Communal gardens help people to cultivate earth and friendships

Candace Wormsbecker was tending her carrots in a community garden when an elderly Chinese woman appeared at her side.

KITCHENER, Ont. — Candace Wormsbecker was tending her carrots in a community garden when an elderly Chinese woman appeared at her side. With smiles and gestures, the woman demonstrated her own technique for thinning the rows and replanting the carrots that Wormsbecker had been throwing on the compost heap.

“She couldn’t speak English, but showed me what to do.”

It’s that mixing of cultures and know-how that Wormsbecker likes best about community gardens.

She promotes such gardens for the non-profit group Opportunities Waterloo Region and is a member of the University of Waterloo Community Garden, located on university-owned land.

There, individual gardeners have their own small plots and communal gardeners work together on a larger piece of land.

“Our group is diverse. There are university professors, students, new immigrants, an overwhelming number of computer science people,” says Wormsbecker.

Already this spring, the communal group has planted flats with seeds for peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, squash, Mexican poblanos, a type of green chili pepper — all of which won’t go outside until they’re safe from frost.

In many areas, groups like Wormsbecker’s are starting to stir now that the earth is thawing. They’re surveying their little plots of borrowed earth, often tucked away in parts of parks, church grounds and private property. Soon, they’ll be growing, learning and maybe making a friend or two.

“To me, that garden is a little piece of heaven,” says Violet Grimm of the Rosemount Millennium Community Garden. The garden, located beside its sponsor, Reformation Lutheran Church in Kitchener, donates some of the food it grows to charities.

“It’s in the city, but you feel like you’re in a different world,” Grimm says.

There are at least 40 community gardens across Waterloo Region and in the Guelph area, some with clever names such as the Peace and Carrots Labyrinth and Community Garden. Another is called Weed’um and Reap.

In Guelph, about four community gardens have been started by neighbourhood groups on private lands. Another garden, the Guelph Enabling Garden in Riverside Park, has raised beds and other features to make it accessible to people of differing abilities.

There’s interest in doing more in Guelph. A new food roundtable in the city is to discuss community gardens and other food issues.

“There’s a lot of interest in community gardens right now and we’ve been hearing from a lot of residents who would like community gardens in various places,” said Kelly Guthrie, community engagement co-ordinator with the City of Guelph.

As more people commit themselves to the environment, locally grown food and food security, interest in community gardens is gaining momentum.

Already, some Waterloo Region gardens have waiting lists. There’s interest in adding 15 more.

And at least four people have called the City of Kitchener to ask about its offer to provide up to $1,000 in money and in-kind services to help people wanting to start a community garden.

The benefits of community gardens go well beyond the produce, Wormsbecker says. Such gardens draw people of all ages, cultures, incomes and education levels outside to work. They have rules of conduct and schedules for sharing jobs. They make people appreciate their food and labour.

Community gardens make neighbourhoods safer, says Heather McDiarmid, co-ordinator of Victoria Hills Multicultural Community Garden in Kitchener.

She and her family have a garden at home, but also have plots at the community garden.

“We want to connect with people, with our neighbours,” McDiarmid said. “When you know your neighbour, you feel more secure. It’s easier to trust.”

At the Christopher Champlain Cultivating Community Garden in Cambridge, socializing is every bit as important as growing food and residents hope the 11-plot garden brings people of all generations together.

“We want food, but we really need the community to come together and not be isolated,” said Joe-Ann McComb, executive director of Christopher Champlain Community Centre.

The garden has a diamond-shaped centre where people can sit, and plots that radiate from it like rays of sunshine. Soon, there will be benches — and stepping stones made by children. This year, students from two local schools will tend a plot each.

“It’s not just to cultivate the earth, but to cultivate relationships,” said Paula Johnstone, the centre’s outreach worker.

Building relationships is also the goal of Peace and Carrots Labyrinth and Community Garden in Kitchener. It got started in 2000 and is sponsored by St. James Rosemount United Church.

“I’ve watched the interaction between people who wouldn’t have known each other,” co-ordinator Charmian Patrick says.

One plot is gardened communally with the produce going to the St. John’s Kitchen. There’s also a labyrinth and a garden peace pole, on which the phrase “May Peace Prevail On Earth” appears in several languages.

“I just think that there’s something to be gained for the spirit,” Patrick said. “If I have troubles, two minutes in the garden and I’ve forgotten about them.”

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