Vancouver Food Garden Provides a Feast for the Eyes

This artful tapestry of food and flowers has become a neighbourhood affair.

Credit: Andrea Sirois

Flowers and food crops form a colourful mosaic. Jim has done all the rockwork; the path in the lower right foreground leads alongside the house to the backyard and was recently completed.

Jim Foort and Margaret McPhee used the square route 
to create an artful tapestry of food and flowers that has 
become a neighbourhood affair

If Jim Foort had his way, “That whole boulevard,” he says, gesturing down the street, “would be organized for gardening – mainly for food. All those ornamental trees that are perfectly useless? I’d have fruit trees.”

We’re standing on the sidewalk outside the 1926 Craftsman house belonging to Jim Foort and Margaret McPhee. Inside, Margaret’s framed black-and-white photos and Jim’s colourful acrylic paintings fill the walls, jars of preserves sit on the crowded countertops and books are near to hand on coffee tables. This is a well-lived-in home that befits a yard where every square inch is used.

A sturdy bamboo fence supports the vigorous blackberry vine. Two young cuttings taken from the backyard fig can be seen in teh lower right and left foreground.

The couple met in Margaret’s native Scotland about 35 years ago, when she was teaching at a university in Glasgow and in charge of one of the dorms. “In the summer when there were no students,” Margaret recounts, “they put visiting faculty in there, and he was visiting faculty. So we got friendly and travelled back and forth for two years.” Margaret came to Canada in 1972, and in 1978 they bought this property.

Several types of chard, Russian kale, cabbage and some lettuce that has gone to seed grow in the square-foot garden bed. Jim allows the lettuce to self-seed, then digs in what he doesn’t want and transplants the remaining young seedlings to where he wants them in the garden.

“It was a mess,” remembers Margaret. “The front and back gardens were both like hayfields.” Over the years the couple transformed the property, adding flowerbeds, trees, shrubs and a lawn. But about 10 years ago, Jim began seriously pondering the idea of growing vegetables in the sunny front yard. He hadn’t managed to convince Margaret, except for a single artichoke in the middle of the lawn. “I pictured it looking like an abandoned moonscape when all the vegetables were picked,” she explains. “I hadn’t envisioned that it would become like one of Jim’s works of art.” 

This tree fruits heavily – over 32 kg (70lb) in 2009.

But when Margaret grumbled about buying potatoes that had been genetically modified, Jim saw his opening. Today all of what was once lawn, including the boulevard, is a colourful patchwork of vegetables. Tomatoes, beets, kale, cabbages, lettuce, parsley, beans, peas, carrots and more are planted in rows, square-foot plots and even containers potted into the ground. 

Orange coneflower, Rudbeckia
Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia)

No conventional vegetable garden planted in straight rows, this one is a feast for the eyes. The couple’s artistry – and sense of whimsy – is evident everywhere, in the bamboo supports, the combination of food and flowering plants, the changing tapestry of plantings. When one crop finishes, Jim is quick to plant another, to fill up the space. “I like to keep everything dynamic so it’s attractive to the community,” he says. 

Jim uses a trestle to support the vigorous thornless blackberry. “I trim it back after it fruits, saving only the new shoots, which soon travel up to 10 feet,” he says. A grapevine shades the porch and there are five apple trees in the front yard, all on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock, including a ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ and an ‘Early Transparent’. The oldest tree bears a generous harvest; the most recently planted is only knee-high. Plans are in the works for a pear tree, says Jim, planted right in the middle. 

Heritage cherry tomatoes, a gift from Mayne Island.

There is a method behind converting some of the vegetable garden to fruit production. “We’re getting old,” says Jim, “and we can’t cope too much longer with all the work. But if we make it attractive, other people will come to do the work, take away the produce and leave us a little.” (Jim is in his eighties and Margaret in her seventies.) 

Margaret McPhee tends her colourful perennial border.

