Meet Michelle Bennett. A quiet person with a strong voice. An advocate for living green. A community garden coordinator.
1. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your role as a Community Garden coordinator?
A Community Garden coordinator in my experience works to develop, plan, design, promote, provide administration, deliver programming, involve volunteers, and engage the public. I’ve been fortunate to garden alongside many Burlington residents and offer tips and learn more about growing fresh food together. Visitors are always welcome so I’ve offered tours to children, youth and horticultural groups. The Central Park Community Garden has always had a donation garden operated by Burlington Green which involves volunteers of all ages helping to grow food which would then be harvested and donated to Food for Life, and then distributed to local food banks. It is rewarding to be able to give back to our local community, help educate a basic life skill, and provide the healthy outdoor recreation to Burlington residents.
2. How long have you been actively promoting the community garden and did you see any changes in the recent years?
2009: I started advocating for the City of Burlington to develop community gardens as a citizen volunteer on the Burlington Sustainable Development advisory committee.
2011: As part of the environmental NGO Burlington Green, we applied for and were fortunate to receive an Ontario grant to move ahead a pilot project in partnership with the City of Burlington. The city built the Central Park community garden in the fall 2012.
2013: Burlington Green administered and operated the community garden program. That 2 year pilot was very successful and demonstrated to city staff and council that Burlington citizens wanted more garden plot opportunities.
2014: The city responded to residents’ demand and created two more community gardens at Francis Road Bikeway and Amherst Park. I moved from working for Burlington Green to working for the city to continue to administer the community garden program.
February 2015: A survey to determine the next location revealed several hot spots of demand, usually correlating with intensification areas, which has resulted in plans for new community gardens to be built in.
2016: Maple Park will open and operate.
City staff and council are even more firmly committed to continuing the growth of community gardens in the future with support in the 20 year vision strategic plan, and providing support to more community led initiatives via the Neighbourhood Community matching fund launched in 2016.
Every garden has more people applying then there are plots available, and this trend has continued in 2016 with the launch of Maple Park which had a 3.7:1 demand.
3. What are some of the challenges you encounter
Appeasing disappointed people that apply for a plot with high hopes and gardening dreams, but are unsuccessful in the “garden plot lottery.” Weather conditions can vary from delayed cold springs turning into hot dry summers. Part of the learning curve for new gardeners, especially those with romanticized garden dreams, is the realization that gardens cannot be neglected. They take weekly, and sometimes daily, maintenance depending on weather conditions. Part of my “customer service” job is to contact people and gently tell them their garden needs them for various tasks if they are going to be successful. I offer tips to teach, bring in master gardening experts, communicate helpful resources, and always must be diplomatic and respectful in the communication even when I’m not feeling so inclined.
4. How do you think you have helped shape Burlington to be a greener city?
The development of community gardens on public land has moved from zero to four in 5 years. This has allowed hundreds of permitted gardeners with their families and garden partners to participate in eating healthier food, reduce their need to buy imported food which reduces oil rich“food miles,” and get outside to experience low impact physical recreation.
Since the policy is that these gardens are run organically there are no chemical pesticides or fertilizers used. Community gardens transform open green park lawn into biologically diverse gardens. Collectively the individual garden plots contain a multitude of various flowering annuals (the fruit and veggies), and various perennials that bloom throughout the season are planted around the entire site, as well as companion flowers. All this new plant material creates important habitat and food for pollinators like birds, bugs, bees and butterflies and small urban wildlife.
Burlington is already a stunning place to live. I feel fortunate to live here and contribute in my way.
5. If you could snap your fingers and make it happen, what might that be?
More garden plots on private and public land, and less lawn.
The creation of a one stop funding source, and other supports and resources specific to Burlington to help create more gardens.
Faster review of Burlington’s zoning and official plans to properly address support for community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture (beekeeping, backyard chickens, rooftop gardens, etc.) by eliminating barriers.
6. What is your vision for Burlington?
Burlington is already a stunning place to live. I feel fortunate to live here and contribute in my way. I am hopeful over time the infrastructure will be enhanced to create more community hubs across the city that will embrace healthy lifestyles, entertainment, markets, gardens, alternative transportation modes and attract employing businesses and institutions that will help bring everyone together.