Gayvin McMullen crouches beside the tangled tomato vines sprouting from his garden at the Wesley Street supportive housing complex. The stems are so heavy with tomatoes, the yield will last him all year long, he says with a grin.
“The trick is to dry them out real bad so they are just hurtin’ and then you give them water and they go like crazy,” he said. “It is tough love all the way, baby.”
McMullen has been part of an effort to transform empty concrete tiers at the Wesley street complex into new communal gardens, giving residents a chance to flex their green thumbs. The project was pitched to tenants in the spring as an opportunity for them to grow their own food and be a part of something positive. Now, gardens overflow with zucchini, tomatoes and squash. Gardeners are learning to can and cook, and bowls are heaped with produce weekly to share among other residents.
There is a lot of pride, said McMullen, who has lived in the $6-million complex since it opened in February.
The residents were hard-to-house homeless or at-risk of homelessness before they moved into supportive housing. Some people had not tended a garden in years because they were focused on surviving on the streets and for some, the opportunity has proven they are not as stupid or without skills like they were once made to feel, he said.
“Just take a look at what we have lined up,” he said, pointing toward the produce outside. “People looked at you before like you were a bum that couldn’t do anything. You can’t tell us that now. We are growing our own food.”
The benefits of the communal gardens haven’t gone unnoticed by the city’s other budding supportive housing projects, which aim to follow suit when they break ground over the next 12 months.
Project coordinators say food security has become a key issue for communities and gardens have become an important way for people on low-income to access healthy food and stretch their budgets.
The success of gardens is also in the hands of tenants, fostering independence and a sense of accomplishment, they say.
Karyn French, executive director for Pacifica Housing, said gardens have been incorporated into their Victoria-based complexes over the past five years and she has seen first-hand the joy residents have when they are able to grow and share food.
Gardens will be an important part of the Uplands supportive housing complex, which is expected to get underway this September, she said.
Supportive housing on Dufferin Crescent – one of last remaining builds in a plan to house the city’s homeless – is still in the design stages but will also have plots.
“It can be expensive to eat healthy…so this is providing people with opportunity [to eat well] and the therapeutic value of connecting with the soil,” French said.
Support workers at the Wesley street supportive housing are now looking at new ways to build on the garden project, with plans for learning workshops and a new memorial area.