Corp Comm Connects

Community gardens help residents know where food comes from
July 8, 2016
Simon Martin

Over the past decade, people have started to care more and more about where their food comes from and what’s in it. 

Evidence for this trend can be seen in the proliferation of farmers markets and specialty grocery stores that focus on natural, unprocessed food.

Another way people across our increasingly urbanized region are tapping into the desire to “get back to the land” is through community gardens, which are sprouting up in every municipality.

A trip to the Newmarket Community Garden shows why they have become so popular.

Tucked away off Mulock Drive, across the road from Newmarket High School, the garden is a bed of activity on a sunny Monday morning.

Joseph and Mary Kwon hose down their eggplant that is bathing in the blistering hot sun.

The couple, who is of Korean origin, have lived in Newmarket for nine years.

Taking the plunge into the community garden world was as simple as walking through the doors of the civic centre, just down the street. 

“I just went to the town to apply,” Mary said.

The Kwons have had their plot for the past two years and are pleased with the results. This year, their bean, tomato, eggplant, zucchini and pepper plants look robust and healthy as they crane up toward the sun. It looks as if this family will get a good yield.

While many people ask why community gardens are necessary when families could plant privately in their own backyards, Mary said the open field where her garden is located is perfect.

“The plants grow big and happier here because there is more sun,” she said.

A little way down the garden, Heidi Van Hoogmoed arrives at her plot by bicycle and starts to get rid of pesky weeds. A Newmarket resident for 16 years, Van Hoogmoed said she enjoys the peacefulness, yet social aspect of the spot.

“I love being in the open space,” she said.

An added benefit of being surrounded by 105 garden plots maintained by others is you learn a lot, Van Hoogmoed said. 

“I love meeting the people here,” she said.

One of the people Van Hoogmoed greets at the garden is 90-year-old Mohammad Ayyoubi.

His plot is marked by two wooden chairs. Perched on the chair at the south of his plot, Ayyoubi severs a garlic head from its stock with a knife. The intoxicating odour from the plant wafts into the hot air.

“The garlic is ready. It’s fresh,” Ayyoubi said, sitting in his chair.

He came to Canada from Afghanistan 18 years ago and has lived in Newmarket for 11 years.

He tries to make it to his place in the centre of the garden most days to tend to his plot.

“It’s gorgeous here,” he said.

While the popularity of community gardens has spiked in recent years, executive director of the York Region Food Network, Joan Stonehocker, said they are not a new concept.

“We have been doing community gardens since the early ’90s,” she said.  

The demand for community gardens, though, has never been greater. Even after expanding the Newmarket location by 22 plots this year, Stonehocker said there is still a two-year waiting list to get a plot in the Newmarket and Aurora community gardens, with which the foot network is partnered.

“A lot of people want to start to grow their own food,” she said.

A new community garden opened up on London Road and Main Street earlier this year with help from the Town of Newmarket. 

“It’s a great place to get started in community gardening,” she said.

The concept of the London Road location is a little different than the Newmarket and Aurora locations because there are no individual plots.

“It’s share the work, share the harvest,” she said.

A group of volunteers recently went out to the new location to plant and label seeds.

“It’s going back to the basic principle of working together as a true closely-knitted community for the common good, and I think that’s beautiful,” said volunteer Sylvie Yeghiaian.

Stonehocker encourages residents who want to see more community gardens in their town to voice that desire to their municipalities.

While community gardens are popular, they still garner vocal opposition, depending on the location. Aurora has tried to implement community gardens in some parks over the past few years only to back down when faced with resistance.

Aurora council, for example, voted against a neighbourhood garden at McMahon Park last year. While 45 residents supported the establishment of a neighbourhood garden, 41 voted against it in a public survey.

The establishment of a community garden also has been in the discussion of Mavrinac Park but, again, there has been opposition. It remains to be seen if it will be part of the plan.

Stonehocker wishes residents could see community gardens are much more than just growing food.

“It’s about sharing. It’s a way to learn. It brings people together,” she said. “ They share food and recipes.”

A community garden is also a great tool to help children learn and appreciate food in its natural, fresh state and pique their interest in cooking.

Christine Stewart, director of the Network North Collaborative in East Gwillimbury, helped work to establish a garden at Robert Munsch Public School in Mount Albert, along with teachers and students.

“It’s about promoting healthy eating,” she said. “You can control what goes on your plant; you are not using chemicals,” 

It’s important for children to see a seed turn into something on their dinner table.

At Robert Munsch Public School, there is a schedule students follow to maintain the garden, Stewart explained.

“It’s about partnerships, friendships and healthy eating,” she said.