URBAN GARDENING: Condo living no barrier to being a city farmer

In an expensive city like Vancouver, many gardeners commute to their plots. Here are tips for gardening by bike and bus.

Rebecca Cuttler loads up produce. Photo by Gerry Cuttler
Rebecca Cuttler loads up with the week’s “groceries” to take home. Photo by Gerry Cuttler.

Most of us know by now that Vancouver is one of the world’s most unaffordable cities. The opportunity to grow food here often feels like a luxury. As much as our city is known for its green-minded, food-conscious approach, the reality is that a large portion of Vancouver residents rent and live in condos without much (or any) outdoor space. Our city’s high density is a wonderful thing in many ways, making transportation easy and preventing urban sprawl. However, it also means that residential garden space is scarce.

Thankfully, there are options for local food-growers. Vancouver has thousands of community garden plots. Crafty gardeners can strike up deals with home-owning neighbours or friends. The opportunities are there for those who go looking.

In an expensive city like Vancouver, many gardeners commute to their plots. Here

Start your seeds and home, and then take the seedlings to your garden on the bus. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

When you don’t live near your garden, you have to commute to it. And that can be a challenge. I’ve written before about how my own garden is on the other side of town from where I live, at my parents’ house. Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of traveling to my plants:

1. Buy a good set of bike panniers, and containers that fit inside them.
I travel to my garden by bike or bus. On biking days, I use panniers (saddlebags) to transport the harvest. I found a set of dollar-store clear plastic totes that fit perfectly into the panniers, and perfectly into our fridge. The totes go straight from the garden to my bike to the fridge.

Panniers with totes. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler

With a good set of panniers and totes that fit inside them, you can carry a big harvest from the garden to your fridge. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

It’s amazing how much you can carry this way. Pounds of potatoes? For sure. Delicate tomatoes and basil? Totally doable if you put them inside another, smaller container and pack heavier veggies on the bottom. In addition to panniers, I usually wear a big backpack and strap my camera case to the top of our bike rack. I’m a very wimpy biker, so if I can do this, so can you.

Side note: I’m currently looking for better totes, because although the ones I have are inexpensive and convenient, I'm kind of afraid of BPAs.

2. Treat your garden like a grocery store.
I recently wrote about how to find the time to fit gardening into your busy life. One of my suggestions was to designate one day per week as your “gardening day." Further to this idea, think of your garden as your grocery store. In fact, you could attach a garden visit onto your actual grocery shopping routine. Harvest big amounts, enough to keep you going for a week.

3. Get a gardening partner.
My parents are my gardening partners, taking care of watering, maintenance and supply purchases in between my weekly visits. I couldn’t do it without them. If you are gardening in someone else’s yard, explain that you’ll need their support, and give them a share of the harvest in exchange. If you’re in a community garden, band together with fellow members to establish a watering schedule. Just make sure they’re reliable people, and consider making a shared calendar or written agreement.

4. Start your seeds at home.
Newly planted seeds need close monitoring and careful watering. Start them at home in small pots. Once they’ve developed their first true leaves, take them out to the garden. I do this by piling seedlings into our totes and taking them on the bus, as they wouldn’t fare well on a bike. I get lots of attention from other passengers when I take my plants for a bus ride.

5. Stick with it.
When you don’t see your garden every day, it can easily fall into neglect. It breaks my heart to see community garden plots that have fallen into disarray. The work of growing food is life-giving and powerful, and even a small space can yield big returns if managed well. If you’re having challenges maintaining your garden, ask for help, or give the plot to someone else who truly wants it.

We Vancouverites aren’t alone. There are lots of places in the world where commuting to your garden is the norm, including much of Europe, where allotment gardens line the outskirts of big, dense cities. With creativity and perseverance, we can all find a space to grow food.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.

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