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 second installment, Vicky visits Maria Sergio of Burns Drive Park Community Garden to learn about its "Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative" and the growing project that is helping feed our community. Below is their story, and a short video featuring the project.
In the early afternoon on October 4th, I walked down a windy path within Burns Drive Park. To my right, I saw a beautiful array of vegetables and little canvases with drawings on them saying “my favourite vegetable is…”. There, I met Maria Sergio, the co-founder of Burns Drive Park Community Garden and its Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative, and learned how this project sprouted.
The story of Burns Drive Park Community Garden:
The community garden at Burns Drive Park was created two years ago by Maria, her co-founder Jessica, and other local founding members who spotted a great opportunity at the park for a community garden space, especially seeing that it was an area the City considered a priority for urban agriculture programming. Maria had ample previous experience with urban gardening, and after submitting an application to the City and laying the groundwork (such as testing the soil), secured approval for the project.
The community garden sits at the corner of the park, and adds a vibrant community space for the local Burns Drive Park and June Avenue neighbourhood. With personal plots for about $20/year and community plots growing what the community decides, it offers an accessible and low-barrier source of fresh and culturally-appropriate produce and community connections.
From the beginning, the community played a central part in the garden’s identity. Colourful canvases painted by the community kids hung on the fences all around the garden. Colourful 3D-printed labels ran alongside the garden, made and donated by a fellow community member. Labelled bricks marked the personal plots, and painted wooden signs indicated the herb and pollinator gardens.
Over the past two years, the garden has become an integral space for urban agriculture embedded in the community it serves, while also holding so much potential for growth. Last year, when Maria came across the GWUAC, she described it felicitously as the “perfect opportunity to expand the garden and set up its foundation for success” - increasing both its physical space, as well as its educational capability.
Burns Drive Park Community Garden & the GWUAC: The Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative
The expansion project was named the “Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative”, and was selected to be one of the $2,000 recipients of the GWUAC.
With this funding, Maria was able to do a few things:
1. 800-square-foot garden expansion
The biggest impact that the GWUAC funding made was to extend the garden plots at Burns Drive Park Community Garden by 20 ft and 10 ft on both sides of the garden respectively, adding a total of just about 800 square feet of land for a total area of around 3300 square feet. This expansion provided 5 additional personal plots and 4 additional communal plots for a total of 12 personal and 16 communal plots, allowing more families to grow their own food and increase their food security.
2. Levelling the ground to increase accessibility
Seeing as the park and thus, the community garden, rested on a slope, some plots were not very accessible and harder to tend to. With the GWUAC funding, the slope was filled and levelled, making personal plots much more accessible for all its members. Raised beds in this area also made it more accessible, and it was clear that a level gardening space was a very valuable improvement.
3. Creating an educational space and increasing educational capacity
Another huge innovation and likely inspiration behind the project is the educational space that was activated. The 20 ft expansion of the garden space was dedicated to a community classroom, with a blackboard, tree-stump seats, and a row of six sprouting tables. This element has become integral to the community engagement of the project, as there is an abundance of kids that come to the garden every week. As Maria proudly told me, the kids absolutely love the garden and learning about the different types of foods grown, sprouting seedlings, harvesting produce, and saving their seeds.
4. New landscaping fabric
Maria also pointed out the new landscaping fabric that ran through the garden, which was also possible through the GWUAC funding.
5. Addition of an arch at the front
Another key visual of the garden was the addition of a wooden arch at the garden’s entrance. Doubling as a great climbing structure, it looks great as an official entrance to the space, inviting more visitors inside.
The Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative impact
Within the fences of the Burns Drive Park Community Garden is a complete treasure map. The community plots alone yielded around 600 lbs of food this year, a definite increase from previous years. Every pound is shared with the community; families within the Burns Drive/June Avenue neighbourhood. Maria comes every Thursday evening for a weekly community harvest, and there are about 50 people who visit to share the goods that the garden has provided. Any harvest that is extra is donated to Chalmers Community Services Centre, where it is distributed weekly on Fridays to community members in need.
And the kids - the kids are the heart of this garden’s success and engagement. There were so many stories that captured the importance and vitality of the garden for the kids. Maria shared that once, a little girl dug out a carrot and was so proud that she showed it around to all the people in the park before taking it home. She told me about the incredible excitement the kids experienced as they dug potatoes out from the ground, as they’d never seen where potatoes come from before. She told me about how all the seeds that had been saved for the coming years were done during workshops with the kids, and how eager they were to learn about all the plants and food that was in the garden.
"The kids love coming here - a little girl once dug out a carrot and showed it around to all the people in the park, she was so excited."
- Maria Sergio, Burns Drive Park Community Garden Coordinator
In addition to the increased food security the garden contributes to the community. There is an educational impact that will grow and ripple onwards, led by the kids who frequent the garden. This kind of impact is invaluable, because their excitement about growing food and urban agriculture will only inspire more and more people. Moreover, the education that Maria gives at the garden isn’t that of structured, formal workshops - instead, Maria teaches the kids and community members on an ongoing basis, every week sharing knowledge about what comes up in the moment.
Old Growth Forest Project
The Sprout Scouts Community Engagement Initiative also partners with Ignatius Farm on their Old Growth Forest Project, working on forest restoration projects around Guelph. The park hosts Forest Restoration Days to remove invasive species and replace them with native and edible ones, teach the community about the ecology of the land, and build a stronger community of stewards for their local green space.
Next Steps for Sprout Scouts
Maria and I discussed what the future of the community project could look like. She envisioned that the educational capacity could keep increasing, to not only one day a week but weekends too, as well as adult-based programming in addition to the currently children-oriented ones. As well, Maria talked about potentially starting anti-oppression work and creating a safe space in the garden with dedicated times for such workshops and meetings, seeing as she has previous experience with anti-oppression work with women. It was so inspiring to hear the future potential of this garden space, providing not only food, education and community space, but also an active catalyst for social change and innovation.
The abundance of community engagement that I witnessed at the Burns Drive Park Community Garden was absolutely incredible. I was so inspired by Maria, whose advice is to “just do it” - and from this spirit, created this beautiful space from her vision, literally from the ground up. Listening to her stories about the children especially moved me; imagining the community’s kids learning about where their food comes had a special effect, because I know how impactful that experiential learning can be to those kids’ lives (coming from my own experiences with such learning opportunities).
Visiting this garden really drove home the importance of land-based, outdoor and experiential learning for children, as it can be so easy nowadays to become removed from the growing and harvesting of our food. A strong connection to the foods we eat brings about much more than knowledge; it brings understanding, appreciation, gratitude and stewardship for the land we are on.
Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series of Guelph’s newly-innovated urban agriculture projects! (Spoiler: I visit the deeply-rooted Two Rivers Community Garden next!)