Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Great Toronto urban agriculture walking tour

Once again, I had the pleasure of organizing a walking tour for delegates at the MagNet conference in Toronto. Last year we had a great time exploring brownfields and brown beers on the Lower Don River walking tour. This year it was time for an urban agriculture walking tour!

Why urban agriculture?
Well, there is the fact that it's a hot, trendy topic. That is, it's about as hip as gardening ever will be. But if you read this blog or any of my other work, you know that I'm not exactly about trendy. Urban agriculture was the theme because two good books on the subject came out in April and May by Toronto authors. And conveniently, they'd done a very similar tour as a Jane's Walk already.

Books? What books?
The first book off the shelf was Sarah Elton's Locavore, which I reviewed here when it was released. The second is City Farmer, by Lorraine Johnson, my favourite punk gardener.

I haven't reviewed City Farmer yet, mostly because the conference and a big pile of work got in the way. It's complimentary to Elton's book. Elton's is a travelogue of agricultural innovation. Johnson's book, by contrast, is the same thing in microcosm. It's conversational and frienly, like its author. It's a resounding success when she gets talking about specific projects, which bring out the colour in Johnson's writing and show how passionate she is. On the macrocosm, Elton's book outshines City Farmer, and it flows better. But Johnson's book is highly accessible, and the more practical it is, the better it is. You should do what I did and pick up a copy of both.

Didn't you say something about a walking tour?
Yes, I did. We met on a sunny Saturday morning at 10:00, in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Just before the walk it had been proposed as a protest area for the G20 summit that the federal government stuck Toronto with. But that's another story.

At the park, Johnson and Elton were joined by a third guest speaker, Ravenna Barker, the urban agriculture project manager from FoodShare. I think I kind of scored a hat trick with these speakers.

In the park, we started with a discussion of Carolinian forests, which used to cover the Toronto area but are almost gone today (though common south of the border...more of an extirpation than an extinction), and discussed some edible trees. Johnson showed us a community greenhouse where she rents a shelf to start her own seeds. Handy for urban dwellers, particularly those with limited indoor or window space. This led naturally into a discussion of food systems and greenhousing, the latter of which was a particularly interesting part of Elton's book.

We moseyed west along Queen Street East to a corner park that had been planted out by someone in a neighbouring apartment building. It wasn't food gardening, but a gorgeous transformation of what would otherwise have been a barren, sunstroked corner of dirt and rubbish.

Next it was on to a boulevard. That is, a road with a strip of grass down the middle. Barker told us of plans to beautify the neighbourhood by filling the boulevard with ornamental vegetables--plants both pretty and edible. Sadly, after residents gave it the green thumbs up, the municipality nixed it, apparently out of fear that people couldn't safely walk across the street to tend the plants. Truly a lost opportunity.

Our penultimate stop was at a market garden on the grounds of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. There, we discussed composting in the city and looked at the FoodShare garden, which is about 100 yards square.

Finally, we headed to the Drake Hotel. The Drake has an unsightly concrete service area on a back alley, in which it has created innovative raised planting beds using cinder blocks. It's not enough space to affect the restaurant's food imports, but is big enough to provide nice, fresh herbs. Apparently they may be exprimenting with mushrooms, too, and the space will be used for VIP chef events. The holes in the cinder blocks are planted with aromatic herbs to ward off pests. It's a great idea, as it'll keep the mint from staging an all-out invasion of the beds (as happened in my garden this spring).

And so, with our heads full and our bellies empty, we went up to the rooftop patio for brunch. And mimosas. Because, after all, it was Saturday.