By Jan Olson
Strathcona has a history of urban food production dating back over 100 years. We now see houses and schools and businesses and paved roads, but at one time these spaces were filled with gardens. Around the Mill Creek Ravine and close to the river valley the soils were extraordinarily productive and allowed residents to feed themselves when the local grocery store did not exist or when the price of food was high. During the initial immigration movements farmers would bring demonstration gardens to the train stations to show how productive the soils are and what type of produce could be grown. Small general stores could be found around the town, which sold dry goods and some produce. Many citizens found the prices of fresh produce unwarranted. In 1914 community members discussed the high cost of living at a public meeting. Part of the debate consisted of food price increases due to the ‘greedy’ middleman, tariffs and taxes. Some organizations were created out of this meeting, but there was little protection for the small consumer. As a result residents, who could, continued to garden in any spaces they could find.
The Strathcona Horticultural Society was founded in 1909. In 1912 it amalgamated with the Edmonton Horticultural Society and changed its name. However, when the Edmonton Horticultural Society and the Vacant Lots Garden Club decided to join forces in 1918, the Edmonton Horticultural Society became the Edmonton Horticultural and Vacant Lots Garden Association. It was not until 1973 when the name changed back to the original Edmonton Horticultural Society. Although the society’s registration likely lapsed for a short period in the early 1970s, the Edmonton Horticultural Society has been in continuous existence since 1909.
You can still find underutilized green spaces throughout the neighbourhoods, many which have become open park spaces, such as Tubby Bateman Park situated on 97th St. and 88th Ave. Once they were cultivated as large gardens, often refereed to as “Vacant Lot” gardens. In Edmonton and Calgary there were over 4000 of these. They reflected the prudence and attitudes of families during the World Wars and the Great Depression when economic instability was so prevalent. Victory Gardens, also called “war gardens” or “food gardens for defense” were gardens planted both at private residences and on public land during World War I and World War II. The great food transportation routes around the world were not yet established and so it was important for people to grow their own food and allow all resources to be used for the war. The government even used the slogan “Conscript the Garden” to advertise this civic duty to help with the war effort. This movement empowered gardeners through their contribution of labour and showed the soldiers their support back on the home front. This became a philosophy of the Strathcona community and has resurfaced to day as a model to promote sustainability. You can still find Vacant Lot gardens in the area. Most are on land that developers have left empty and are allowing people to garden until they build.
In the 1950s, Edmonton “modernized” and urban food production steadily declined until just a few urban community gardens were left in the early 1990s. Those who maintained a garden, however, were often met with prejudice, because it was seen as an act of desperation, backwardness and economic necessity to “have” to grow one’s own food rather than get it from the modern supermarket. Edmonton author Jennifer Cockrall-King notes “We used to grow a tremendous amount of food in cities because we didn’t have global supply lines supporting us with food.” It is estimated that cities have only a three-day supply of food in the stores, which should make one a bit nervous. She continues about gardening: “It’s hard work and that’s why our grandmothers were so thrilled when they could jump in the car and go to the grocery store for their vegetables.” By the 1990s interest in community gardens re-emerged. The city once again supported the idea of urban food production and there were many gardeners wanting to get their hands dirty. In fact Edmonton now has more urban gardens than almost every other city in Canada
The Strathcona Rail Community Garden
The Strathcona Rail Community Garden website (www.strathconaarailgarden.ca) offers insight into the philosophy of community gardening.
Mission Statement: Strathcona Community Garden’s mission is to provide gardening opportunities and education for members committed to the work and enjoyment involved by providing support, structure and governance.
Vision Statement: Our Strathcona Community Garden vision is for a place of beauty and serenity, where people of all ages can share in the great contentment of gardening. It’s a place for learning healthy, sustainable ways of producing food and flowers in cooperation with others. This garden is an asset to the community.
The SRCG is a fairly new garden for almost all of the 45 plot members, but three members have been gardening on this land for over 25 years. There was much interest in creating a garden here when the land was potentially for sale to developers. Public meetings were held to save the land and with the help of the Edmonton Community Garden the garden began to officially operate. The gardeners range from first timers to those who come from a long history of gardeners.
