Brandon’s Central United Church on a Saturday morning is probably the last place you’d expect to find a bunch of seedy characters — yet, there they were.
Organizer Blake Hamilton estimated that some 160 avid gardeners showed up to enjoy a free local-food breakfast, peruse the wide selection of heritage and heirloom seed varieties on offer by three vendors, and swap seeds and bedding plants at the fifth annual Seedy Saturday.
“I think there’s a renewed interest in that part of our heritage, and a renewed interest in self-sufficiency,” said Hamilton, who serves as the city’s community garden network program assistant.
The event, based on similar events promoted nationwide by non-profit group Seeds of Diversity, has grown from humble beginnings.
First held in a musty room with creaky floors at a local community centre five years ago, this year’s event even featured a pair of cellists from Brandon University’s School of Music, who was hired to lend an atmosphere of class to an otherwise “seedy” affair.
Funding from the City of Brandon, the Brandon Community Garden Network and the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation, shows that civic-level politicians are starting to recognize the value in community gardens — not just in terms of nutritious food, fresh air and exercise, but also as a tool for forging harmonious cross-cultural relationships.
That’s especially important in Brandon, where there has been a need to accommodate and integrate a huge influx of immigrant workers brought in from every corner of the globe by the nearby Maple Leaf Foods hog slaughter plant.
“In the community gardens, that’s such a celebration. People are growing different foods and gardening in different ways,” he said.
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For example, the Chinese gardeners have demonstrated eye-popping success with cold-season brassicas and novel squash varieties, while some immigrants from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, have been cultivating exotic cucumbers using seed that they brought from home.
“It’s a very natural thing for some of the immigrant population to grow food,” he said.
But amid the harmony, there has been some friction. Given the gardeners’ diverse social and political backgrounds, Hamilton said it’s not surprising that some may have misinterpreted “community garden” as meaning “vegetables to be shared communally.”
Last year, signs were hastily erected saying, “Please do not steal the vegetables,” in six languages, but Hamilton wonders if the signs were perhaps overly blunt. For this year, a revised, more inclusive message has been created that emphasizes the “rented” nature of the holdings, he added.
To further reinforce the notion of inviolable private ownership, the community garden network will be distributing garden “licence plates” to demarcate individual plots.
Interest in gardening among Brandonites has soared in recent years. Apart from an estimated 700 privately owned garden plots, there are another 12 to 15 community-run places for people to get down and dirty with a dibble and a hoe.
Options for Brandon’s landless majority abound, from 10 raised beds shoehorned in alongside a fence on the Westman Seniors Housing Co-op grounds, another 10 beds near the tennis courts at Westridge Community Centre, and now “Hummingbird,” a huge patch of black dirt originally set aside for a school at Maryland and 26th Street.
Even with 150 new plots added last year, over 50 people are still on a waiting list for a chance to garden on one of the 350 10×20 and 20×30-foot plots. Rental costs for each allotment range from $10-$20 a season — basically a cost-recovery fee for compost and water for irrigation.
With community gardening firmly rooted in Brandon’s culture, Hamilton’s future plans include establishing a “seed library” made up of proven, locally grown varieties that people can access for free on the condition that they replenish their withdrawal with freshly propagated seed after their first crop.