In Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge, 10C Shared Space’s Urban Sustainability Activator Vicky Huang shares the incredible initiatives led by local champions of urban agriculture and funded through Harvest Impact, a project of 10C and Our Food Future’s Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge.
For our third installment, Vicky visits Lisa Conroy of the Two Rivers Community Gardens to learn about the new growing projects that are feeding our community. Below is their story, and a short video featuring the project.
On the brisk morning of October 15th, my coworker Claire and I walked up the slope to meet Lisa Conroy, the coordinator of the Two Rivers Community Gardens, to hear about her “Community Spirit Through Community Gardens” project- a project that does exactly that between the Huron Street Community Garden and the Lyon Park Community Garden.
The story of the Community Spirit Through Community Gardens project:
To understand the story of this project, we must first go into the history of the community gardens at Huron Street and at Lyon Park.
The Huron Street Community Garden has been around for about 20 years now (right?! wow!), with Lisa being Garden Coordinator for the past 4-5 years. When Lisa started working there, the soil at both the Huron Street and Lyon Park gardens were tested and came back both to have low heavy metal toxicity for lead, cadmium and zinc. While the levels were not very high, the risk assessment still limited the types of plants that were able to be grown safely in the soil. Fruit trees and berry bushes were fine, and fruiting crops such as tomatoes were also okay due to the fruit being further-removed from the roots.
This wasn't a problem for the perennial flowers, pollinator plants and the community orchard that are housed within the Huron Street garden. However, this limitation was not ideal nor feasible for having community gardeners, because it meant controlling what gardeners can grow.
"You can’t control what gardeners want to grow.” - Lisa Conroy, Two Rivers Community Garden Coordinator
That being said, the only feasible solution was to place raised beds within the garden. Over the years, with the help of funding and grants from TD and Friends of the Environment, Lisa was able to garner over a dozen raised beds for the garden and provide them to the community members. Today, there are 19 total plots at the garden, with 15 of them being raised beds. The few plots on the ground were grandfathered in, and the gardeners there are aware of the soil’s conditions. Of the 19 plots, one is the Two Rivers Neighbourhood Group community plot and 18 of them rented, personal plots.
“They were all full and so popular last year. Lots of people asked for space.” - Lisa Conroy
The high demand that the garden plots gathered meant that ways to expand the growing space was always a priority for Lisa, and this was exactly what she was hoping to do when she applied and received the “Shovel and Fork” GWUAC funding of $2000.
The Two Rivers Community Gardens & the GWUAC: Community Spirit Through Community Gardens
Lisa applied to the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge (GWUAC) in hopes of building and installing more raised beds at both Two Rivers Community Garden locations: Huron Street and Lyon Park community gardens.
What the GWUAC funding helped achieve:
1. A new “Huron Street Garden” sign
The new sign at the Two Rivers Huron Street Community Garden is a major asset to the garden. It not only provides a vibrant official welcome for any passersby to the garden, it also identifies the space as a community garden - an inclusive and valuable community space.
“A lot of people didn’t know what this space was.” - Lisa Conroy
Because sometimes those passing by don’t know what this space is, they would oftentimes either be afraid to enter and walk through the garden, or think the space is a free-for-all and take the veggies and produce off the vines. The hope is that with a clear sign labelling it as a community orchard and garden with personal gardening plots, more people will feel welcome to visit while simultaneously reducing theft of personal produce.
The plans for the sign do not stop here. Lisa plans for the back of the sign to be a community board: a communal space where people can advertise and announce upcoming events! For example, the garden got a new pizza oven, and they hope to have pizza-baking and bread-baking days. Days where kids groups, moms groups, and local drumming groups come and use the garden can also be posted and shared.
Additionally, the back of the sign will have a space expressing the garden’s gratitude to all the different organizations that have helped the garden become what it is today.
And still, that is not all! More exciting plans for the sign include building a basket system on the sign posts to hold any extra produce from the gardeners. Right now, although extra produce goes towards the Two Rivers Neighbourhood Group emergency food and their “Free Food Fridays”, sometimes gardeners don’t have the time to take their extra produce there. Having a basket for extra produce provides a very low-barrier donation spot to community members, and also simultaneously acts as another prevention for those who would otherwise take produce from the plants themselves. Theft has been a common theme for many community gardens, and Lisa believes that this would be a much better solution than putting fences up, which would take away from the garden’s community feeling.
