The Positive and Sustainable Benefits of A Community Garden

When Niki Westman heard about the opportunity to join a community garden, she jumped at the chance to grow her own veggies

Credit: Jackie Connelly

Niki Westman tends to her Small Plot Urban Garden

“Well-tended plots contribute to the overall esthetic of the garden, and show how productive urban gardens can be.”

Niki Westman was always full of beans. Every summer’s day when she was a little girl, her mom sent her into their suburban Ottawa backyard to pick green beans for dinner. Now the 40 year old is “a number-crunching bean-counter,” who never got over her love of the real thing. 

When the City of Vancouver announced in 2002 that it would be turning some vacant land into a park, the accountant sowed her idea of it including a community garden. “I’ve always wanted to grow my own food because I love vegetables, am health conscious, frugal and wanted a good reason to spend hours in the sun sheltered by a little green urban oasis.” 

Her first challenge was to overcome local opposition. “There were only a couple of other people who wanted a community garden,” she says, “while many were either uninterested or opposed the idea.” Niki distributed flyers and solicited approval from the neighbours, worked through the official process with the Vancouver Park Board, and arranged the logistics of building the Tea Swamp Community Garden – named for the Labrador tea that grew wild in the original stream-fed meadow. 

The Tea Swamp Community Garden

That was nine years ago. The Tea Swamp Community Garden was soon growing strong and today has a waiting list of 140 for the 20 plots. And from the very first harvest, Niki has delighted in her garden.

“In my second year, I was so thrilled and proud of myself to be eating a salad that contained eight of my own homegrown vegetables: various greens, beans, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, carrots, beets and chives.” 

Beans have slipped to number eight on Niki’s list of favourites, now topped by kale and arugula, though radishes are rapidly rising through the ranks. “I’ve experimented over the years and have found that I prefer to grow mainly greens because I love salad and it’s so much cheaper and easier to grow your own.”

She does include some flowers for their beauty, however, and finds bulbs particularly easy to manage: tiger lilies, crocuses and daffodils brighten her plot. Other blooms are sowed from seed, especially if they ward off insects or are tasty in salads – or both! This year, Niki is venturing into nasturtiums.

Herbs like lavender, oregano and chamomile add their fragrance to her garden and meals, and without realizing the danger she even added mint.

“I made the mistake of planting it in my garden instead of in a container,” she confesses, “so it has become my weedy nemesis. I’m constantly digging out long trails of hardy mint roots…but at least I can use it in salads, tea and mojitos!”

Fruit, however, isn’t one of Niki’s strengths. When her strawberries stopped producing she culled them, and she’s afraid raspberry canes will shade other favourites. She has espaliered a couple of apple trees against the fence but admits, “they’ve only produced one little apple.” 

Despite this one disappointment, there is no doubt that this bean-counter’s investment in her community garden plot has paid off with very big dividends.