Goodbye Grass! Gardening on City Boulevards August 19, 2015 06:30

Walking around East Van, it’s pretty fun to check out all the amazing gardens. Every garden is its own character with a story to tell. Sometimes they are picture perfect pretty. Sometimes they are ingeniously planted with squash growing up and hanging off kiwi vines. Sometimes they’re messy. Sometimes there are chickens running around. Sometimes the soil is replaced by little white rocks and plants are accessories to funny stone statues. Whatever the case, gardens in Vancouver are pretty great to have around and look at, which is why I love growing them.

Like a lot of folks in Vancouver, I'm a renter in a house divided into multiple suites. With a shared yard, we filled up our growing space pretty quickly. Fortunately for us though, the City of Vancouver encourages the take over of city boulevards, so that’s what we did!

Food Not Lawns! Boulevard gardening

Here are a few good tricks to reclaiming grass boulevards and growing food and medicine for folks in the neighbourhood!

1. Get city support first.

Because of the City of Vancouver's Greenest City by 2020 Action Plan, they are in full support of residents that want to garden in their boulevards, so asking them for permission is really no big deal at all. Plus, if the city is supporting your initiatives, your landlord most likely will too - which is important since they are responsible for the boulevards in front of and adjacent to their properties.

2. Apply for Neighbourhood Small Grants.

Every year the Vancouver Foundation offers up to $1,000 for residents to help make their community projects happen. To put in our boulevard garden, we received a Neighbourhood Small Grant of $500 which ended up covering the costs of topsoil, manure, and first round of plants. Pretty sweet!

3. Dig Down or Build Up? Some considerations when building your garden:

Assess the land and check out your surroundings. Do your neighbours use herbicides for their perfectly green grass? How old is your home? Sometimes landscapes closely situated around older homes (especially those built around the 1920’s) can be contaminated with heavy metals like lead and cadmium from old chipped off house paint. In these cases, it might be safer to build garden boxes. Also, it’s good to consider dogs and what I like to call the "dog pee zone" when planting edibles next to sidewalks. 

Goodbye Grass! Hello New Neighbourhood Garden!

4. Make friends with some gardeners.

We were given a whole bunch of free plants from gardener friends and landscapers. Plant costs can add up pretty quickly when you buy them, and starting perennial plants from seed can often be super tricky (for example lavender, rosemary, and fruit shrubs). We saved a lot of money sourcing out plants that would have otherwise been thrown into the green bin.

Pearly Everlasting

5. Get Neighbourhood Support - Make Signs!

We made a point to grow perennials that reflect our immediate environment. Being aware of the Coast Salish land we are on, we planted native species like salal, elderberry and saskatoon berry. We also wanted to find plants that folks from our neighbourhood might be stoked on too. We live in a neighbourhood with a lot of migrant families, specifically from places in China and the Philippines, so we are growing Asian medicinals like goji berry and sea buckthorn. In considering the bug populations and native pollinators, we’ve planted echinacea, lavender and comfrey, under which we’ve installed a bumble bee’s nest. Our next step is to make signs describing our efforts, and to encourage passer-bys to munch and take whatever they like (though it would be nice if they didn’t take entire perennial plants - we recently just had a blueberry bush taken out of the ground). We are planning on asking friends and neighbours to translate our signs to be written in English, French, Chinese and Tagalog. Hopefully, this will help folks feel comfortable taking part in the new neighbourhood boulevard garden!

elderberry, goji, salal - medicine patch
(Left to right: elderberry, a flowering goji, and salal berries)

6. Drought Tolerant Plants and Watering Systems:

This year’s drought was a big wake up call that my house is also taking as a warning for what’s to come ahead. Our soil was so dry it actually became hydrophobic - meaning no matter how long we hosed into the soil, water just rolled off the top. There are old school techniques we can learn from to get the water in deeper, like swail systems and water spikes, store bought or DIY style. It is also smart to be realistic about how much you and your housemates will actually water your boulevard (which might be a bit more awkward to get water to than a front or backyard). This could affect your choice of plants. For a few years, friends and I shared a boulevard garden with super awkward water access. Wheelbarrowing bags of water back and forth from 3 blocks away got annoying pretty quickly, so we decided to plant a bunch of drought tolerant and resilient species like raspberry, comfrey and buckwheat, then garlic in the fall. It worked out super well!

Planting Drought Tolerant Gardens(Watering the boulevard food and medicine patch)

So that’s pretty much it! 
Low energy + low cost + free garden space = free food + more neighbourhood friends!
Get that boulevard!

by Kelsey Cham Corbett
Aygust 19th, 2016