St. Jacobs community garden grows food and community: Andrew Coppolino

While working with the Mariposa DR Foundation in the Dominican Republic, Julia Swijters saw the power and value of good food.

The group is a non-profit organization that empowers and educates girls to create community-based solutions to end poverty.

“I know what food insecurity is first-hand but I also saw that they ate well. You’d go into a dirt-floor home and they would feed you, even sharing from their own plates,” she said.

The experience, in part, got her thinking more about growing her own food, but also helping others who either want to garden or who are food insecure.

“Food has always been the conduit for me that has opened up doors and conversations,” she said.

Swijters is a home gardener who works for Home Hardware. In 2016, she approached the company to create a community garden on their property and now she’s garden co-ordinator for the Home Hardware Community Garden in St. Louis. Jacobs.

This past week, eight new members received their plot assignments and will head out to start gardening. They are part of the million people across Canada who have indicated that they will start gardening in 2022, according to an April report from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

“Part of the trade-off was that we would farm as a group, in a collective, for the Woolwich Food Bank and for charitable food donation in the region we could support,” Swijters said.

Family and collective plots

Currently, there are 34 seasonal family garden plots across just over an acre, a third of which is farmed as a collective with food sent to the food bank and organizations such as Meals on Wheels.

Retired Home Hardware employee Frank Hill rototills a garden plot. (Andrew Coppolino / CBC)

Home Hardware staff and retirees have six-meter wide plots in varying lengths depending on what they want to grow. Gardeners take what they need and want for themselves and anything they can’t use is donated.

“At the moment, if you were hungry right now, you could nibble on the top of some garlic,” Swijters said. “There’s rhubarb out there, and the raspberry patch is just coming back. There are chives coming up everywhere.”

Onions left in the ground last fall are now going to seed. Lettuces and kale will soon arrive, while peppers will come along later in the season; before the end of summer: squashes and cabbages.

“You learn to blanch and freeze everything,” Swijters says. “I still have carrots and beans in my freezer from last year.”

Garlic planted last fall popped out of the ground earlier this spring. (Andrew Coppolino / CBC)

While some community gardens are separated by garden boxes, which can limit what you grow, the St. Jacobs garden allows a bit of sprawl.

“You can plant a squash and let it grow. You can produce enough food to actually fill your freezer,” Swijters said.

Gardeners try to use the space wisely, Swijters says. They will plant vertically with crops like pole beans that grow upwards, or cucumber plants that can climb, to save room.

Variety in food and people

Overall, the St. Jacobs garden will average about 26 kinds of vegetables. The group has developed a relationship with a seed company over the years who donates the seeds.

“We’ve not had to purchase seeds, so it’s been really beneficial as far as having a variety of things we would never have tried,” she said.

Variety, in fact, has been growing: Swijters describes gardeners who speak different languages ​​communicating through the cultural foods they are growing: the result is that sometimes they end up learning more and growing each other’s produce.

A view of the Home Hardware Community Garden in St. Jacobs, which has 34 family garden plots for the season across just over an acre. (Andrew Coppolino / CBC)

“As more people come to Canada as Canadians and our palates change and our interests change, we’re going to have to try to source [the varieties] and grow them in the garden, “she said.

‘You can feel’ pride in the garden

Swijters speaks of a “pride of purpose” – she describes the best part of a community garden as giving back.

“You can’t taste it, but you can feel it. Last year, we donated nearly 4,000 pounds of fresh food to Woolwich Community Services’ food share program and also to the Meals on Wheels program,” she says.

“Seeing the numbers and giving back food and knowing that the gardener who fixed the rototiller gets to benefit emotionally because he knows that his part was instrumental.”

Swijters holds up some fresh rhubarb that’s now in season. (Andrew Coppolino / CBC)

But Swijters also describes her work in the garden in more personal terms.

“I’m a single mom, and I have one son,” she said.

“I haven’t had to rely on food banks, so I’m kind of stocking the karma bank in a way. One day, if I needed it, I know it’s there because I helped support it when I didn’t need it. “It’s very fulfilling. It’s very fulfilling.”

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