It’s a cold and sunny afternoon, and Laura Boyd-Clowes is digging in KinPark Farm with her colleague Lauren. Boyd-Clowes is a resourceful instructor with a background in landscaping, a Master’s of Science in Ethnobiology, and a broad knowledge of farming.
She’s worked in diverse climates like the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, but now Boyd-Clowes has put down roots on Vancouver Island, becoming a farmer in the Cowichan Valley — more precisely, an urban farmer.
The farm, situated at the very heart of the city of Duncan, was originally an old outdoor swimming pool operated by the municipality. After its removal in 2010, the space was taken over by Cowichan Green Community, a non-profit organization with a focus on environmental projects.
Now, the lot has been developed into a beautiful, fertile and educational urban community food garden.
At KinPark, space to grow organic food for the community
The Kinsmen Park Community Gardens have 30 private raised garden beds accessible to in the community. In an interview, Boyd-Clowes explained community gardens are an excellent option for individuals and families who may be looking to grow fresh produce but don’t have access to an outdoor space, a very common situation in cities.
There is currently a waitlist for garden space, which costs $30 to $60 annually to rent, Boyd-Clowes says.
“Most of the bed owners are local residents,” Boyd-Clowes says, pointing out that the garden is surrounded by apartments and the local high school.
The most obvious of these benefits is access to fresh and healthy produce. Recently, COVID-19 has made discussions about food security all the more vital. Last May, almost one in seven Canadians experienced some food insecurity due to financial constraints. Food insecure people may suffer from malnutrition and consume more low-cost products that are high in energy, sugar, and fats, which could lead to potential health problems.
“There are so many benefits to [community gardens],” Boyd-Clowes adds. “The [first] benefit is to the people who live in these houses the students who go to this high school. This space is beautiful. It’s peaceful.”
“They can come here and eat fresh food [or] enjoy healthy activities.”
The Cowichan Green Community website says growing fruits and vegetables may help community members—including lower-income households — to “have access to enough nutritious, safe, ecologically sustainable, and culturally appropriate food at all times.”
A farm for locals of all ages to learn about agriculture
One of the highlights of the garden is its youth-led urban agriculture demonstration site. Youth between 13 and 18 years old can volunteer at the park for hands-on learning, and the garden’s instructors even offer some more advanced courses on farming and horticulture.
For Boyd-Clowes, the main benefit of the garden’s youth programming is that it has a positive impact on the mental health of her students, on top of the practical skills they gain.
“A lot of young people [I work with] have attention deficit disorder,” she explains. “After 15 minutes working outside, they start calming down and focusing. They can learn, grow their own food and enjoy healthy activities. There’s a lot of therapy that can happen in the garden.”
Boyd-Clowes says she also collaborates with high school teachers to give hands-on science and agriculture lessons.
From saving rainwater to fighting food insecurity
Despite resting on only a quarter of an acre, the KinPark farm is able to maximize its productivity thanks to the principles of permaculture.
The concept of permaculture relies on the design and maintenance of an agricultural ecosystem that has the diversity, stability, and resilience of a natural ecosystem. Essentially, it’s a more sustainable way of farming that uses every part of the land to its full benefit, and imitates the closed loop systems seen in nature.
“[We have] to ensure that the soil stays healthy and nutritious,” Boyd-Clowes says. “We spread compost on all the beds at least once, sometimes twice a year.”
Boyd-Clowes and her colleagues are cultivating pear and apple trees, shrubs, and annual vegetable crops like spinach, beets, carrots and garlic. These fruits and vegetables help each other, thriving by providing beneficial nutrients, shade or support.
The food garden generates about $10,000 in annual revenue selling produce on the Cow-op, an online farmer’s market where customers can buy fresh food from local producers.
“Every layer is edible” explains Boyd-Clowes. “The goal is for us to actually make money. We need to grow a lot of food […] Because we have such a small space, we have to maximize that space, to always keep feeding all these clients.”
Beyond food, Boyd-Clowes hopes KinPark inspires locals to follow practices at home that are simple, economic and ecological. A large bucket collecting rainwater from the building’s roof is a shining example of a low-waste habits in the garden, she says.
“[Visitors] see this system and they think, ‘Oh maybe I could do that in my place. That looks easy,’ so then they start saving their water,” Boyd-Clowed says. “With climate change, we’re going to need people to save their rainwater.”
The claim for more urban food space
The environmental challenges that need to be addressed in cities such as waste and water management, the urban “heat island” effect and food security are now well-documented. By capturing carbon, retaining water in soil, fostering biodiversity, diverting local organic waste for compost, and limiting food transportation, urban food gardens could be a key part of the solution.
“I imagine a future where every public park has at least some section replaced by a permaculture community garden” says Boyd-Clowes .
However, she says community gardens are only one part of the solution. In the end, she explained the responsibility rests on the municipality itself.
“[The City of Duncan] spent a lot of money on landscaping. Some of that money, I think, is wasted, keeping lawn green and mowed very short”.
For the community educator, leaving some spaces covered with no intervention for a couple of years — to let the grass die, build the soil and have it ready to grow vegetables — would not only save money for local governments, but help their wider community.
While it looks like teachers, students and neighbours are keen to engage and grow urban food gardens like at KinPark, Boyd-Clowes wants cities organize more projects locally, and help transform our urban ecosystems.
“I think it would be very easy to find volunteers, students, teachers, neighbours — people who want to do that work,” she says.
This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.
Editor’s note, May 20, 2021: A previous version of this article contained inaccurate information about the availability and cost of community garden space. The article has been updated with the correct information.