The group of thirty-five volunteers gathered in the shade of the large poplar tree that shelters Parkdale Station. There were families with toddlers to teens, nimble seniors, singles, couples and youth-many of them close neighbours who had come to know each other over the last three years working on the various stages of growing a community garden from idea to rooted plants.
Pink pots of parsley, tarragon, catmint and Bee Balm formed curved lines all around them. At 9:00 AM, food forest expert, Adrian Buckley from reGenerate Design, demonstrated to the group the best practices for planting, while explaining some elements of permaculture-the concept behind the 17 food forest guilds. When he finished, couples, families and friends formed teams, collected the bright orange Home Depot water buckets, chose their trees and began to dig.
Energetic volunteers – with shovels, spades and wheelbarrows – carried containers of plants of all sizes, dug holes, sprinkled the mycorrhizal inoculants that Adrian had recommended so the roots will grow strong, scored root balls when needed, gently lifted hefty fruit trees or fragile tarragon into place, checked that it was straight, refilled with good soil and then watered. Veteran power-planting couple Colin and Nicole finished first with their apple tree. (While digging some of the holes Colin noticed reddish material – a buried archive of the historic baseball field now under the food forest).
Toddlers played with the bright-coloured plastic construction vehicles in the freshly turned sod and in one case at least got to stroke a handsome dog wearing a green TD handkerchief under the watchful eye of its owner, TD Green Streets representative Brian Gervais. It is thanks to the generous $17,400 TD Green Streets Grant – the flagship program of Tree Canada – that the impressive irrigation system was put in place and the food forest was planted on Saturday. With the ongoing education program – which is also part of the TD grant – the garden has a great capacity to be the catalyst for greater community involvement and engagement, a true gift to the neighbourhood and to the city.
By 11:00 AM when the invited guests arrived, the garden was abuzz with volunteer activity and many of the trees, bushes and plants were already in the ground with bright ribbons and labels fluttering in the breeze. When Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell first saw this scene, she had tears in her eyes. During the brief ceremony, Druh Farrell, Brian Gervais, TD Senior Vice President and Tree Canada’s Community Advisor Gerard Fournier praised the project. Audrey and Colin Brandt, Parkdale Community Association President, warmly thanked the volunteers and donors. The celebration ended in style with ample, flavourful food – including sauteed mushrooms – prepared and provided by popular Chef Stan Mabbott.
Hundreds of volunteers over several years have participated in preparing the ground for this event, but one in particular was honoured on Saturday – Audrey Smith. Just before the small celebration ceremony to thank the donors, Audrey was interviewed by Global Calgary’s videographer. She described how much the grant represented to the community. Over 140 applications were submitted to the 2016 TD Green Streets program, and the PCA is one of 13 municipalities selected to receive it. She also described how the food forest was the result of the work of many volunteers, including corporate volunteers. (Audrey undertook the lengthy process of applying for the grant in October but she had been indirectly preparing for this moment for years.)
Long before the seeds hit the dirt and the roots dug in, the Parkdale Garden had been a dream of many community members. Hours of meetings, consultations, negotiations, fund-raising, writing and reading reports, etc – as well as actual physical gardening – have been donated by countless volunteers. But it is Audrey who is the garden-go-to-person. During the growing season, Audrey is a visible and constant presence at the garden, either physically working the earth, or encouraging, doing outreach and education, introducing people and groups, giving tours to potential donors or corporations and gaining and maintaining the generous support of corporations such as Telus, Deloitte and Touche and, Brookfield Residential who – along with generous donations in various forms – continue to participate in organized highly-productive, family-focused volunteer work days.
For three years or more Audrey did research, took courses, nurtured partnerships, did the grant writing, wrote emails, made phone calls, hosted meals and meetings, enlisted volunteers, delegated, met with like-minded groups and with the City. She has a seemingly bottomless well of energy, enthusiasm and creative resilience. She works quietly and discreetly with those more vulnerable members of our community who are also an important part of our garden. She knows almost everybody by name; she knows their stories; she knows how much each one has contributed to the garden and has thanked them in person, by email, text or phone… In recent weeks she has consulted detail-oriented food forest experts in the intricate design of each tree guild and with the help of volunteers, hand-sculpted the curved pathways and swales to maximize growth and enhance aesthetics. The final stage was ground preparation. Over the past weeks Audrey has been at the garden everyday, hand-weeding with groups of people. On Thursday evening she was working on the labels and tags for Saturday. When the truckload of plants arrived on Friday, she was onsite unloading many of the 200 plants with other volunteers. The night before the planting, she and Dave Burhoe had placed the larger containers with fruit trees where there were to be planted.
As garden member and veteran gardener, Yvonne Hodge, described, “[Audrey’s] tremendous skills allowed her to move beyond imagining what is possible but also to bring the dream to life. Marshalling resources both human and material and day-after-day of her own physical efforts she has proven to be remarkable in creating an urban garden – and now an urban forest. Along with a legion of volunteers both including Parkdale residents and corporate volunteers such as Telus, Audrey is turning a patch of land into a productive and highly invitational walk-sit-awhile space in inner city Calgary.”
Maureen Flynn-Burhoe is a visual artist, photographer and gardener living in Parkdale.