Welcome Gardens! New Project Cultivates Friendship, Knowledge and Food

More than just sustenance, food is a view into another culture, a source of traditional knowledge, and a way of connection. With food security as a priority, the Victoria Foundation recently funded a project that brings people together through food gardening.


It was more than the garden variety of people who gathered for afternoon tea in an outdoor setting one day in early April.

Organized through the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) the tea brought together people of varying ages, languages and cultural backgrounds. But they held one thing in common: a desire to garden and learn together.

After getting to know each other over refreshments, they broke off into groups and set to work in the soil — clearing, raking, tilling — and putting a new VIRCS program called Welcome Gardens! into action.

With help from a Victoria Foundation grant of $13,473, VIRCS has established the Welcome Gardens! project, which places newcomers and locals together in gardens. Ultimately, these gardeners will sow more than just food — the bushels of benefits include creation of  friendships, cultural awareness and the sharing of horticultural knowledge.

David Lau, executive director at VIRCS, says the concept sprouted as he overheard more and more gardening conversations occurring in the centre’s reception area.

“Gardening is important around the world as part of people’s daily diets. Here, gardening becomes more challenging [for newcomers] because the climate is different and they often live in apartments.”

It struck VIRCS that Victoria has a number of seniors who have well-established gardens but are no longer able to work in them. Putting the two groups together — immigrants without gardens and local seniors needing help — seemed to offer many potential positive outcomes.

In the area of food security, the program would provide fresh food to two population sectors that are often low income. But beyond food-related issues, it would foster relationships amid people who can sometimes become isolated.

“People who come to Canada often miss their [former] communities, which included little children as well as older people. They’ve come from places with more intergenerational cultures,” Lau says. “And sometimes they’ve lost the family structure … People crave sitting with older, wiser people, who have time to form and express their thoughts.”

VIRC’s Pam Devito was the perfect person to put the Welcome Gardens! concept into action, says Lau: she has background in project development, was a VIRCS board member in the early years of the centre, has set up a women’s agricultural group  and owns a blueberry farm.

Devito was thrilled to take on the challenge and is excited by its initial success, which is already beyond target. However, she says, the project as it was originally conceived has undergone a few changes.

A few issues such as language, transportation, proximity and the time of day that people are available to work in a garden have resulted in a few adaptations.

“Basically, it’s come down to people with gardens and people without gardens.”

While there are still seniors and newcomers involved, in some cases the roles are reversed. For example, a local senior without a garden might have a desire to learn about organic gardening and be paired with a newcomer, who does have a garden.

“In general, people who have gardens have opened them up and groups are forming around them. Right now, we have two to three people per garden, because people really like working together as a group..”

Devito has also discovered the advantage of placing ESL trained people into the settings.

At the garden tea event, she says, pairings occurred as people worked together in the garden: “Natural relationships developed.”

A total of 19 people were involved in Welcome Gardens! by April, including newcomers from China, Japan, Korea, Colombia, Mexico, Romania and Poland.

“Two young couples, newcomers from China, have gardens and want to share them and, at the same time, learn about local horticulture,” Devito says. So she has placed local seniors in each of these gardens.

“These two young couples are best able to work in the morning so they’re matched with retired people with ESL backgrounds,” she says, adding that the Chinese couples also have their family elders with them. These older parents participate in the gardens as well, and even though they can’t speak English, the activity is bringing them out of isolation.

“So now, one woman is able to talk to her father about what she’s learning, and —bringing the next generation — she has a daughter who’s totally into it as well.”

Welcome Gardens! is finding other ways to deal with language barriers. Often older newcomers have no English at all, Devito points out, but they’re able to learn gardening information via YouTube videos, charts, pictures and ESL modules.

Following the successful tea and work party, Devito was setting out to another garden, this one at the home of a senior in her 80s.

“Her son has passed away as have most of her friends. She’s lonely, but has 45 years of gardening experience.”

A group of six or seven people — including a couple from Romania in their 70s — were heading over to clean and prepare a space for a communal garden. And as the day unfolded, it became clear that much more than food was under cultivation.

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