Crops and Robbers

October 1, 2009

City folk long to know the value of the tired green Earth. Within Vancouver’s concrete limits, there are now 51 parcels of land given over to community gardens; that’s 2,750 plots of dirt claimed by yoga instructors, out-of-work realtors, and graduate students who are earnestly engaged in an escape from their individual civic stresses. What began as a war measure morphed into first a petit-bourgeois pursuit—the vegetable patches lining Sixth Avenue, say, tended by Kitsilano residents in oversized sun hats—and then into something less twee, with several gardens consuming downtown acreage, some immediately abutted by the city’s dirtiest, most crowded streets.

Twenty dollars per annum (and over a year on the wait list) secured me my own plot in downtown’s Nelson Park. “Just don’t plant pumpkins,” said Abigail as she gave me my orientation. “They smash pumpkins.”

That’s not all “they” do. Every time I garden someone will stop and ask, “Don’t they steal?” Yes, in fact, they do. From my patch, 15 feet by 10: one tomato plant; one purple lily; an entire row of carrots; seven sky-blue gladiolas; and, inexplicably, one medium-sized rock.

Garden thieves are a regular topic in chats over the fence between Nelson Park’s two dozen gardeners. Nora’s English is not so good, but her disappointment was clear as she mumbled “Why? My strawberries! Why?”

“Vagrants!” spat one white-haired woman when she saw the crater where my tomato plant had been. Her theory seemed unlikely—I saw no guilty runaways or drug addicts consuming Caprese salads in the following weeks. No, the perpetrators could not be deduced merely by our downtown locale or the presence of unsavoury types in the area. The truth was more sinister.

As summer plodded on, we began to catch our foes in the act. The very public position of Nelson Park makes the public feel ours is, partly, their bounty on display. People who would never steal a $10 garden gnome from a front yard, who would never pocket a wad of Whole Foods produce, thought nothing of plucking an eggplant that represented five months of care.

One day, while I was harvesting my spinach, a jolly man crouched beside me and began eagerly picking fistuls of it himself. “Isn’t it just wonderful?” he beamed. And I realized that, like a child, he had no concept of the mechanisms by which he profited. He thought, simply, that he and I had been provided for—by Gregor Robertson’s government, presumably. (Taking its cue from Obama and the Queen, our city hall has given 330 square metres of its yard up for gardens.) I didn’t have the heart to chastise him. “Yes, it’s great,” I said, and let him take what he wanted.

I should be happy to lose only a portion of my produce. Others will soon enough have their entire land snatched up. The seemingly incongruous garden installed at the downtown end of the Granville Bridge and the one that bloomed this summer at the bustling corner of Burrard and Davie are really place holders for the towers that recession-hobbled developers can’t build yet. (Developers get a 70 percent tax cut when they convert an empty lot into temporary gardens.) Soon enough, this green respite will end.

As for our plots at Nelson Park, they are nuzzled in the no-man’s-land between a dog park and the sidewalk—land that isn’t much good for anything but growing spinach. And if a portion of that spinach is eaten by morons or slugs, there’s still a hefty crop for me. I had to blanch and freeze an enormous bagful, which boiled down to about the amount you get in a frozen cube available at Safeway. I did the math: if I paid myself minimum wage for the hours tending it, my own spinach—$1.99 at the grocery store—should sell for roughly $85.

My garden neighbour, Sean, has had plenty stolen from his plot, too. But he waved me over one day to show me an enormous cucumber that had developed in secrecy beneath some foliage. “They got the others,” he said. “But they missed this one.” He plucked it, sliced it. And as he popped that green coin of labour and love into his mouth a look of mild astonishment came over him.

He frowned slightly as he chewed. “It tastes,” he said, “exactly like a cucumber.” 

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