Gorge Tillicum urban farmer Deb Heighway checks her newly planted strawberries on Donald Street. Heighway has 10 gardens

Gorge Tillicum urban farmer Deb Heighway checks her newly planted strawberries on Donald Street. Heighway has 10 gardens

Urban farming in Saanich gets serious

A growing network of Gorge-Tillicum residents use veggie gardening to connect with neighbours

In front of Gabe Epstein’s home is a book box – a brightly painted cabinet, marked with the simple instructions to take a book, leave a book, or both.

The box is a catalyst for conversation for Epstein, one of the co-founders of Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers (GTUF), a growing group of people within the neighbourhood who are connected by their common interest of building food security and relationships.

“Because I’m out in the garden, (the box) isn’t just about books, it’s about community,” said Epstein, whose yard is dotted with food-bearing plants. “We get to talking about all sorts of things.”

GTUF began four years ago at the hand of Lia Tocher, Kate Rubin and Julia Menard, three women who decided to take local action against issues of fuel and food production.

Epstein connected with the group through the Gorge Tillicum Community Association, and in the spring of 2008, GTUF’s monthly living room meetings and backyard garden tours began.

“Out of that came what GTUF is today and it’ll change again tomorrow,” Epstein said.

Today, the group has moved larger meetings to Pearkes recreation centre in order to accommodate its roughly 100-person membership and any interested newcomers.

Without collecting any membership fees, GTUF often hosts workshops and guest speakers on any issue related to growing food.

And without the structure of a formal society or executive mandate, tomorrow depends entirely on individual members and which projects they decide to take up on their own, Epstein explained of their intentionally-loose framework.

Last year member initiative translated into the forming of a seed bank. There’s talk of publishing a book in the months ahead.

“You build on the interest and the passion of people,” Epstein said. “Where we’ll go, I don’t know.”

A recognizable face of GTUF, Deb Heighway, is one member attempting to turn urban gardening into a viable business. Heighway’s Donald Street Market sells produce she has grown at 10 backyard gardens – eight within the Gorge Tillicum neighbourhood. In exchange for using yard space and water, each week Heighway returns a box of veggies to the garden hosts.

“I just love it,” said Heighway, who began urban farming after a career working with people with special needs. “It’s very calming.”

Heighway’s presence at a stand in front of her home on Donald Street each Saturday morning is now a social event as much as it is commercial.

“It’s just fun to know your neighbours,” she said. “I don’t even care if they buy anything – but of course it’s nice.”

While GTUF is more about sharing plant starts than turning a profit, monetization of local farming is integral to achieving a healthy economy, Epstein said.

The group has also forged a close relationship with Saanich Neighbourhood Place. Members run a community garden adjacent to the Neighbourhood Place, also at Pearkes, in addition to providing donations to its community kitchen program.

Prior to his time on Saanich council, Coun. Paul Gerrard was one of the first members of GTUF. He explored the idea of an allotment garden on former farmland near Colquitz River, a project that never came to fruition due to the close proximity to the stream.

“It’s a growing trend and there are other areas that are possibilities,” Gerrard said, noting Panama Flats as a possible prime location for young farmers to get started.

GTUF has also inspired other communities across Greater Victoria, such as Vic West and Hillside, to form their own networks for urban farming. Gerrard has remained a GTUF member driven by an interest to enable the next generation of food producers.

“A lot of our young people don’t connect growing food with eating,” he said. “Young people think it comes from a grocery store.”

For more information on GTUF, or for details on their upcoming garden tours, set for July 22 and Aug. 19, email Epstein at belle.leon1@gmail.com, or take a stroll down Obed Avenue and stop at the yard with the brightly painted cabinet of books.