Ward Teulon is surrounded by construction and car traffic noise. A highrise building is growing out of the concrete across the street. Teulon does not notice it. His eyes and hands are deep in the soil. The 44-year old agrologist is interested in growing food out of this soil. He is on the seventh-floor mezzanine rooftop of the Freesia, a 181-unit highrise condominium in downtown, the first to incorporate garden plots for residents.

The garden area features 60 wood-frame raised beds, a tool shed, and garden lockers. The plots are covered with weeds, and nothing grows. “It is not good soil right now. It is probably acidic because of the rain; it doesn’t have nutrients because nothing has been applied. It just needs to be amended. But there are lots of opportunities, it has good potential,” says Teulon. “If you’ve got sun, soil and water, you are in business.” By June, Teulon hopes to be growing herbs, beans and other vegetables this summer. He believes he can grow anything out of the city. And make money at it.

In 2006, he started City Farm Boy, a company that promotes urban agriculture. “For years I have been thinking how we use our landscape, and I often wondered why there are so few gardens in the city. A lot of the soil in the city is very good,” he explains. The concept is simple. Teulon uses private backyards in the city that owners don’t have the time or the skill to look after, and puts them into food production. Garden owners get fresh vegetables, and the City Farm Boy sells the produce to farmers’ markets. “It is really rewarding to be able to grow your own food, harvest it, take it to the market and sell it for people to eat it,” says Teulon. Last year he made $2,400 at the farmers’ markets. The Freesia’s rooftop is the latest addition to his 8,000-square-foot inventory of garden space. Initially the Freesia garden plots were offered for sale to the building’s residents at a price tag ranging from $2,500 to $3,000.

Only two plots sold. Concerned that the unkempt garden would quickly become an eyesore, the building strata council asked Teulon to maintain it.

Teulon hopes to develop a network of urban farmers in the city who will learn how to grow food in neighbourhood backyards and sell it at the local markets.

Urban agriculture

Teulon is not the only one who believes in urban agriculture. More people are interested in growing food wherever they can in the city: on rooftops and balconies, in private backyards and community gardens. Not too far from the Freesia’s rooftop, Miriam Stuart, a resident at the Lore Krill Housing Co-op in Gastown, grows tomatoes, eggplants, beets, spinach and other vegetables on the building’s rooftop. Stuart, who lived on Bowen Island for twenty years, has always loved gardening, and enjoys doing so on a rooftop. “You are right in the middle of the city but you can get lost up there and forget where you are with all the cranes and the noise. Somehow you block that out working in the soil,” she says.

Private developers have caught on to the trend. The development company ONNI turned a vacant site at Seymour and Pacific streets in the heart of Yaletown into a community garden. Seventy-nine plots were made available on a first-come first-served basis to community groups and residents to grow food on a temporary basis, until the site is developed within one to three years. Mike Clark, ONNI development manager, was surprised at how much interest the garden generated and how quickly the plots were taken. “We had overwhelming response. The lineup of people is unbelievable—hundreds of people pounding down the doors trying to get some dirt on their hands,” Clark says. “We have learned there is a major need for gardening facilities in downtown. Everyone is going condo-living, but people are just dying to get their hands dirty and they don’t have the opportunity; they don’t have a backyard.”

ONNI is now working on incorporating communal garden plots into plans for the residential tower that will be built on the site eventually. The plots will be offered as a building amenity, similar to the pool or the gym. “We build units based on what the market is demanding, and if people are demanding more areas for urban agriculture, you will see more and more of it,” Clark says.

Until every rooftop in Vancouver is colonized with tomatoes and strawberries, urban agriculture has yet to be fully accepted and make its way into the mainstream. Last year, Attilio Gioe decided to grow tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and parsley on the rooftop of his East Vancouver apartment building. The 56-year-old Sicily-born gardener was surprised by the amount of food he was actually able to produce—close to 70 pounds of tomatoes in one season. Soon he became concerned that his landlord would no longer allow him to grow food on the rooftop. As a result, he installed sticks to curve down the eggplant and the tomatoes so the plants would not grow too tall. “I was afraid that my landlord would see all these plants because they became too majestic. I started to get worried that people could see it from the street,” he explains. Since then, Gioe has moved his food production to a plot he obtained at the Strathcona community garden, where he believes he can increase his food production ten times and where he doesn’t have to worry about his landlord.