Matt Rekman was sampling the onions sprouting in the Lakeshore North Community Garden last week where Jessica Bruce was happy to see signs of garlic.
“You harvest it in like June/July and you plant it again in the fall, for the next spring,” she said. “Garlic is one of those amazing herbs that once you have your first crop of it, a lot of people save the cloves and then plant them again every year. It’s fantastic.”
The community garden space that’s grown to include 17 individual plots will soon contain a vast variety of fresh produce — peas, beans, potatoes, tomatoes — flowers and perennial pollinator plants; whatever gardeners’ — who were allotted space on a first come first serve basis — hearts and appetites desire.
Built by volunteers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakeshore North Community Garden has become a beehive of activity given the financial, social and environmental benefits. Only problem is there are now about the same number of people as gardeners on a wait list, and pending potential expansion on public property in Pinebrook Park, which isn’t imminent, Rekman said the wait looks to be at least several years for some.
There are about 1,000 people currently waiting for garden space in urban areas across the region, according to the Waterloo Region Community Garden Network.
Doug Jones, chair, said co-ordinators hold the lists for the 98 gardens that comprise the network and that they operate independently and autonomously for the most part, with about 1,500 people.
“What we want to do is move the wait lists to the network website and then help people find ways they can achieve their own goals,” he said. “We’re rebooting the website and we have a volunteer page coming up.”
Jones said the regional garden network works with local municipalities and groups like KW Urban Harvester and Young City Growers to expand the number of community gardens and increase opportunities for people who want to grow food.
“In some areas, gentrification in the garden means you’re no longer seeing as many people who need to grow their own food; you’re seeing people who have enough money to have the pleasure of growing their own food,” he said.
People who aren’t earning enough money to feel secure about their food supply tend to work longer hours and usually don’t have a lot of spare time or access to a car, Jones noted.
“We’re really thinking about people who have language barriers, physical barriers and mental health barriers being able to access more garden space so they can do the things that fit in with their capacity.”
In some areas, lack of space poses an issue; however, Jones said there are still lots of opportunities for community groups to partner with municipalities and school boards to establish more garden plots on public property.
A water source is key and fundraising is usually required for capital startup costs, however, grants are available to help.
“I think we need people that are willing to take the initiative,” Jones said, adding that the regional network is working with a group out of University of Waterloo that’s developing SproutMap, a tool that allows community garden facilitators to assess the suitability of potential garden sites.
Rekman started planning for the Lakeshore North garden in 2019 and found dozens of helpers after putting out feelers on Facebook.
“There was a ton of people who were interested, you just need one person to say, ‘Hey, let’s get together and try to plan something?’ It just all fell together after that,” he said.
Rekman said the Lakeshore North community garden has been a great way to connect neighbours and families, including children.
According to the city’s website that includes a step-by-step handbook, there are currently six community vegetable gardens in Waterloo; however, there are more listed by the regional network, including those run out of local post-secondary institutions.
Wilfrid Laurier University’s Northdale campus community garden behind Lazaridis Hall is expanding with 30 new plots for students and staff this season.
Jones noted that a 10-acre allotment garden being established in Petersburg is being shared by about 15 different groups that will require volunteers. The regional garden network is also actively recruiting board members and Jones encourages people to join monthly Zoom meetings to learn more.
“I’m very interested in a quid pro quo way of working,” he said. “People have an opportunity to get produce in return for their volunteer work. That’s the bargain.”
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Local demand for community gardening opportunities was highlighted during our recent Earth Day coverage and the Chronicle wanted to learn more.