Last week I was pleased to attend a meeting at the Oakville Freedom Centre on Bronte Road. They are the host site for a joint garden project that grows food for the hungry in our town. I think that’s very cool. But it has clearly not been an easy row to hoe.
The project was started in 2010 when representatives from Kerr Street Ministries in South Oakville and Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre in North Oakville got together. They were dreaming about fresh produce for families who too often rely on the non-perishable items they get from the food bank. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to offer them lettuce, peas, potatoes and onions, too?
The great news is that there were all kinds of people ready to get on board. The pastors and congregation at FCI offered a large patch of sun-soaked land. Home Depot provided wood to build large garden boxes (24×24). Halton Region provided compost and the town of Oakville offered wood chips. Local business Vern’s Water contributed a water tank and many gallons of water.
Then there were the people who cleared away trees and brush, built the wooden forms, and shovelled endless dirt. Kerr Street Ministry and Oak Park Centre staff spent hours at work, while teams from Appleby College, Chartwell Baptist Church, Kings Collegiate and Deloitte came to help when they could.
The first season was a success, and by this summer there were more improvements: a new shed and water tank, plus hoses and connecting parts that all made the work easier. Herbs were added this year, too, almost by accident. They turned out to be very popular with those receiving food, however, since herbs are so expensive to puchase in the grocery store.
Michelle Knoll, one of the project’s founders is thrilled with how much the garden has produced. At our meeting she said, “Even now I get so excited when I go out and see that a tiny little seed has grown a giant cabbage!” (She sent me these photos of their summer vegetables.)
The story is beautiful, and the site is quite nice. When I saw it, almost all of the beds were prepared for the winter and new ones have been laid out for expansion next summer. But as I listened to the conversation it was quite clear that there are a great many challenges facing this project.
As with every charity, church, or community group, there are never enough volunteers. When that comes to keeping plants alive through a hot dry summer, or harvesting them exactly when they are ripe for picking, this presents a major problem. The centre is a fair distance from the edge of town, so there are no buses nearby and it is too far for anyone to walk. Only those who can drive are able to help easily (this excludes many students and those who cannot afford a car).
Leadership is another classic place to run short. Although there were a good number of us at this meeting, this project still requires people to take charge, plan well and be champions in the community. What about building a web site, someone asked? If we rent plots out to people or groups, who will write the necessary guidelines? Is there a way to create an irrigation system to ease the burden of watering all summer?
And then there is the ongoing learning about what to grow, and how. Pumpkins were great fun, but ended up taking a great deal of land for only a small yield. Swiss chard grows well, but not all the recipients knew how to cook it. And when I asked about potatoes, I was assured that after digging endless bushels of them in the cold and rain, nobody was quite ready to plant them again this spring!
I was impressed by this excellent garden and thrilled for the many people who will eat chard, tomatoes, lettuce and herbs because of it. But I know only too well the near panic when such good work is threatened because not enough people are willing or able to help. My hope is that as more people hear this story, more helpers will emerge. If you live in the Oakville area and want to help, contact me or contact Michelle Knoll directly at the Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre. She would love to hear from you!