed in 2018 thanks to the design and all the rain.
The garden was well established from all the efforts in the first year. While a few plants didn’t survive the first winter and some were lost in the second winter - with bare ground and cold winds in December, the rest of the garden flourished. The gardeners replaced these lost plants over the first few years and even planted new Hazelnuts in the third summer as they showed they were able to thrive on the property. Many of the Cherry Olive trees didn’t do as well.
The garden was also expanded, when a dying evergreen tree in the traditional central garden bed had to be cut down. This area was incorporated into the permaculture design, with the gardeners creating a drought resistant garden bed, using the same principles as the Hugglekulture bed. The tree that was cut down became the principle layer for the new bed with branches, leaves added and new soil to top it all off. Because this bed was extra large, flat paving stones were arranged as paths to provide access to the middle of the bed. This also added a thoughtful design element and provided the children a fun space where they could play and explore.
With all the new perennial crops and fruit trees, the gardeners are seeing a multitude of bees on the property. With the variety of plants, there are blooms every month and the native wild bees are doing a great job at pollinating both the flowers and the fruit trees! Along with the Cherry Olive trees, there are Hazelnuts, Goji berries, Cherries, Pears and Plums. With this type of diversity it is not surprising that it also supports a diverse number of native pollinators. The great thing about Canada’s native wild bees is that they are solitary, there is no need to take care of them and they are very docile as they do not have a colony of bees to protect. It’s a great match for a congregation where you have many people coming and going and you want people to feel comfortable and at ease in the space.
LESSONS LEARNED/KEYS TO SUCCESS
Share your vision and get people involved at various stages.
Secure your volunteer base first and share with them as much of the vision as possible. There can be a difference between the original team that will help with building the garden versus the ongoing volunteer base that you will want to recruit for garden maintenance. It’s easier for someone to volunteer for a few weekends to complete one project than to commit to a weekly volunteer position. This is why they may end up being different volunteers. But once the garden is built, more members of the congregation will be able to see the vision and can enjoy the hands on effort and food grown from the property.
With each new garden activity (harvest days on Sundays, further tree planting event in the third year, collections for the kosher food bank), the Beit Tikvah gardeners could see the interest grow and the support expand. And with congregants being encouraged to pick from the garden whatever they wanted to eat or cook with, they become connected to the garden and enjoyed all the “fruits of their labour”.
Get Property Management On Board.
Support from property management goes a long way. The new garden layout was designed so that it would be easy to mow between the garden beds. Keeping some familiar landscape allowed the transition to be smooth for all involved – both congregants, staff and the volunteers. The new garden beds were designed with respect to the request of the Board – that they would not create significant new water demands. And when the gardeners asked for an increase in the frequency of mowing the lawn to reduce the number of dandelions on the property, the staff was willing to help. This increased frequency ensured that the dandelions could not flower and reseed – which was becoming a problem for the gardeners. The gardeners also mulched heavily every spring to keep the unwanted plants at bay. The supportive relationship between all those involved, really helped to ensure that this project flourished!
Plant food that people recognize and/or provide education.
The gardeners noticed that the most popular foods harvested were the ones that were familiar to the congregation. Foods such as thyme, rhubarb and onions were easy for the congregants to recognize and pick. The berries – especially the currants were very popular with the children. The two head volunteers spent some time helping members of the synagogue become familiar with all of the new plants. This included showing them identification characteristics and the signs to look for so as to know when the plant was ready to harvest and also what part of the plant to eat such as the root or the leaves. They explained that even when you have an edible garden, it doesn’t mean that all parts of the plant are edible at all times. The new gardens also provided a great learning opportunity on how to cook the new foods, which sometime even involved sharing recipes to maximize the enjoyment of the harvests.
(Garden details - Rhubarb (foreground) and Hugglekulture Bed (background). Reproduced with permission by photographer (2020))
Seeing the vision become a reality has created quite a few memorable moments for the gardeners: the excitement of the volunteer’s grandson watching the excavator carrying logs; the pleasure of the children in the congregation to be digging holes and planting trees; introducing new edibles to the members of the shul and witnessing those sparks of delight brought on by a new taste, or a new smell. Other memorable moments were some of the “firsts” for their garden: such as the pear trees starting to bearing fruit in the third summer.
Beit Tikvah Synagogue
15 Chartwell Avenue