Although city farming has been growing in popularity recently, it has deep roots in Canada. Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, for example, earned its moniker as a derogatory slur directed at impoverished Irish immigrant residents who settled in the area in the 1840s and grew cabbages, among other veggies, on their front lawns. Later that century, city dwellers began “reclaiming” vacant laneways and boulevards to grow life-sustaining produce during difficult economic times.

During the First World War, rationing inspired patriotic (and hungry) citizens to tend “Liberty Gardens” — backyards and unused city lands converted to miniature potato, carrot and bean patches — so that produce from the country’s farm regions could better serve the war effort. The practice was resurrected during the Sec Second World War with “Victory Gardens,” where residents grew their own food to supplement the limited supplies their ration books allowed them to purchase. In some cases, wartime gardens outlasted the conflict but, for the most part, they faded into history.

The modern community gardening movement started in the 1970s. The ACGA’s Betsy Johnson attributes its growth to a number of factors, including heightened eco-awareness, the desire for low-cost, locally grown produce and frustration over the rundown state of inner city neighbourhoods, not to mention gardening being a great low-impact outdoor activity. Today, she estimates there are as many as 20,000 community gardens of varying sizes across North America.

One reason for their current popularity is that, with the increased population densities of our cities, fewer residents have access to tillable soil at home. Luckily, there are allotment gardens, parcels of land where, for a small fee, residents can rent a section to grow herbs and vegetables for their own consumption. (The individual plots for which students shell out an extra $5 in Western’s community garden would be considered allotments.)

Nearly 1,500 allotments exist in 11 municipally run City of Toronto gardens. They range from the 24 plots in west-end Silverthorne Garden to the 245-plot Four Winds Garden on the city’s north edge. The most idyllic, though, are the 109- numbered plots laid out in two parcels of land in a rolling clearing in the middle of Toronto’s sprawling High Park.

Marilyn Melville and her husband, Austin Repath, have been tending the same six-by-nine-metre High Park plot for the past 15 years. “We grow pretty straightforward fare: tomatoes, potatoes and peas. Our onions last us through the winter,” says Melville. This year they are also trying to raise cantaloupes, pumpkins and corn, though they have had problems with the park’s chipmunks nibbling away on the kernels in the past. And even with a padlocked gate and two-metre-high perimeter fence, two-legged pests can be an occasional nuisance — “things walk,” as Repath puts it. But such losses don’t really bother them. They still have plenty of food for themselves and to share with their friends.

While the annual fee of $53.50 is considerably more than when the couple began gardening here, Melville still thinks their garden is a great deal. “The beauty about this garden is that you get people from every age and ethnic group. It’s a whole collage of people,” she says. There’s also a strong sense of community. The couple relates how, when one gardener was hospitalized, his fellow green thumbs tended his plot for him.

Melville introduces me to Inge Uddin, who has worked the plot diagonally across from hers for the past seven years. A retiree, Uddin is able to tend to her flowers, herbs and vegetables most mornings. She has been a lifelong gardener — “I learned it at my grandmother’s knee” — and when she moved from a house to an apartment, she was happy to discover the High Park allotments. “It’s such a lovely place,” says Uddin, pausing to take in the constant chatter of birds. “We have to treasure every bit of nature we have, especially here in the city.”

Toronto is not alone in providing garden space for those who have none to call their own. Kitchener for example, is home to the 10-year-old Queen’s Green Community Garden. The gardeners who rent the 22 plots (for $20 a year, $10 of which is refunded if they clean up their parcel at the end of the season) raise a variety of produce in their well-kept, wood-bordered plots, including heirloom veggies, currant bushes and strawberry plants and even edible flowers. The garden has an on-site water drum, a tool storage shed, a trellis-topped bench and, right in the middle, a donated red brick bake oven where pizzas are cooked for TWC’s café.

Back at GROW in Kitchener, Amaryah de Groot, a project coordinator with TWC, guides me around the site. “The garden is a mix of perennials, annuals and vegetables, but we grow predominantly herbs,” she says. One plot, a native herb garden, includes echinacea, the root of which is used to make a cold remedy, bergamot – also known as bee balm – and Virginia mountain mint, both used in teas, and the licorice-fl avoured anise hyssop. Another sunburst-shaped plot mimics the GROW logo, with parsley, sage and thyme laid out in rows representing the sun’s rays. Beside the greenhouse is a cold frame — a sort of homemade minigreenhouse — where they grow greens as kale and Swiss chard. Everything is grown organically so, as de Groot later demonstrates, pest control can consist of hand picking slugs off vegetation and crushing them underfoot.

So-called companion planting is also used to fend off predators. “If you plant onion around tomatoes, it helps prevent rabbits from getting the tomatoes,” explains de Groot. (Companion planting can also enhance the flavour of certain plants. Tomatoes, for example, are said to absorb a hint of basil taste if the herb is planted nearby.)

After leaving the GROW site, I take the short drive downtown and stop in for lunch at Queen Street Commons, a bohemian, vegetarian café in one of TWC’s two multi-purpose facilities. Along with daily specials, the fare includes sandwiches, homemade dips and vegetarian pizzas.

So, in a delightful example of non-profit synergy, if you happen to stop in for lunch at the Queen Street Commons, you can order a pizza, baked down the road at the Queen’s Green and fl avoured with herbs cultivated from the GROW garden.

Freelance writer and editor Allan Britnell grows onions and mint at his Toronto home.

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allan_britnellFreelance writer and editor Allan Britnell grows onions and mint at his Toronto home.