Community gardens – lessons and opportunities

Belle Hatfield
Published on July 29, 2013

By Belle Hatfield



At the height of the heat one recent day, Les Barber was operating a garden tiller, overturning sods at the east end of the community garden at Beacon United Church. The raised beds that make up the community garden continue to grow in number. This year there are close to 50 beds. They contain a variety of plants; all the regular veggies you’d expect to find in a Nova Scotia garden – carrots, peas, beans, potatoes – and some surprises. Along the garden’s perimeters grape vines have been planted and on the south side there are even a few fig trees. Some of the beds have been claimed and are being managed by individuals (that’s the goal of a community garden). The majority, however, have been planted by Barber and his volunteers.

Barber is the driving force behind the efforts to reclaim the field at the east end of the church property. Along with a core group of around 15 volunteers, he is building beds, organizing compost, weeding and pruning. Even as he tends this year’s crops, Barber is visioning the garden of next year and further down the road. Let’s face it. Grapes and fig trees are a long-term vision. The haskap berry (the latest berry darling of the Department of Agriculture) is on his radar. He just has to figure out the economies of scale to make it viable to purchase the plants.

The community garden seeks to provide not just a feast for the table, but also for the senses. Roses are in abundance, both in raised beds within the garden and all along the church property. They perfume the breeze.

Barber has only recently moved to Yarmouth. He says he moved here to retire, attracted by ocean breezes and affordable real estate. He may no longer be cashing a pay cheque, but he is no stranger to hard work. The volunteers who work with him estimate he’s putting in more than full-time hours in pursuit of building this community garden. When the harvest time begins, there is sure to be more food than any family can reasonably use.

But he’s not just gardening in order to eat the results of his labour. Gardening is something he loves to do. When your work is your passion, you don’t count the hours. You are paid in satisfaction.

Chuck Smith has been reaping a similar kind of satisfaction from his work over the past five years in developing a community garden in Yarmouth’s south end. It began in a small lot on the corner of Barnard and Prince streets under the auspices of Parents Place and migrated a couple of years ago to the SHYFT house on the corner of Trinity Place and Argyle Street. A core group of volunteers has created the South End Youth Community Garden. The youth garden creates a perfect intersection for two of Smith’s abiding interests – gardening and youth engagement.

“I just love to garden, getting my hands into the dirt and seeing things grow,” he says, “and I want to pass this on.”

Smith has spent a lifetime coaching and mentoring young people in this community. He says gardening offers lots of teachable moments. Patience, respect, humility and an awareness of the power of nature take root along with the seeds. What better way to teach cause and effect? If you don’t tend the seed, the young plant is likely to become strangled by the weeds or withered by the sun.

Smith says he wants kids to grow up understanding that the potatoes they eat come from the earth, that peas grow on vines. He wants them to experience the life cycle of the garden and maybe someday teach those skills to their kids.

In the garden on a recent overcast afternoon, Shawnta Gabriel was pulling weeds from amongst healthy rows of spinach. She hasn’t yet developed a hankering for the nutritious leafy green, but she’s well aware that others will pay for the spinach, carrots and beets being harvested. She likes the camaraderie of working in the garden, and she likes the idea that if she works through the harvest, there will be a monetary payoff.

Smith says the garden demonstrates to youth that there is reward for hard work. The goal, in this case, isn’t just to grow food. It’s to use food as a tool for business education.

The produce grown by the youth here is primarily for sale. The Yarmouth South Red and White store has purchased from the youth garden and volunteers will be selling at the Yarmouth Farmers Community Market during the harvest season. At the end of the season, Smith says each of the participants will receive a stipend based on what’s been earned.

The two community gardens in Yarmouth are among several that have been started throughout the tri-counties in the last five years. Many schools have embraced the concept of using the garden as a teaching tool. The Tri-County Local Food Network has assisted several community garden projects and the Tri-County Women’s Centre acts as the south end garden’s administrative arm.

The trend in cooking today is all about slow food. Community gardens offer an opportunity to experience the real meaning of slow food. From seed to table, they offer everyone an opportunity to get their hands dirty and reap the rewards.

Those interested in securing a plot for next year in the Beacon garden can contact the secretary at Beacon United Church, 742-4320. For information about the garden at the SHYFT house, contact Smith at 742-7464.