Turning over a pitchfork of soil, Michael Levenston unearths a dozen Jerusalem artichokes. Neither artichokes nor from the Middle East, these tubers are the roots of a sunflower, with the flavour and texture of a potato. They thrive like weeds. “They’re all here in the ground,” he says, “just waiting for hungry [people].”
Fuelled by the smaller household budgets of an economic downturn, buzz about the benefits of urbanites producing their own food is spreading. “And it’s easy,” says Levenston, executive director of City Farmer, a local nonprofit that encourages city dwellers to cultivate food by offering introductory organic gardening classes. “If you’ve got the land, you’ve got sunlight, and you’ve got the energy, there’s no problem.”
For Levenston, growing your own veggies is about more than just eating. It’s about a connection to the process, one he thinks will encourage us to appreciate the effort that goes into producing food. At City Farmer’s Kitsilano demonstration garden, Levenston and coworker Maria Keating show people how easy it is to start growing your own.
Levenston suggests that new gardeners ease into things. “Start with easy stuff: radishes, lettuce, onions. Try tomatoes—stuff that you’re going to have a win with,” he says. For example, mesclun mixes are easy to grow. According to Keating, “At the store, you’ll pay six or seven bucks for a little clamshell; instead, from the garden, you can take five or six leaves and you’ve got a salad.” Lettuce is “militant”, she adds. “It comes up in hedges.”
The price puts fresh, local organic vegetables out of reach for many during tough financial times. When people need to cut costs at the grocery store, their “diets can become 95 percent starch,” says Seaton, owner and operator of FarmCity Food Garden Construction, who goes by only one name. “Veggies are an expense, but if you have any kind of piece of land and some seeds it can be almost free, and you get to eat good food,” she says at her home garden in Kitsilano.
According to Seaton, not having a back yard or a community garden plot doesn’t mean you have to rule out growing your own produce. Her business designs gardens, containers, and watering systems for those with small spaces like apartment balconies. For example, terraced cedar boxes provide compact plots for lettuces, tomatoes, and herbs.
“More people are becoming interested in growing their food,” Seaton says, noting that things are different from decades past, when people preferred manicured lawns to gardens that provide sustenance.
Dan Jason, owner and operator of Salt Spring Seeds—which sells seeds for tomatoes, peppers, and other veggies on-line—has watched sales of some of his selections triple through the spring. “Overall, sales have doubled this year,” Jason says in a phone interview from Salt Spring Island. “Demand has gone up and up and up.”
Growing interest in producing food is bringing urban farming back from the margins into the mainstream. Even the City of Vancouver is getting into the game: part of the City Hall lawn is being converted into a community garden, slated to be planted by June. “The garden plot on City Hall is a show of support from the current administration for community gardens in all areas of the city,” says Devorah Kahn, food policy coordinator for the City of Vancouver, in a phone interview from City Hall.
“With the increase of farmers markets, as people get a taste of the quality and freshness of local produce, they look for ways they can do it themselves,” Kahn says. “People know that if you pick things at the peak of ripeness, they are tastier. And the best way to get something at its ripest is to grow it yourself. No travel time.”
According to Levenston, the satisfaction of growing your own food makes getting your hands dirty worth it.
“I think a lot of it, as well as getting some food, people want something they can do that’s a happy story,” Levenston says, “and I think it’s a happy story.”