Urban food gardening, part 2: the reclaimant gardener

Choosing a site for a vegetable garden is dependent on several very practical things. Exposure is critical, so a south-facing site with plenty of east and west exposure will allow needed hours of sun to reach hungry leaves. Water is also required, more than what the summer rains will provide, so a nearby water source must be available. Good soil is key, and distance from home to garden is worth considering carefully.

When you’re a landless urban gardener, required to reclaim an unused patch of land to start your garden, additional factors arise. In trying to keep your garden inconspicuous by nestling up against a fence, hedge, or wall, you’re likely trading away sun exposure. Also, a “nearby” water source becomes a relative idea. Watering with a tap connection and hose is a luxury for the reclaimant gardener: the real question is how far are you willing to haul water?

"Growing food, no garbage please."

Physical requirements aside, community and security are additional considerations when selecting a site. Gardening on land that doesn’t belong to you requires your respect and responsibility for enhancing—not detracting from—the site. Choosing a site where you feel comfortable spending time is important for your long-term commitment to the activity and maintenance of the area. You may also wonder if your lone garden plot will be vandalized or the plants surreptitiously harvested by uninvited guests (human and animal alike).

Community garden in city-owned empty lot, recognized as parkland.

Community garden along rail corridor.

Community garden behind church.

These are not insurmountable barriers for the dedicated urban gardener, but they may go part of the way to explaining the phenomenon of community gardens. While providing the basics of land, sun, and water access, community gardens also provide the encouragement and company of a community of gardeners. There really is security in numbers, as Vancouver’s many community gardens attest to. Typically located on empty private lots, city-owned parkland, or retired rail corridors, many of these gardens started as empty spaces that were recognized by local residents (mostly apartment dwellers, I suspect) as areas with good garden potential. Gardeners dropped anchor, and over time many of the larger community gardens have been legitimized. Others persist without recognized status, depending on the good will of landowners and neighbours not to kick them out.

The urban gardener who claims a patch of unused land and goes it alone, without the real or perceived security of surrounding gardens and like-minded folk, must really want to grow her own food. But it doesn’t mean she can’t have help to do it.

I am this gardener, and on a morning in mid-July I made the decision to install a garden. Though I knew building a raised bed on vacant land was possible to do on my own, I also knew it would be more fun—and the raised box better constructed—if I had the help of my brother.

Raised bed for vegetable gardening, ready to be planted.

After salvaging lumber from a discarded picnic table from the scrap yard in the Home Depot parking lot, and buying only screws and two narrow pieces of green lumber for stakes, we had the materials for the wood box that would hold the soil for a raised garden bed. Two days later, after a day spent pulling out rusty nails, painting the lumber, and sourcing good quality soil, my brother and I assembled the bed on-site. Or should I say that I positioned, held, and sat on the box frame (to make it square, not to rest!) and otherwise played a supportive role while he did most of the work. Once assembled and secured to the ground, we poured in a stationwagon’s worth of composted soil, purchased from a Vancouver supplier.

And there it was, my garden plot, ready for a mid-summer planting.

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