Ask any gardener – a garden is good for the soul. There’s something about sharing in the ongoing wonder of creation, of coaxing life from a seed and nurturing its growth. And the scent of fresh basil, of sun-warmed strawberries bursting with juicy sweetness . . . the spicy scent of sweet peas – a garden is a feast for all the senses. Even apartment dwellers long for a patch of earth where they can grow things.
It comes as no surprise, then, that a community garden has sprung up at St. Mary Magdalene’s Anglican Church in Vancouver. The church is housed on the ground floor of St. George’s Place, an apartment building created by St. George’s Anglican Church, one of the founding parishes of St. Mary Magdalene’s. The building, run by St. George’s Place Society, included a small, fenced playground on the southeast corner which was never used; it was literally growing moss. Some of the parishioners at St. Mary Magdalene’s, noticing the bright southern exposure, began to dream of growing more than moss in the space. And thus was planted the seed of a community garden for the parishioners and the residents.
In the case of this community garden, though, there were some special design considerations. The suites in St. George’s Place are designed to accommodate people with disabilities, and several of the residents use wheelchairs and have other physical challenges, so this would have to be an accessible garden.
Starting from the ground up, the surface could not be the usual bark mulch, gravel or dirt because of the wheelchairs. Luckily, the rubber matting used for the surface of the playground worked well for wheelchairs, and moisture from the garden boxes wouldn’t damage it.
The next consideration was planting boxes. The boxes you see in most community gardens are great – nice and deep for lots of soil, not too wide to reach across – but they require the gardener to kneel, crouch or stand and bend over to work. Not only is this obviously impossible for someone in a wheelchair, but it is challenging for folk with bad backs or bad knees. So we needed elevated planters. There are many styles available, but most don’t allow room for a wheelchair to fit underneath (as you would sit at a desk). The perfect boxes were found at, of all places, Costco!
Not everyone who uses the garden needs a raised box, and the ground level ones have more room to grow. Our garden boxes, from sustainably harvested wood, were made locally and provided, along with lots of sage;), experienced advice AND free delivery, from Shifting Growth, a local charity.
We put the raised boxes around the perimeter and the regular boxes in rows in the centre. Here we encountered another design consideration. ‘Walk’ways around the garden actually needed to be ‘wheel’ways! We had to make sure that wheelchairs, even the big power chairs, had room to manoeuvre, and to turn around in the corners. Faucets and hoses needed to be mounted up off the ground, because someone in a chair can’t bend over to pick things up. Watering wands and hose nozzles for people with limited hand mobility and strength should be light, easy to adjust and sturdy – they will get dropped. We used lever operated faucets for similar reasons. Neon green hoses, tools and corners made things easier to see for visually impaired people.
By the time the boxes were assembled and filled it was the end of May, late for starting a garden, but the 12 available boxes were quickly claimed. Lettuce, tomatoes, basil, pansies, lavender and other herbs were the first plants in, while other gardeners, more patient, planted seeds in neat, compact rows.
Watering, thinning, weeding and harvesting and conversations about cutworms and ‘blossom end rot’ brought neighbours and parishioners together. The more diligent gardeners surreptitiously watered their neighbours’ thirsty planters when the weather was really hot. And the garden grew.
As the days get cooler and the season draws to a close, plans are shaping up for next year. We will be adding more boxes – the elevated, wheelchair-friendly ones proved most popular. Pots and tools have been donated by elders in the parish who are downsizing their own garden ambitions. Plastic covers for early spring plantings are a possibility, and some craft beer fans want to grow hops!