(The Haven Community Garden - Multifaith Housing Initiative, Photo Credit: Nancy Moir)
The Haven’s two-year old community garden is a LEED gold component of the Multifaith Housing Initiative’s (MHI) newest development in Barrhaven. Growing local produce and helping with food security is one of the garden’s tangible goals but participating in this outdoor activity offers residents much more: an opportunity to strengthen the connections in this neighbourhood and build trust and confidence between members.
Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI) “The Haven” is the fourth housing development managed by MHI whose focus is to provide safe and affordable housing for residents in need in Ottawa. In the early 2000’s members from various local faith organizations identified this local housing need and started MHI so as to be able to offer “more affordable housing in Ottawa while promoting tolerance and respect among residents of all faiths”. The Haven - the newest MHI property, located in Barrhaven, had an added sustainability goal – building to LEED standards that included: energy efficient features, a heat recovery system, high indoor air quality (VOC-free), transit accessibility for all residents, low impact landscaping with low water requirements and a space for a community garden.
The community garden was built a year after The Haven development open and families moved in. In the community housing design plan, the garden space had been located on a hydro easement which meant that the gardeners could not add raised garden beds or any other type of semi-permanent structure. A better spot for the garden was located – in one of the designated parking lots in the design plan which was a much better place and add greenery near the residents as opposed to a paved area. Once the residents moved in, a few key residents, who were passionate gardeners, formed a garden committee in 2017 along with a few non-resident MHI volunteers and the property management company. These volunteers worked hard to identify the preparations needed to be able to open a garden the following spring. One of the garden committee members had heard about Just Food, a local not-for-profit organization that supported local community gardens, at a previous community garden and approached the not-for-profit about possible support for The Haven. Another opportunity came from a partnership between MHI and “LiveWorkPlay” an Ottawa organization that “helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens”. Some of the funding from LiveWorkPlay for the new housing development could be used to support the community garden.
Once the major funding was secured with Just Food and LiveWorkPlay, the other key task was to confirm the quality of the soil used in the new development and design the garden. Getting confirmation of healthy soil was an important step, as the City of Ottawa required a soil test before a community garden could open where members would be growing vegetables in the ground. It took quite a lot of determination from the committee members to track down the information about the soil that had been provided to the new development but they finally managed to receive a letter from the developers confirming the soil quality – which helped save quite a bit of money. With the letter, no soil test was required and the project could easily move forward. The committee designed the garden space and presented it to the other gardeners and MHI for agreement.
With the garden location confirmed, the quality of the soil verified and a garden design, the team could ramp up the work to open the garden in the spring. They easily identified residents who wanted to start gardening through word of mouth. All garden plots were made available for free to residents who wanted to participate as this was one of the beneficial amenities that MHI wanted to offer their residents. Those that offered to volunteer to build the garden beds in the spring were guaranteed a garden plot and if there were more gardeners than garden beds, then they would be placed on a waiting list.
In terms of getting supplies, the committee found store employees very helpful in terms of determining how much wood to buy to build the garden beds and how much soil to order to fill them. The store employees used the committee’s garden design that provided the dimensions of each garden plot to be able to calculate the materials needed. The committee made the order of all the supplies, including the garden tools and rounded up their volunteers for the build day. Thanks to one of the MHI volunteers on the garden committee, other help was received by municipal employees that provided some final guidance on the build day in terms of required dimensions for the pathways and raised beds to be able to accommodate wheelchairs and those with mobility needs.
Thanks to all these winter preparations, the team was ready to build both the raised beds and ground level beds in mid-May. There was a team of approximately 12-14 people guided by the property management representative who was volunteering as the key coordinator on that day. The volunteer team included both eager community gardeners and also some non-residents who had been involved in the planning and wanted to help during the build day. The work that day included building the frames for the garden beds, assembling the structures and other tasks so that the beds would be ready for filling with soil and planting by each member. Most of the work to put in the 25 garden beds was complete in that first day, thanks to all the time and effort put in by these volunteers. They even had a few non-gardening residents who wanted to help out and get experience using the tools and meet their neighbours. It was a great day for The Haven community members to support each other, come together for a common cause and add value to their neighbourhood. The remaining tasks that the team wasn’t able to completed that day (which included adding the soil which was delivered a few days later), were done in the next few weeks by a few of the new gardeners and one of the property management company employees who volunteered their time.
For the garden committee, seeing the garden beds finally built and their neighbours out in the gardens – families with parents and children eager to plant, was a great experience. It was also exciting for the new gardeners as many of them had never even gardened before. All the residents who had identified their interest in having a plot were able to receive one including those needing one of the fourteen raised beds. And to start off the new gardens, the community garden committee was able to offer seeds (donated by a local company) to all the gardeners. A few gardeners also arranged for a trip to the local nursery for their new gardening friends to buy plants such as tomato vines. So with the beds in place, the seeds and plants procured, the gardeners were off to a great start.
