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Urban Gardeners Green Prince George's Tough Reputation

Turning empty lots into inner-city veggie patches yields a harvest of goodwill.

By Josh Massey 10 Oct 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Josh Massey is completing his Master's degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Northern British Columbia. 

When a 75-year-old man was arrested after trying to rob a bank in Prince George last year, the city's reputation seemed embarrassingly confirmed.

After all, this northern metropolis is Canada's most dangerous city, according to the 2010 Maclean's ratings.

One grim news story after another has reinforced creepy stereotypes about PG. A torture chamber discovered in the basement of a drug house. A random attack by a machete-wielding madman. Chrome-plated shotguns fitted with silencers seized from a country estate. And most tragically, the continued disappearance of women on a scale close to what has happened in East Vancouver.

But this story is a happier one. It's about small sprouts of healthy life managing to grow through the cracks in Prince George -- despite the occasional veggie burglary.

'Recapturing skills that were commonplace'

The Growing Community Gardens is situated between a Dodge dealership and a low-income housing complex. It is one of three public organic gardens in a Prince George inner-city district controversially referred to as "the hood."

This summer, the Growing Community Gardens doubled its capacity with a grant from citizen coalition Enhance PG, and on September 14 hosted a Harvest Feast, where members and visitors were invited to dine on the season's crop. The 200 plates of local cuisine quickly sold out.

Further signs the locavore movement has come to Prince George include the demonstration compost garden at Exploration Place, the Prince George heritage seed program, several other expanding community gardens in and around town, UNBC's weekly campus farmers' market, as well as northern B.C.'s first year-round farmers' market downtown.

"We are recapturing skills that were commonplace in previous generations," says Growing Community Gardens organizer and UNBC human ecology professor Scott Green.

"We can grow lots right here in Prince George, while some species do better in other communities like Quesnel. I imagine a bartering system where we are exchanging produce between communities."

One section of the Growing Community Gardens is dedicated to testing different strains of kale to see which fair best in the colder climate.

"There were little kids and seniors and everything in between," Green says of a recent cooking workshop held at the gardens. "Almost everyone who is a plot user lives within three blocks. If your garden is close, it's an easy trip and there is sense of ownership and connection."

One inner-city gardener is raising her grandchildren by herself, and the free gardening space is a way for her to put affordable vegetables on the table.

The gardening gang

Green is one of several key players in the Prince George local gardening movement. Other long-time kingpins include city councilor Don Bassermann and BC Parks employee-turned-community-organizer Jovonka Djordjevich. The big three manage separate community gardens with different identities and philosophies.

582px version of Prince George gardeners
Visions of Thanksgiving: Tilling a garden in inner-city Prince George this summer. Photo: Justin Foster.

Milburn garden, which Djordjevich oversees, was started in the late 1990s on land the City had made off-limits to community gardens before Javonka and her group became involved.

AiMHigh, a local special needs organization, has turned an unused schoolyard at what was once Lakewood Elementary into a community garden that expanded this year, and offers grow space for several daycares and The Salvation Army.

Land for Don Bassermann's downtown Victoria street garden, on the other hand, was loaned as an act of corporate goodwill by a credit union, while Scott Green's program benefited from a lot offered by a local Gateway church.

Prince George offers plenty of unused property in its downtown core, which is starting to be creatively co-opted through collaborations such as these. It's the kind of city where community activists can afford to rent prime storefront property on a central downtown street.

Pests and robbers

The gardeners can up their game by attending educational workshops on everything from pest control to composting, and as the gardening community in Prince George grows, techniques and secrets are passed along.

582px version of PG downtown garden
Making communal use of unused property in Prince George's downtown core. Photo: Justin Foster.

"Swiss chard, red, yellow, white, nobody grew that but then they saw me," boasts Sakhon Proulx from Thailand with a friendly smile, passing a head of Thai celery to one of her customers at the farmers' market. The heaps of some 30 varieties of fresh organic greens all come from the backyard of her downtown property.

By observing how people from other countries work the soil, the northern gardening community is expanding its knowledge of what can thrive locally.

Some of them also have had to learn to adapt to the fact that when you leave good stuff out in the open in Prince George, it might get lifted. Djordjevich estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of Milburn garden produce gets stolen.

The Victoria gardens are fenced, which has lowered theft significantly. But some of the gardeners worry the fence has compromised the inclusive feel of the place.

Those who till the AiMHigh gardens took a different approach. Passers through are just encouraged to take what they please.

[See more Tyee stories in: Food.]  [Tyee]

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