Margaret, who is a VanDusen Master Gardener, has developed the flowerbeds in the front yard as well as the back garden. “I love yellow flowers,” she says. “I always tried to keep the beds down the side of the yard to a yellow theme in summer: rudbeckia, yellow digitalis, yellow coneflowers. But there are quite a lot of flowers that just arrive in the front yard – and I always leave them because if they’ve chosen to be there, then they’ll be happy there. This isn’t really an organized garden,” she adds with a laugh.

Leeks grow well in the boulevard plot. As crops finish, Jim plants fall rye, which provides a fresh bright green through winter.

“I tried all sorts of things back here,” she says of the backyard. “Fruit trees didn’t thrive because of the shade, and wildflower seeds looked good for one year, but the following year all the delicate wildflowers had disappeared and left all the invasive ones.” Since then she has focused on perennials, many donated by friends (last year someone brought her some trout lily bulbs, which she is carefully monitoring), others purchased mainly at the UBC Botanical Garden Shop. Favourite plants include an umbrella pine (Sciadopitys) and a Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’. 

Flowers, fruits and fig trees jostle for space in Jim and Margaret’s abundant garden. The neighbourhood children frequently drop by; Jim would love to see local schools arranging field trips to food gardens.

Over the years the beds have become so densely planted that there are almost no weeds, cutting down on maintenance. The fig tree back here is loaded with fruit in the fall, but Margaret says the usual harvest is about two dozen figs; what the weather doesn’t get, the squirrels will. A small patch of native strawberry thrives in the semi-shade, a treat for the neighbourhood kids.

Margaret and Jim both grew up with mothers who gardened, but Jim’s passion for this particular form of gardening has its roots in his philosophy of life. In his professional life he designed and developed artificial limbs at UBC (for which work he also received an honorary doctorate from Queens University): “I always made sure whatever I came up with got into the public domain as soon as possible, and not private hands, so nobody could put a patent on it. I wanted it to be available to people when they needed it. 


Jim Foort
Jim Foort at work

“All of this is tied into my philosophy of shared community and cooperation, not competition. My lifelong interest is in community, and the best place to start, from my point of view, is here on the street.”

Margaret and Jim take obvious enjoyment from the neighbourhood children and welcome them. They come to talk, play and sample the produce, but they all respect the limits the couple set and no damage has ever been done to the garden. 

Jim’s ideal future would see school programs linked to residential gardens like theirs. “High-school children would come to cultivate, the little ones would come by to taste the results, and the bigger ones would take a share of what they had done; that would educate them about where their food came from and how to function cooperatively.” 

The proof of how well their experiment in community sharing works, according to Margaret and Jim, is winter 2008 with its record snowfalls. “We never had to do any shovelling all winter long. There were seven people who came and shovelled our walks. That is a measure of the spirit that exists in our community. ”

Jim Foort’s tips for the vegetable garden


Easy lawn to vegetables

If you want to convert your lawn to vegetable growing, Jim’s advice is, “Creep up on it!” Start with a small patch; if you’re using the square-foot technique, construct a 4- by 4-foot box that will give you 16 squares. On the boulevard in front of their house, where the sandy soil was poor and full of rocks, he dug down 45 cm (18 in.), put all the turf in the bottom and sifted the remaining soil using a 1-inch mesh screen. He has grown potatoes and tomatoes here with good results.


Square-foot gardening

Jim learned about this system from a VanDusen Botanical Garden publication. It maximizes production by growing in blocks of one-foot squares. Each square foot can be planted with a different crop; after harvest, the soil is fertilized and planted again for a continuous harvest and always-interesting display. 


Fences and Lattices

“The bamboo fencing system is largely for esthetic purposes and to foil dogs,” says Jim. “I place branches around new seedlings to shield them from cats.” Jim uses cable ties to secure the bamboo. “The best ties have release mechanisms, but I use ordinary ones that I sometimes re-use with effort and some difficulty!” His posts are salvaged water pipe; the bamboo is attached with hose clamps when extra stability is needed. 


Soil boosters

Two bins produce 25 four-gallon buckets of finished compost per year. This is supplemented with Sea Soil. “I would use steer manure, but we have hesitated because of bovine diseases,” says Jim.