Learning how to produce one’s own food sustainably was once a normal part of growing up, and still is in many cultures. While many of us have not learned these skills, we could all grow our own vegetables by giving time and labour and getting expertise. A dedicated group of individuals have learned that collaboration has been the key to their success. Led by Anthropology professor Dr. Roger Lohmann, Trent University Oshawa students, faculty, staff, and alumni have come together to create a communal vegetable garden on the Thornton Road campus.
The garden is an initiative of the Trent Oshawa Greens. “We want to put Green values into practice and I’m delighted so many people are interested,” said Professor Lohmann at the first meeting in early May. Alumni, staff, students and faculty crowded into his lab for an information session on organic gardening and seed saving. Prof. Lohmann explained that organic methods involve avoiding the use of artificial fertilizers and weed chemicals, which are unsustainable since they undermine ecological and human health. Instead, community garden participants rely on composting, mulching, and hand cultivation to get results without damaging the land. “The idea is ‘no waste,’” he said. “We want to use heritage plants whenever possible and save our seeds for future planting.” This preserves genetic diversity and favours varieties that are adapted to chemical-free agriculture. It also allows gardeners to be self-sufficient while learning about the entire cycle of life of the plants on which we depend for our own lives.
Since some varieties of vegetables cross-pollenate, preserving heritage strains means that some varieties must be planted far enough away from one another to keep them from hybridizing. Therefore, following the discussion, negotiations got underway for which vegetables were most in demand for the group. The list included “Tante Alice” cucumbers from Quebec, scarlet runner beans purchased from a seed dealer on a Native reserve, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes.
The group then proceeded to the garden for initial cultivation and to divvy up the plots. Since four participants wished to grow corn, beans and squash together on mounds, according to the Iroquois tradition, they decided to jointly plant and tend the larger plot this project required, in addition to smaller plots tended by individuals.
Participants put in the hard work of cultivation by hand, but with everyone working together, they succeeded in preparing the entire garden in less than two hours while having a good time socializing. Digging by hand was both a learning exercise (literally) while gardening in a sustainable way. “Muscle work is a healthier way for people and other living things than using gasoline powered equipment,” Prof. Lohmann said. “We have come, in the past hundred years or so, to rely heavily on petrochemicals to till and weed fields. This relatively recent situation cannot continue indefinitely since oil will run out. In the meantime, producing and burning it is accelerating dangerous climate change. We will have to rediscover older traditions and invent new, sustainable ones in order to provide our food.”
The Trent Oshawa Greens have also sponsored annual seed exchange events on campus, which have featured representatives from Seeds of Diversity Canada and worm composting demonstrations by Robin Tench. Now in its second year, the Trent Oshawa Community Organic Garden got off the ground after a motivated student, Nicole Cabral secured a Student Initiative Fund grant for equipment including a rain barrel, fencing and the basic tools to get the group started. Nick Martino, a Trent Oshawa student and an avid gardener, has also been with the garden since the first year. “He is always ready to lend advice and a hand. He saved us a fortune by getting our rain barrel from Toronto,” said Prof. Lohmann. “He and Susan Lawrence, a student who also works in Trent Oshawa’s library, really showed their dedication when they brought a load of horse manure last fall to enrich our soil.” Both are back for more this year, as is Ms. Cabral, now an alumna. “I’m really excited to see what kind of harvest we’ll reap this year,” she said. “I’m hoping for a great celebratory feast in the fall!”