Community gardening in the northwest

🕔Apr 07, 2010

Folk tales of magic beans growing to impossible heights are found in almost every culture, reflecting the importance of agriculture. Exceptional gardeners are revered and some seem to have been born with a special talent. Some, however, never have the opportunity to dig their fingers into freshly turned ground. When a little girl named Serenity dragged her father into Smithers’ Princess Neighbourhood Garden, garden coordinator Gail Jenne knew some kind of magic was working.

“She had the right kind of temperament for gardening: patient and interested,” Gail says. “She walked around with a little handful of seeds as if they were something precious.”

Serenity’s interest involved her whole family; big brother Johnson loved the carrots and potatoes and was very impressed with the pumpkin he was able to bring home for Halloween. Her other brother, Little Hawk, became very fond of broccoli. “We’re all eating more greens,” her father, Guy Brown, says.

Francis Namox, another project participant, remembers helping his grandmother in Moricetown. “She had a huge cellar full of vegetables and canned meat, fish, and fruit,” he says. “She used to feed the railway workers.” His partner, Esther Joseph, grew up at Fort Babine. “When we were kids, we’d weed the garden before we went off to school. The turnips and cabbages were huge,” she recounts.

Like many kids who grew up in families with big gardens, Serenity’s father Guy doesn’t remember the work fondly. “I lived with my aunt and she grew a lot of potatoes. She made me help her, and I wasn’t too happy with it at the time.” But his daughter’s interest has pulled him back.

Serenity’s fascination with gardening reflects that of Gail Jenne, the heart behind Princess Garden. A talented musician who directs two community choirs, Gail has been feeding people since she moved to the region over twenty years ago. She operated Gail’s Green Grocery, bringing organic produce to the community, for several years. More recently, she looked across the street from her own garden to a graveled lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. She talked to the owner, Ray Collingwood, about setting up a neighbourhood garden. Her goal was to link it to the Ground to Griddle Neighborhood Kitchen operating out of the Anglican Church next door and create a safe place for people to learn new skills.

Gail says she hoped to see the residents of neighbouring apartment buildings coming to the garden. She wanted their kids to have a place to play, to get their hands dirty, and to eat something they’d grown themselves. With the help of many community organizations and volunteers, the project is taking root. And it’s not the only one.

Growing trend
The north is full of passionate gardeners. Many grow food for their families and friends; a few take things further and grow enough to sell at the farmers’ markets that are flourishing across the region. For some it has become a livelihood. But given the nature of gardening it can be lonely and uncertain work.

Enter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). It’s a concept that gives those who love fresh organic produce, but lack the space or the temperament to grow their own, an opportunity to gain secure access to food while easing the risk and labour for the farmers. People buy shares with money, labour, or both, and help reap the garden’s bounty. From New York to Richmond, from Germany to Japan, people have been using this model to raise meat, fruit and vegetables for over forty years.

Mark Fisher of High Slope Acres outside Telkwa has run a CSA project for the last two years. Back in the ’90s, when he worked for Katimavik in Ontario, he met a host family who lived completely off the grid. The farmer enlisted 80 members who contributed enough labour and cash to operate the farm, and provide food for themselves and their families in return.

For a young man with an entrepreneurial spirit, that experience, added to his love of the restaurant business, set Mark down a path that led to fertile ground in the Bulkley Valley. Soon after his arrival he opened Mountainside Café, which he ran with his sister and brother-in-law for four years, then set up a catering business (Grendelivery) with the Grendel Group for developmentally delayed adults, and finally purchased High Slope Acres.

“Food is life,” he says, “and I’ve always been passionate about it. If done properly, you can feed people with fewer negative environmental impacts and bring positive spiritual, emotional, community and, of course, physical impacts.”

Some may take pleasure in stepping outside on a summer evening to pick lettuce for a salad and dig a few new potatoes for dinner. But gardening is also hard work and subject to many variables. When the weather’s right, the bugs flourish. When the frosts come early, all your hopes for pumpkins dissolve, literally, to mush. And, as Mark discovered, growing food in quantity is just the beginning of hard work. “There’s a need to understand systems,” he explains, “whether it’s growing food or preparing food for others to eat.”

In an effort to draw together some of the agricultural knowledge in the region, he has joined with Gail and others to form Groundbreakers Collective. This summer they will develop land Northern Health has made available near the BV Hospital on Eighth Ave in Smithers, as well as continue with Princess Garden.

“We’re going to experiment with a couple of technologies on how to break new ground,” explains Emily Bulmer, one of the group’s members, “and we’re looking for volunteers to help with the Eighth Avenue Neighbourhood Garden project.” They need planners, builders, and anyone who wants to get down and garden. Food from both neighbourhood gardens will also be sold to raise funds to develop the infrastructure needed to expand the CSA aspect of the project, which is being put on hold for this year.

Like many of the community garden and kitchen projects across the north, Groundbreakers Collective will be bringing people out of their solitary kitchens, their micro-waved nachos, their readymade everything, to gather food with others, to preserve it, to prepare meals and sit 
down together.

“There were times in the garden last year when we had plenty of one kind of vegetable or another,” Gail says. “The participants were so happy to give away some of the food they helped grow. It’s easy to forget the joy of having a little extra to give when most of your life is in survival mode just trying to meet your family’s needs.”

Gardens are not some utopian ideal; good, healthy soil is made up of many components, some of which most of us would rather not see close up. The work can be dirty, disappointing, and infuriating. In other words, it’s good training for life. Or, you could say, life is good training for gardening. While some gardens are immaculate, others are messy piles rich with weeds and slugs. Toads hide there (if you’re lucky) and the deer can come through in one night and eat all your broccoli. But their very unpredictability leaves room for magic. Lift up that cabbage leaf, and you just might find yourself a nice healthy baby. And, if you’re really lucky, one with a green thumb in its mouth.

To get involved in Groundbreakers Collective, call Emily Bulmer (250-847-1075) or Gail Jenne (250-847-9728). In other communities, check out your farmers’ markets, Healthy Living projects, or ask your town or regional district what’s happening. There’s something going on in pretty much every community.

More info…

Opportunities for those who love food and who may be thinking about food security have been gathering momentum. With health initiatives like Healthy Eating Active Living (, literacy projects that link gardens and community kitchens with learning, gleaning projects that collect food from grocery stores, restaurants, or untended fruit trees, grazing gardens, and the explosion of farmers’ markets, we are indeed lucky to have access to diverse and delicious locally sourced food.

Houston’s Community Garden was among the first to link to literacy funding, nine years ago. Low literacy comes in many forms and the garden was a way to connect learners in a meaningful way. “We don’t tell people what they’re going to learn,” explained garden coordinator Belinda LaCombe. The garden now has 35 individual plots and a large common area. It feeds into many activities that give back to the community. “Last year we took some of our produce, sold it at our new Farmers’ Market, then used half the money for the garden and gave half to the food bank. We have storytelling in the garden, and we’re hoping to have Tai Chi there this year.” Many participants become involved in other community initiatives, she says. “Some serve on local committees. Others are now selling their own handicrafts at the Farmers’ Market.”

Local contacts
If you want to track down one of your community gardens, try asking around at the closest farmers’ market. At last count, there were 13 between Dunster and Haida Gwaii; for a complete listing go to the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets’ website at

UNBC’s David Connell and colleagues researched the economic impact of those markets in Terrace, Smithers, and Prince George. Together, they receive over 90,000 visits a year and contribute over two million dollars to local economies.

BC Seeds
Go to to help locate BC-grown seeds and find out how to grow them yourself.