(Ground level and raised container gardens at The Haven, Photo Credit: Mara Watson)
Over the first two years the community garden has flourished with the local residents’ interest and attention – while it may be a small space they have a strong sense of community where they support each other. The experienced gardeners, shared their knowledge and skills with the other keen gardeners offering “ad hoc” training when they were out gardening, helping those who had questions or were seeking advice. They found that some gardeners needed help with identifying weeds, others with information on watering and later, as they progressed through the season – there were questions about when vegetables could be harvested. There didn’t seem to be interest in formal classes and it may not have worked as many were at different skill levels, growing different plants and there were also some language barriers that didn’t make that type of formal group teaching appropriate. So in the first year, it was the three main gardeners sharing their love for gardening with the others in their garden community. This also really helped connect the gardeners and provide a supportive space for the residents at The Haven. Neighbours got to know each other through their interest in gardening and the pleasure of growing food with their own hands.
There were some challenges, as a few people were not as motivated and may not have had the time to devote to the gardens as the committee members had hoped. The committee’s goal was to help educate but not to enforce as their role was to support the community and offer this positive experience to help connect the community. So for the people who were less keen on weeding or picking up vegetables that were ripe, reminders and positive help was offered. These were some of the duties that the gardeners were expected to complete and it had been written into the contract that each members signed. If the positive support wasn’t enough, MHI took on the role of gently reminding the gardeners of the tasks they were expected to do which helped ensure an amicable experience for everyone.
At the start, there was one plot that was unspoken for and the community or gardeners treated it as a communal plot, adding beans and brussel sprouts and sharing the harvest. This worked well for everyone, which has created a desire to build another plot that could either be a children’s garden or another communal garden. This sense of community can also be seen when members harvest what they have grown. Garden participants will swap food with others who are out in the garden – for example – offering up some tomatoes to be traded for some beans, so that they can share any extras between them. And the gardeners have also set up a table in one of the nearby apartment buildings where they can also drop off anything they have grown such as kale, lettuce, carrots, peppers or anything else that they want to share. In this way the garden bounty is a community experience and feeds more than just those that garden.
(Fresh local vegetables grown by the community, Photo Credit: Nancy Moir)
LESSONS LEARNED/KEYS TO SUCCESS
The Importance of Building Relationships.
One of the keys to success was the importance of building relationships – this was not just a garden project but an opportunity to build community for this new development. Residents came from various cultural and religious backgrounds but with the garden – growing food offered them something in common. Everyone who was interested was included – children enjoyed tours of the garden, learning about food and tasting new foods, knowledge was shared between new gardeners and experienced committee members and seeing everyone’s skills grow was a great boost for everyone. This helped bring people together and share a common goal – helping each gardener succeed. This type of generosity – sharing knowledge and skills also helped build trust between the gardeners. No question was wrong or request for help was too much.
Bonding over a Shared Joy and Accomplishment.
Sharing the joy of gardening was definitely another key to success. Gardening provides such anticipation and reward – right from the picking of seeds and planting the tiny grains into the ground all the way to the moment of harvest where ripe, colourful vegetables are the miracle of the gardeners tender work. Many of the gardens at The Haven were like well-cared loved one – to be greeted each day with tenderness & nurturing. Through the relationships built over skill and knowledge sharing the joys of each new week expanded each individual’s experience. It is always great to share successes with others. And gardening at this community garden was a positive experience knowing that there would always be someone with the right tip or suggestion to ensure a great outcome.
(The gardeners working in their gardens, Photo Credit: Mara Watson)
Seeing their vision turn into reality was one of the best moments for the garden committee. To see on that very first day, after the garden beds were built, families gathering in their new garden bed was a great reminder of why the effort was so important. Before that day, the land was an empty space and now it was flourishing with activity – parents and children starting to prepare their garden beds by turning the soil over, using shovels to dig their first holes, making plans for the seeds and plants they wanted to add. And to see the little ones – those who were just a year and a half or two year old experiencing being out in a garden for the first time – seeing the lushness of the plants and even tasting some of the harvests – a ripe tomato or some peas from a pod brought everyone delight.
Another pivotal moment was seeing some of the new gardeners, who had so many questions in the first year, sharing their knowledge with others in the second year. These gardeners who had received so much help at the beginning, were now passing on the lessons that they had learned. This was such a perfect manifestation of the community garden’s vision: building community that was connected and resilient and who helped support each other. It was quite a “pay it forward” moment to see those who had received so much, now being the ones who could offer their experience and time to those in need.
The Haven MHI Housing Development
Multifaith Housing Initiative
206-404 McArthur Avenue