Among the manicured lawns edged with rhododendrons and ornamental grasses, one front yard stands out.
Rows of arugula, spinach and tomatoes cover the front yard—the grass is confined to the periphery of the yard. Paula Sobie is weeding the spinach, while Seamus (aged 2) and Morgan (aged 4) play at the edge of the garden. Martin Scaia is on the street getting tools out of the Volkswagen cargo van. A man walks out of the house and thanks Paula for the greens she gave him the week before.
Paula and Martin run City Harvest—a market garden in the middle of Greater Victoria, British Columbia. Their farmland consists of more than a dozen city yards in which the couple has transformed lawns into organic vegetable gardens. In lieu of rent for the land, Paula and Martin provide organic vegetables to the participating landowners. The bulk of the harvest is sold to local customers.
The business developed from the couple’s desire to live in the city and have meaningful work that would enable them to spend time with their children.
“We’re both passionate about spending time outside,” says Paula, “and we have a great love of food. That’s combined with the growing interest in eating locally, and of treading lightly on the planet in terms of our food consumption. I see food as a wonderful opportunity to express my ecological values at least three times a day.”
“With City Harvest,” she says, “we’re enabling others to eat more locally, seasonally, and eat organically.”
“And,” Paula adds, “we had a fear of ending up in desk jobs that held no interest for us.”
Paula and Martin wanted to apply their gardening experience to develop a market garden, but they couldn’t afford to buy enough land in the city. They had heard of urban farming, particularly a program called SPIN (S-mall P-lot IN-tensive) farming.
Martin says, “With SPIN farming, you buy into an existing community of farmers. On the email listserv, new SPIN farmers and experienced ones can connect. It’s a great learning experience.”
Paula learned about SPIN farming at a course given by Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen of Saskatoon. The Winnipeg workshop was partially sponsored by a chapter of Canadian Organic Growers—the Organic Food Council of Manitoba.
Relying on relay crops
With only a small amount of land under cultivation, Paula and Martin need to maximize the return from each square foot of garden.
“We focus on high relay crops,” says Martin, “particularly in the gardens close to our house. Once a crop is harvested, we cultivate and plant again.”
The main crops include salad and braising greens, beets, scallions, filet beans, fresh soybeans (edamame), Japanese turnips, summer squash and radishes. In a few of the plots that are further away (which are often the larger plots), low-maintenance crops are grown, such as leeks, carrots, parsnips and potatoes. These gardens may be as far as a twenty-minute drive away and are sometimes visited only once a week.
Some of the crops are directseeded but many are transplanted in soil blocks as described in Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower. The compost and soil amendments in the blocks help provide a bit more fertility to the gardens.
“Eliot Coleman is my personal hero,” says Martin. “I love the way he approaches problems, and his innovations. It’s very much like an island approach—of being selfreliant.”
The couple try to keep a fairly closed loop system of nutrients. They make their own compost and rely on that for soil fertility, rather than outside inputs.
Potting shed on wheels
To travel between the plots, Martin has renovated the family’s Volkswagen cargo van so that it can carry a rototiller, flats of seedlings, tools and the two children in their car seats. He took out the row of seats behind the front seats to allow for more space. Many tools fit in the cargo box on the roof of the van. When they are moving flats of seedlings, he puts the middle seat down and lays a sheet of plywood across a frame. They haven’t had any problems with seedlings being damaged while in transit.
After the crops are harvested, they are cleaned at Paula and Martin’s house. With tender crops like greens, they will harvest from just one or two gardens at a time. The greens are put into plastic bins, driven back to the house where they are washed in the backyard and dried on bread trays. The whole process is done very quickly before moving on to harvest another garden. Because different crops are grown at different properties, the greens are pooled from a number of yards creating a diverse mix of greens. With less sensitive crops, such as root vegetables, the couple can harvest from several gardens before returning to their house.
City Harvest markets the produce in a number of ways. Some of the food is sold to Small Potatoes Urban Delivery (SPUD)—an organic home delivery service. City Harvest also supplies pocket markets with produce. These are small markets organized and staffed by FoodRoots, a food distribution cooperative that acts as a link between consumers and local organic farmers.
Martin and Paula sell much of what they produce to the Island Chefs Collaborative—a group of local chefs committed to using as much local food as possible in their restaurants. The chefs reserve some of the produce delivered by farmers each week for use in their restaurants, while the excess is then sold at a weekly market staffed by the chefs.
The couple uses organic farming methods and ensures that the landowners do not use lawn chemicals or other prohibited substances around the garden. However, the operation cannot be certified as organic given the lack of buffer zones around each yard and other constraints. Lack of certification does not seem to affect their sales. Buyers such as SPUD that otherwise deal exclusively with certified organic produce will accept City Harvest’s produce because they support the idea of growing within the city.
“When we started, we thought the main challenge would be getting land,” says Martin, “but that hasn’t been a problem at all, even though we haven’t done any paid advertising.” The couple have posted listings on a free internet bulletin board (and their own website) about looking for land.
“We’ve been offered acres and acres of land,” says Martin. “The owners don’t want anything in return except for some vegetables. They want to see the land used.”
Homeowners participate in the program for a number of reasons. Some, particularly the elderly ones, are nostalgic about the backyard gardens they grew up with or maintained on their own until they could no longer do so. Others are from cultures where food gardens on city lots are the norm. At one point, a European man saw the gardens and said, “Finally, someone who knows what a backyard is for.”
The property owners also appreciate that they now have less lawn to maintain. At times, this is tied in with environmental values. As one property owner says, he prefers having Martin and Paula garden on the land rather than supporting the “unbelievable lunacy of burning fossil fuels to keep the innocent grass from getting above three inches tall.” He also wants to eat local organic food rather than “products of industrial agriculture that have been shipped from all around the world at great environmental expense.”
Cats, kids and other challenges
The couple does face some pest problems but not the ones common to most market gardens. Cats and kids pose the greatestproblems. Cat damage to beds can be reduced by keeping the beds well watered until the plants become established. With children, Martin and Paula try to keep their own children busy with either gardening or toys, and hope that that the homeowners do the same.
The other pest problems they face are wireworms and cutworms, both of which are common after sod is turned into gardens. This is where their own children are a great help—picking pests. Paula and Martin also pick slugs early in the morning, As well, slugs are repelled by eggshells and trapped using beer as bait.
City Harvest faces another challenge. “In our municipality, Oak Bay,” Paula says, “what we’re doing is against the law. Agriculture, defined as growing plants for sale, is illegal. This is because of a change in bylaws that happened only a few years ago.” The bylaw change resulted from a fiasco involving a family who was selling rhododendrons from their property. At first, it was just a hobby but then the family received farm status from the provincial assessment authority and, in turn, a huge tax break. The municipality realized that it was losing thousands of dollars a year from this one property and banned agriculture altogether as a result.
The couple is “working to educate those in positions of power to remove the regulatory barriers and change the bylaw.” And at the same time, they are using this as an opportunity to educate the public about the link between eating local food and climate change.
Beyond the gardens
With backgrounds in environmental education, both Paula and Martin want to teach others about urban growing. For example, in February 2008, Paula spoke about City Harvest at COG’s one-day conference “Visionary Farmers and Consumers,” held in Toronto.
“We want more and more people to do this,” Martin says. “If we can enable the property owners to grow food in their own backyards, that’s a great thing. Also, we would like to get involved in more educational opportunities, such as helping with community gardens. We want people to rethink their food choices as being potent statements of the world they envision and support.”
For more information on City Harvest, see www.cityharvest.ca.
Photo credits: Janet Wallace