Currently, the sign is not complete just yet - but with some artistic talent (reach out to Lisa if you’re interested!) and time, these exciting plans will be realized in the spring, just in time for the next planting season.
2. Four additional raised beds at Huron Street Garden
The GWUAC funding also helped procure the materials for four additional raised beds at the Huron Street community garden. To be specific, one raised bed was 12”x4”, one was 4”x8”, and two other ones at the sides of the park were 2”x4”. With these plots, the total number of rented, raised beds are now at 15.
3. Six additional raised beds at Lyon Park Community Garden
In the same way, Lyon Park Community Garden got more raised beds too - six of them, to be exact. Three of them were 12”x4” and three were 8”x4”. These six added plots provided at least six more families their own source of food and urban agricultural space.
The impact of this Community Spirit through Community Gardens
While Lisa and the Two Rivers community gardeners don’t track the exact amount of food produced at the gardens, there are at least 60-80 community members who were directly impacted by the plots available. This estimate is likely on the low end, as people often share their produce with their families, friends and neighbours.
Apart from the community members who own plots at the gardens, the impact extends to those visiting the garden as well, particularly for educational purposes. The kids groups and classes that come to the garden add at least 50 other individuals that directly learn from the garden.
Lisa also runs skillshare workshops for the community, such as various DIY skills (such as sock-darning) and collective kitchens, where community members would come and cook meals together and learn new recipes. She used to run them through Tytler Public School down the street but due to the pandemic, it has been hard to find space to operate from. Most of the workshops have thus been at the garden itself and related to urban agricultural skills. As the excited 10C staff that we are, we talked about how the new space at the Guelph Farmers Market could offer a space for her if it meets their needs.
The extended “Community” of the gardens
The “community” at The Two Rivers Community Gardens extends much beyond the gardeners and students who come to the site. Collaborations with many other local groups widen their impact significantly too! Friends from Escarpment Labs, a local yeast lab that serves craft and home brewers around the world, come weekly every Friday afternoon to help the garden through their employee volunteer program.
“They are a great help.” - Lisa Conroy on the help from the folks at Escarpment Labs
Karen Houle, a community member, teacher, innovator and founder of the Compost Queens of the Royal City, launched her Compost System Rebuild at the Huron Street garden which she calls the “Compost Cathedral”. Her magnificent compost structure stands tall and proud at the garden, teaching and inspiring everyone who walk by about composting and its importance.
Lisa also expressed her gratitude to the City of Guelph, who provided mulch, rain barrels, pollinator plants and municipal support for the garden. The Community Gardens Network has also been a valuable community resource for her, where she keeps up to date with other fellow community garden coordinators and the City’s plans. Ignatius Farm graciously offered and provided the Two Rivers Community Gardens with seedlings at the beginning of the season, without which various plants would not have been acquired. Lastly, Lisa shared how they might be collaborating with Hope House to deliver the skillshare workshops, although details have yet to be finalized.
Next Steps for the Two Rivers Community Gardens
Although Lisa is stepping down from her Community Garden Coordinator role in order to focus more on her full-time position at Ignatius Farm, she expressed excitement for future plans at the gardens. The completion of the sign, with all its components and the basket system; the future skillshare and educational workshops; the success of the composting system - all of these contribute to the upcoming vision of the gardens.
Experiencing the “community spirit” within the Two Rivers Huron Street Community Garden, I truly felt the depth of community here. The deep-rooted sense of community is inescapable after 20 years of history. The fruit trees and berry bushes in the community orchard offered the garden a sense of bounty; that regardless of whether you own any plots, you are welcome in the garden - and here, have some fruits and berries while you admire our pollinator trees and flowers too! There was an amazing balance of community and individuality nestled between the raised beds, the compost system, the art boxes and the orchard. Leaving the garden, I took a final glance and was struck by the significant meaning that this corner of Huron Street and Oliver Street brings to the surrounding community.
“This space is so precious,” I thought to myself. “We need to keep it thriving.”
Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series of Guelph’s newly-innovated urban agriculture projects! (Spoiler: I visit the innovative Rainwater Harvesting Bench at Goldie Park next!)
This is the third installment within the "Growing Possibilities: Stories from the Guelph-Wellington Urban Agriculture Challenge" series. All installments of this series can be found here. The second installment was on the story of the Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative at Burns Drive Park Community Garden.