Gardening in Almonte: Hope!

David

How can we respond in the face of the madness in the world; in face of the incredible cruelty of war, murder and terrorism that we see in the news every day? It seems to me that we have a couple of choices – one would be to respond in fear and hide in a bunker, the other would be to keep on trying in whatever way we can to bring some light to the darkness that often appears to prevail in the world. I believe that the legions of volunteers that keep many of our institutions afloat bring that light and sense of hope with them.

I had the opportunity this week to have a chat with Barbara Harris, the coordinator of the aptly named Hope Garden in Ottawa that grows food for the homeless.

main-gate second-gate

Hope Garden is a project of The Shepherds of Good Hope that is the largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to the needs of the homeless and impoverished in the city of Ottawa.  It was founded 30 years ago, and today, serves over 1600 people every day.  Some people look for a hot meal from the soup kitchen, others seek clothing, some come for groceries, while others are looking for a friendly ear to listen. Over 500 people sleep in one of their eight facilities across Ottawa every night. Of the 400 or so volunteers at the Shepherds about 20 are involved in Hope Garden.

I compared notes with Barbara on many of the features of the community gardens that we are involved in. Barbara has been the coordinator for many years and has maintained very detailed records.

Hope Garden is located in the City of Ottawa Kilborn Allotment Gardens in the Alta Vista area in Ottawa. The City provides six plots and storage free of charge – an in-ground water system is one of the most important attributes of the site. Other donors of materials include Greely Sand and Gravel (soil and mushroom compost), Lee Valley Tools (drip irrigation system and its annual installation), Greta’s Organic Gardens (vegetable seedlings) and Newfound Recruiting (spreading soil amendments in the fall).

The total area used for growing vegetables is over 7,000 square feet. In 2015 the total harvest was 7,091 pounds (the peak year was 2012 with 8,688 pounds). In 2015 the main crops were cabbage (2,127 pounds), carrots (1,486 pounds), tomatoes (916 pounds), lettuce (746 pounds), beans (473 pounds), onions (353 pounds) and celery (286 pounds). Several different herbs are also grown.

cabbage overview

All of the food raised in Hope Garden goes directly to the Soup Kitchen (hence the emphasis on cabbages and carrots) at the Shepherds. Garden volunteers are not allowed to take part of the harvest for their own use however many of the volunteers have their own nearby allotment plot.

The twenty or so volunteers contributed 2129 hours of volunteer labour in 2015. This number has been relatively constant over the last four years. As in most organizations a relatively small number of volunteers contribute a disproportionate share of the hours. Twenty per cent of the volunteers contribute nearly sixty per cent of the hours. We were in agreement that one of the key requirements of a successful project is having access to ‘a guy with a pick-up truck’!

In order to get a handle on the value of the value of all this labour Barbara went to the Farmers’ Market at Lansdowne Park at the end of August and collected data on the prices charged by organic farmers for the produce that they were selling for each of the different vegetables and herbs grown in Hope Garden. After doing all of the multiplication and addition the final value arrived at for the 7,091 pounds of produce was $26,909.

The goal is to have at least two people working most mornings with the majority of the work being done on Saturdays. Planting and harvesting is done collaboratively – responsibility for ongoing weeding is allocated to individual volunteers with each volunteer being responsible for three or four of the 76 beds.

Education, communication and celebration are very important components of Hope Garden. Mentoring and instruction is given to beginning gardeners and they were very fortunate for the last few years to have the leadership of a retired instructor from the Algonquin College Horticulture Program. Monthly meetings take place at the garden in addition to three or four informational bulletins that are issued every week through the gardening season. An annual lunch is held in February and a Harvest Celebration Meeting in October. Although not held in 2015, a mid-August Hope Garden Party has been held for many years with live music, donated food, pot luck contributions and various media in attendance.

Barbara emphasized the importance of ensuring that volunteers are valued and ensuring that people have fun as they contribute their labour. From my many observations of Hope Garden when I had an allotment garden nearby was the commitment of the volunteers, the satisfaction of learning and contributing, and the enjoyment of connecting with like-minded people.