Growing your tenant community through gardening
Tenant communities in Hamilton are blooming.
When Theresa Phair came to CityHousing Hamilton (CHH) as a co-op student in 2010, she proposed a community garden program to boost community engagement and increase food security. Phair began with six community garden projects.
Now, five years later, she’s a full-time community development worker whose portfolio includes the facilitation of 32 community garden projects.
Amazingly, all of the gardens she’s helped to build since 2010 have been suggested by community members.
“Our team will put up posters about community gardens and we’ll hear from tenants, ‘we think this community would be really great for a garden’.”
Once there’s interest from a community, Phair invites all of the tenants in the area to a planning meeting. To encourage people to come and to help set a “good food example,” she’ll bring a pot of homemade vegetarian chili, bread, and a big bowl of salad.
At the planning meeting, community members will give suggestions on the garden’s location and format. Then, the whole group will “bundle up and do a walk around” to scope out potential gardening sites. Together, they’ll choose an accessible location that gets good sunlight and has access to water.
Gardens are different for everyone and they should reflect the people who tend them.
“The residents design the garden, they build it, they plant it, they do everything,” Phair explains. “I’m just the facilitator.”
For new garden projects, CHH will fund 100 per cent of the cost of building and gardening materials: wood for building raised beds, soil and mulch, seeds and seedlings, tools and equipment. For a second-year garden, CHH helps with the cost of soil, mulch, and seeds. More mature gardens aim to be financially self-sustaining and gardeners are encouraged to fundraise for equipment and seeds, as needed.
On a new garden’s ‘build day,’ future gardeners and their families are joined by experienced gardeners from around the city, student volunteers, and even members of Phair’s family.
Most of CHH’s community gardens are divided into plots, which are tended by individuals or families. Some will choose to plant vegetables, others choose flowers, many plant a mixture of the two. Some gardens are made entirely of weeds, which can be a sore point for neighbouring gardeners.
“It teaches tolerance and respect,” says Phair. “Gardens are different for everyone and they should reflect the people who tend them.”
“You have to learn to get along with everyone,” agrees Shirley Kitchener, a CHH tenant and the community garden coordinator for her building, 801 Upper Gage Ave. Her building’s garden began with a few small garden beds and has expanded to include 37 beds and 22 gardeners. She tends five garden beds for the community to “help themselves;” the other 32 beds are assigned to tenants. Their garden is now completely self-sustaining, which frees up program money for other CHH tenants to start community gardens.
The average age of gardeners at 801 Upper Gage Ave. is 77 or 78, Kitchener guesses. To help include residents who use walkers, she’s arranged to have some of the beds built three feet off the ground. These beds are longer and narrower – two feet by five feet – than other garden beds so that residents can easily reach in to tend to plants.
“Every apartment building should have some sort of garden so that people can putter, get outside and grow something,” Kitchener says. “There’s something nice about going to the garden to pick beans and making a meal out of it.”
“For those who don’t garden, we have a shaded area for people to sit and get some fresh air or take their tea.”
In February 2014, CHH held its first annual Community Gardens Forum, which brought tenants together for workshops and networking. Mature gardeners partnered with community leaders to teach gardening skills, share examples, and pass along lessons learned. Community partners like the Hamilton Community Garden Network, Neighbour to Neighbour, and Environment Hamilton were on hand to support the event.
“It’s crazy how starting with a garden can grow a community’s capacity,” Phair says. Some of her gardeners have taken the initiative to beautify their buildings, planting flower beds and tending shared green space. Other gardeners have started community kitchens to prepare fresh, healthy, low-cost meals for their neighbours. Still others have recruited local experts to run workshops on canning, preserving, and making salsa. One group went beyond the garden and started an art therapy program.
“I know more people in the building now,” says Kitchener. “I’m very involved in the gardening forums and with helping other gardeners get started. I’m amazed by all the seniors in my building who wanted to have what they call their ‘little farm.’”
Matt Bowen, Manager of Tenant Engagement and Support Services at CHH says that the gardens fill a need for healthy food in their tenant communities. “Given the vulnerable populations that we serve and the lack of resources in some communities, community gardens are an absolutely essential part of building food security in CHH communities.”
“The capacity of these tenants is so inspiring. It blows me away,” Phair adds. “It’s a small investment with a huge social return.” Gardeners enjoy better access to fresh produce, which helps them to eat healthier. CHH has also seen a reduction in vandalism, maintenance calls, and EMS visits in tenant neighbourhoods that have active community gardens.
“Some of these more mature gardeners are now becoming leaders in their city,” Phair says. She’s seen experienced gardeners become more aware of food literacy, public health, and civic issues. Gardeners are bringing their lived experience with food security to community roundtables and committees.
Five years ago, there were 17 community gardens in the city of Hamilton. Today, there are 86, including CHH’s gardens.
“I’m very grateful to CityHousing Hamilton for being so supportive of community gardens,” Kitchener says. “Where else can you go where your landlord will let you put a bunch of big planter boxes in their backyard?”
“Community Garden Best Practices Toolkit: A Guide for Community Organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador.” Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Community Gardening 101.” FoodShare Toronto.
“Community Gardening Manual.” Toronto Community Housing.