April 15, 2019

The trials and tribulations of a wannabe urban gardener

Green Infrastructure

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It’s been a long, cold winter and most of us are itching to get back outside after being sequestered indoors for months.


As the days grow longer and the weather becomes nicer, many of us will start to plan out how we can take advantage of the warm summer months. For some, this may involve spending time outside, swimming, playing and exploring, while for others, it means planting, growing and tending to their garden. Although, for seasoned gardeners, they're probably well past the planning stage and have their seedlings ready to go after the threat of frost is gone.

In the interest of full transparency, I’m not a gardener. This facet often comes as a surprise to some people as they seem to think all landscape architects are inherently one. If you ask me to design a fountain or public plaza—sure, no problem. However, if you ask me about companion plants in a kitchen garden, I’ll probably have the same Google search as you.

This winter though, on an unusually cold and dark January day, I decided that this summer I would explore the world of gardening, and grow my own vegetables, foster a deeper connection with nature and perhaps even sport an authentic farmers tan too. I planned to rent a garden allotment for the year, which is a piece of land divided into smaller plots that range in size, generally between 650 and 1200 square feet. Each plot is rented and assigned to an individual to care for during the season for an affordable price. In Winnipeg, I have the option of renting either a tilled or untilled garden plot from the city or rent directly from a community group and/or garden society. Being that it was January, I figured I had given myself enough time to secure a plot, plan my garden and start growing seeds to be ready for an early spring start. However, I quickly realized that I was a bit too optimistic because I didn’t think my address and apartment lifestyle would become an obstacle to overcome in this pursuit.

I live the urban dream, i.e. I live downtown, I work downtown, and yes in keeping with the coined phrases of the 21st century, I play downtown. This lifestyle comes with many advantages: I generally walk everywhere, public transportation is easily accessible, great restaurants and pubs surround me, and I live a stone’s throw away from where major public events and festivals happen. However, at the same time, the downfall of this is I don’t have a private outdoor space to call my own. So, cultivating my own food comes as a bit of a challenge for me. Yet, still wanting to keep with my ‘localized’ lifestyle, I thought there would be something available downtown. I made the assumption that with everyone living in apartment blocks and condo towers that surely, I wasn’t the only one who craved getting their hands dirty and growing my own fresh organic produce.

Unfortunately, there are no garden allotments downtown. The nearest garden site is a 10-minute drive away, and while I have a car, making it a feasible commute, a lot of people who live downtown choose not to own a vehicle. So, I assume this would be a significant deterrent for downtown residents to participate. Moreover, this site also has no available water source, and it would be expected that you bring in your own water to the site if needed. Frankly, this is a bit of a roadblock for me. There are no outdoor hose bibbs where I live, and the idea of filling pails of water in my kitchen sink, hauling it down my four storey walkup, loading it in my car and then lugging buckets of water to my garden area is too strenuous. So instead, I focused exclusively on garden allotments that had water sources, which meant increasing my commute by another 10-minutes and making the entire process a 40-minute round trip. It turns out my comfortable downtown lifestyle was quickly proving to be inconvenience. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let the garden commute hold me back, and I began contacting the different gardening societies.

Apparently, allotment gardens with water are highly coveted and a challenge to find one that is available to rent. You must get on a wait list, hoping that someone doesn’t return for the new season to get your chance. Sounds easy, and yes, my 2019 summer plan may be more of 2020 summer plan. But there’s another catch. My downtown address and the 20 plus minute commute paints me as a weak candidate to qualify for one. Questions concerning time commitment and easy access to the garden starts to come up, which I understand. The people running these gardens want to weed out the bad seeds (pun intended) to avoid an individual coming into the gardening community and wreaking havoc on everyone’s spaces with poor maintenance practices. I enlisted the help of a friend (another urban apartment dweller) to join me on this venture, splitting the responsibilities and ensuring gardening groups that between the two of us we will be able to maintain the garden appropriately.

This experience has really shed light on the food desert that exists in Downtown Winnipeg. This issue, which primarily focuses on the lack of affordable grocery establishments in the area and not on the ability to grow your own food, is a massive problem for making Downtown Winnipeg a livable community. Fortunately, more and more people are highlighting this gap, and most likely, in the next few years, Winnipeg will see grocery chains move in and provide that necessary amenity.

However, to give people who live downtown the ability to actually grow their own produce would make food desserts more manageable. From what I’ve discovered, if you don’t own a car, there is minimal if any options or methods to do so in the downtown area. It would be an interesting experiment if building owners began to retrofit their rooftops into leasable garden allotments. Maybe this is something I should investigate, concerning the feasibility and logistics of, in the future.

Anyways, it’s now April, and ‘the team’ has finally made it onto a waiting list. Hopefully next year we will have the opportunity to get our hands on a garden plot. For now, 2019 might be a summer of downtown guerilla gardening.