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Many ways to plot your growing season

Community gardens, sharing-yard program offer those without property a place to plant flowers, fruit, herbs and vegetables

After more than a year on a waiting list, I finally got a spot in a community garden. I've been out there almost every day: weeding, spreading compost and planting. Victoria is home to a number of community gardens, and whether it's a desire for food security or just a primordial love of watching things grow, they're popular.

The Capital City Allotment Association has more than 120 plots on a patch of land nestled between the Pat Bay Highway and Carey Road. Suzanne Cook, president of the allotment association, has been gardening there since 2001. This year, there are more than 100 people on the waiting list for plots, some who were on last year's list, she says. It's the largest waiting list she's seen for plots.

"It's because everybody is getting on the wave of gardening. A lot of the people who garden here are people who live in apartments, or young couples," Cook says. "I don't know if it's a fad or something that's here to stay."

At the allotment association site, plots are typically 90 square metres, much larger than a typical plot: for example, the Campus Community Garden at the University of Victoria has plots that are 11 square metres. With more than 120 plots, Capital City is the largest community garden in Victoria.

Taking a walk around the gardens is like stepping into another world. Some people grow flowers with vegetables, some only grow vegetables, while others experiment with different techniques, such as growing a mono-crop of pole beans or kale.

The garden has been around since the 1970s, and some of the gardeners have been there since the beginning, Cook says. Still, there's a trend toward gardening for food.

"I think more people are concerned about organic gardening, organic food, where their food is coming from, how mass production of vegetables is affecting the environment, all that," Cook says.

Independent of the allotment gardens, Cook has started a business called Green Genes, a heritage seed and plant company, and hopes to cater to Islanders interested in organic gardening.

For those who don't want to wait for a plot, or are looking for even more space, LifeCycles Project Society operates Sharing Backyards, a program to match potential gardeners with those who have space. Typical matches include young condo-dwellers paired with senior citizens, with both parties splitting the crops grown.

"It increases local food security, and uses space that otherwise would go to waste. It also builds community," says Christopher Hawkins, the program co-ordinator. "We have a lot of people who just don't have the energy to garden anymore, and just want to see their garden come back to life. Others want to have lower grocery expenses or reduce their carbon footprint."

The program has branched out from the Island and is operated in a number of other cities. Some of the garden sizes have been anything from a single bed to a 16-hectare spread, says Hawkins.

The Victoria Native Friendship Centre's new garden takes the idea of community and runs with it. Built by a group of more than 30 volunteers, the 195-square-metre garden is producing lettuce, broccoli, beans, peas and other vegetables and fruits for the centre's programs, some going into an emergency food fund for families in need, and a portion given to the volunteers who maintain the garden. There's also a greenhouse and a smokehouse.

It's truly a "community garden," says Jen McMullen, who helped create it.

"To be able to go and harvest a head of lettuce or carrots or some fresh food for a family that's in crisis is a really beautiful thing, because that food nourishes the soul," McMullen says. Creating the garden was a great community-building task, with volunteers donating time, tools and skills to construct it, and Camosun College donating a student-built tool shed.

The Compost Education Centre, Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group and LifeCycles Project Society have all teamed up to promote Plant a Row, Grow a Row, a program in which gardeners sign up to donate a row of food from their garden to local food banks and nutrition programs.

"Our goal for this year is one ton of food, part to be donated to Our Place. The other part will be donated to the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group's Best Babies program, which encourages pre- and post-natal nutrition for mothers," says Nadine Brodeur, executive director of the Compost Education Centre.

"There are going to be free courses to encourage gardening, regular community harvest celebrations to meet other gardeners to trade tips, that sort of thing."

The program started in May, and will run through December, with the first crops expected in June, Brodeur says.

To sign up, go to the centre's website, www.compost.bc.ca.

Read Steve's blog at timescolonist.com/rethink.