Beatrice, a gardener originally from France, was one of many who helped to create the garden in 2009. She spoke of the many benefits of having a community garden and romanced about gardening in general. Her grandmother was a gardener in France and she spent many hours learning from her and breathing in the wonderful fresh air. When she and her family moved to Edmonton they settled in the 99th St. area where there are narrow lots shaded by the beautiful elms on the front boulevards. When the opportunity to work with a community garden arose she jumped at the chance to participate. She finds that working in a community garden is wonderful because you meet many people who share a common love of the soil. It is also very rewarding growing your own organic vegetables. She grows a full 20 ft by 10 ft plot that she says produces more than they can eat. She shares the extra produce with very grateful friends and neighbours.
In one of her more interesting comments and one that reflects our 20th century life-style she said that the garden pulls you away from the internet. One has to actually go outside and take care of the garden, get involved with the community and learn from those who are more knowledgeable about the plants that can grow. She said that while you can learn on the internet it is much more interesting learning about zone 3 plants from those who have gardened here before. She said that growing in a zone 3 is very different than gardening in the warmer zones of France, but then she chuckled and said “At least you get a break in winter!”
Both indigenous plants and introduced trees and shrubs were of extreme importance for the survival of native groups and European settlers. These plants have persisted through cycles of forest fires and regrowth over thousands of years. Settlers also brought with them plants from the Old World. Many of these proved hardy to survive the cold winters and the hot dry summers of the prairie climate. When you walk around the 99th St. area there are a few varieties of plants that grow on every street and in almost every yard. Try to see how many you can identify.
One of the most widespread of the foreign plants is the common lilac. Originating in eastern Europe, lilacs were brought to North America by pioneers in the early 1600’s. This plant had many advantages for the early settlers. It is a particularly hardy plant able to withstand a severe and harsh climate. Primarily we find the purple, white and pink lilac varieties in older neighbourhoods of Edmonton where they give off their distinctive scent. They line yards and are even found in the woods where houses used to stand. From the beginning, their appearance and scent proved extremely popular. So popular in fact, that during the 1800’s, horticulturalists began developing hybrids to improve upon the “common” lilac’s characteristics. In some of these cultivars however, larger and more colourful blooms were achieved at the expense of the intensity of the scent. The lilac form is generally a multi-stemmed shrub with an irregular round appearance. Some are pruned into the outline as trees, especially as they grow older. In our back yard we have a lilac that is well over 70 years old. My husband calls it a weed, but I think it is a magnificent bush that shades our yard and offers a gentle scent in spring and early summer. It must be about 30 ft tall. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the play The Spanish Student wrote a romantic line about the plant: How slowly through the lilac-scented air// descends the tranquil moon.
Walking around the 99th Street area it is likely you will see many Caragana hedges. Caragana, commonly known as the Siberian peashrub, is a flowering shrub native to Siberia and the Manchurian province of China. It is possibly the hardiest and toughest shrub in the world thriving in the most hostile or dry soils. While it is classed as a shrub, it is also considered a small tree with upright and spreading branches that grow up to 20-feet tall. Hedge Caragana has light green round compound leaves throughout the spring and summer seasons. It has yellow pea-like flowers hanging below the branches in mid spring, but the fruit is only ornamental. In the fall the leaves turn yellow and are set-off by a smooth olive-green bark. As a dense plant with small leaves it is often used as a hedge for privacy, a windbreak or shelterbelt. The plant though has many other uses. Fibre obtained from the bark is used for making cord, the seeds contain 12.4% of a nutritious fatty oil, and the plant has an extensive root system which can be used for erosion control, especially on marginal land. It is well suited to Edmonton as it is highly tolerant of urban pollution and requires cold winters.
Sweet Chamomile, Ditch Daisy
Sweet Chamomile was imported from eastern Europe and brought over in 1910 as either an ornamental or as a form of grain to Saskatchewan and then to Alberta. It out produces other summer perennials. Its fresh flowers can make a relaxing herbal tea.
How to make Chamomile Herbal Tea
• 2 tbsp chamomile (flowers fresh)
• 2 cups boiling water
• 2 thin apple slices
Combine and let steep for 5 minutes. Add honey to taste.
1) France Royer and Richard Dickenson. Plants of Alberta. Lone Pine Publishing. 2007
2) Wayne Inkpen and Rob Van Eyk. Guide to Common Native Trees and Shrubs of Alberta. Inside Education. Government of Alberta.
3) Canadian Archives
4) Strathcona Rail Community garden. www.strathconarailgarden.ca
5) The Western Producer http://www.producer.com/2012/03/urban-farms-a-growing-trend-for-city-dwellers%E2%80%A9/
6) Tom Monto. Old Strathcona Before the Great Depression. Pioneer Press 2008
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