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Community gardens get green thumbs up from government

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Local green thumbs have finally been given the green light by the Ontario government.

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An April 25 announcement acknowledges community gardens as an “essential source of fresh food for some individuals and families, including those who face food insecurity.”

“You heard me cheering, I guess,” quipped Dave Zeldon when contacted at his Waterford home.

Zeldon is a co-coordinator at the John Race Memorial Community Gardens, a half-acre site on Gilbertson Drive in Simcoe.

“I’m on my computer sending a mass e-mail to all my gardeners,” Zeldon said in regard to a set of protocols devised by a group of community gardeners in Toronto.

“That’s going to be our template.”

The field manager said all 34 plots are already spoken for, and volunteers were heading to the site Sunday afternoon to put flags and posts in place at each plot that measures about 400 square feet.

The late John Race, a Simcoe businessman and philanthropist began the garden in 2009, and public interest has kept the project going strong.

“We have a year-end barbecue and the stipulation is everyone brings a dish with something from the garden,” said Zeldon. “It’s very social, sharing recipes and gardening techniques.”

The John Race Memorial Community Garden is for people who pay to participate, as opposed to one where people can wander in and help themselves.

However, Zeldon noted that the food bank on Kent Street in Simcoe, and the Caring Cupboard in Waterford benefit from the annual harvest.

Brantford city councillor Cheryl Antoski, chair of the Equal Grounds Community Gardens said the problem was that community gardens were classified as a recreational activity, rather than falling under food and agriculture as an essential service.

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“Locally we are excited,” said Antoski. “I know that our MPP Will Bouma took this forward, and was an active part in saying ‘We need to do this.’”

Equal Grounds had already moved forward with a host garden program as a back-up plan. The so-called Plan B would have area residents establish gardens on their own properties.

“The agreement would be, we give you seeds and plants, and you can feed your family,” Antoski noted. “But you have to donate some of that back to the community.”

So far 69 people have expressed interest, and the community garden chair said online training would be offered “because there are people putting in gardens for the very first time.

“It has always been a long-term goal for us to bring back the culture of being able to grow your own food,” Antoski said. “We put them in very public spaces so that people wouldn’t be intimidated by them, and can learn without screwing up their own gardens.”

Last year, Equal Grounds Community Gardens marked its 10th anniversary with 38 gardens managed by approximately 300 volunteers.

“I don’t think we’ll be opening all of them, and the ones that do open will not operate as they normally do.”

Antoski said an extensive list of recommendations was put forward by the Ontario Community Growing Network and the Cross-Food Communities Network. The recommendations, outlining how to operate the gardens during COVID-19, are currently under consideration by the provincial government.

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The group chair said as communal gardens, in previous years people would normally come and go as they please, but with gardens located in city parks, COVID-19 restrictions would not allow for that.

Acknowledging that government guidelines will have to be followed, and conversations will need to take place with city staff, Antoski anticipates temporary fencing may have to be installed, with designated volunteers given permission to work the gardens.

“It will be very different than how we usually operate, but still gets the food out there,” Antoski said, noting that the yields from the harvest will be forwarded into various community programs through the food bank.

The timing of the government announcement has not negatively impacted the growing season for the group.

“We had already begun our indoor growing,” Antoski noted. “I’ve got over 2,000 plants growing in my house right now.”

Equal Grounds Community Garden expects to have from 3,000 to 5,000 starter plants ready for planting soon. Along with seeds — some of which are given to Brantford Parks who provide their greenhouse building and expertise — a donation of about 1,500 plants from Fern Lea Flowers in Delhi, and Walter’s Greenhouses and Garden Centre expressing a desire to help, Antoski believes the group is in pretty good shape.

“We are good to go,” Antoski said. “Equal Grounds Community Gardens is known for running on the fly and making it happen.”

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