This summer I helped build a community garden in Thorncliffe Park, one of Toronto’s most densely populated high rise communities on the Eastern side of the city, along the Don Valley.
The garden was a pilot project, to test whether the community could expand its local growing capacity with a completely pop-up solution.
What follows is a snapshot of my experience working in Thorncliffe this summer and some lessons learned in the very early stages of a project that we hope will provide the foundation for a food-based social enterprise down the road.
The idea for this project came from Sabina Ali, at the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office (TNO). Sabina and her TNO colleagues have successfully expanded community gardening in RV Burgess Park and this year managed to get a Tandoor bake oven installed in the park for community use, a first of its kind in North America.
Sabina’s hope with our pilot was to help women and kids in Thorncliffe develop their growing skills and look at the possibility of developing a food-based social enterprise in the neighbourhood in the future. I came into the picture because of my experience working with Robert Patterson at EarthBox® Mexico over the last couple of years, specifically my work in Toronto focused on bringing healthy, tasty and nutritious food to the doorstep.
There were four of us on the project team: Sabina, myself and two Managers from Summerhill Group, a local corporate partner of the TNO. This past winter we developed a project plan and helped Sabina raise the project funding. In June we installed a pop-up garden of 55 EarthBoxes® in a space provided by Morguard Properties, behind one of their apartment buildings on Thorncliffe Park Dr.Installing the garden with local volunteers
We had three goals for the pilot:
- Build the growing capacity of the volunteer gardeners.
- Engage the community with things growing in the space and people (including kids) in the garden.
- Start to build the foundation for a food-based social enterprise down the road.
We opted to train a group of ten women volunteers. We recruited them by advertising in the TNO Offices and Morguard put notices up in all their buildings. Volunteers attended an information session, so they knew what they were getting themselves into, and completed a volunteer application form. We were looking to identify some people with prior vegetable gardening experience and to find enough volunteers in the garden every day. My job was to design, install, provide training for the volunteers and help maintain the garden over the summer.
For the women volunteers, there were both tangible and intangible benefits to this project. On the tangible side, they all received gardening training and a portion of the weekly harvest. The volunteers took turns taking the veggies home each week. We grew predominantly South Asian crops, like hot peppers/chillies, eggplant, okra, mint and more. These were foods that the volunteers liked eating, but which were often difficult or expensive to buy in Thorncliffe.
As for the intangibles, we quickly heard from the women that they found the garden a relaxing place and welcome spot to bring their children. Some of the women also told us it was a good opportunity to keep fit. I can attest to the fact that it takes both strength and coordination to wrestle a 150’ watering hose every day. At least one of the volunteers also mentioned that this was a great bonding experience with her 17-year-old son.
By the end of the summer, we’d harvested more than 500 peppers and chillies, more than 300 eggplants, some cucumbers and okra (not our best crops due to very enthusiastic Japanese Beetles), two kinds of tomatoes, coriander, mint and lots of basil. We’d also sold the volunteers on the benefits of growing at the doorstep.
In addition, the self-contained design of the EarthBox® enables one to grow organically, without chemical pesticides. We consistently heard comments about how much “fresher” all the vegetables looked and tasted than what the gardeners were used to seeing in the local super markets. On October 5th, we dismantled the garden for the winter and debriefed the volunteers.
Looking back at our project goals:
- We succeeded in terms of capacity building for the volunteers and, in some cases, their children as well. They all learned how to grow in the EarthBox® containers and developed skills in dealing with common garden pests.
- We also succeeded in engaging the community. Over the course of the summer, we had hundreds of curious visitors peering over the garden fence – many asking how they could volunteer in the future. At the end of August we hosted a very successful harvest breakfast with Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne, the local City Councillor John Parker, and a variety of interested media. Morguard has already offered to double the space for the garden next year.
- We aren’t there yet, in terms of building a solid foundation for a food-based social enterprise, but all of us on the project team have agreed that we did take some small steps in this direction. Most importantly, we know what needs to be done if we want this foundation next year.
You may not be working in the food space like me, but here are three lessons learned as a social entrepreneur that I hope will still be helpful:
- Many of us get into the SE space because we have good ideas and we want to help. This is an important first step, but to be successful over the long term, SEs, like any business have to be sustainable. This year we were successful in raising seed money for the garden from three different foundations. But, over the long term, the garden will have to be self-sustaining. This means coming up with a business model that isn’t totally dependent on grants.
- Whatever your idea or project, count on results taking longer than you first expected. One of the things we learned was that volunteers wanted more hands-on training. Looking ahead to next year, we’d like to have at least a couple of gardeners work towards becoming “expert” local growers. Whatever your initiative, you can’t rush things.
- Frequent check-ins are key to keeping any project on track. This can be as simple as a write-on/wipe-off white board with weekly team directions/updates. Even better is to have a brief weekly team meeting. Use Skype for those who can’t make it in person. These meetings not only help confirm everyone on the team is pulling in the same direction, they also help people feel valued. If someone consistently doesn’t make it to meetings – they probably aren’t committed to the project.
This summer I had the opportunity to grow a lot of great vegetables, engage a landlord in the possibilities of growing food at the doorstep with a pop-up garden model (more on this here) and helped build the capacity for more local growing by training women and their families in the use of highly efficient growing containers.
Most importantly building this garden provided some important lessons that are transferable to any social enterprise project, food-based or otherwise, in order to ensure its success.
Verity Dimock is a non-profit business leader and social entrepreneur. She is a graduate of Ontario’s School for Social Entrepreneurs and currently works as a fundraiser for Toronto’s new Black Creek Community Farm. In addition she is working on the development of a food based social enterprise that promotes healthy, sustainable food at the doorstep.
In her spare time, Verity likes to write about social enterprise and is a fan of DIY and handmade projects that feature upcycling and recycling. You can find Verity on Twitter @thecraftstudioTO and @socentgirl. Verity holds an undergraduate degree in Politics and Economics from Trent University and a Master’s Degree in Instructional and Performance Technology from Boise State University.