Summer in the City

I spent a good part of the summer break eavesdropping. I call it a break, but it wasn’t the sand-in-your hair-and-a-magazine beach day kind of break; it was the sweat-in-your-eyes-and-stained-fingers farm day kind of break. The good kind.

(And I call it eavesdropping, but it wasn’t the ear-pressed-against-a-cup-on-the-wall kind of eavesdropping, either, it was – well, I’ll get into that shortly.)

The farm stand at Mason Street City Farm in Victoria. City bylaws were changed in 2008 to allow retail fruit and vegetable production on a portion of a property, but no retail sales were permitted at the site. Updated bylaws passed in September 2016 allow the farm to operate a farm stand in front of the property and sell farm produce directly to local residents.

We permaculture students were out of the classroom for eight weeks this summer, scattered like seeds on the wind for our practicum placements. Or, more truthfully, scattered like the seeds I was sowing during the early part of my practicum stint, a hitch in my wrist-snap bunching them up haphazardly in the furrow: a pair of us in Victoria; another up the Saanich peninsula; two island seeds landing on Pender and Denman; and one catching a stray gust all the way to Southern Ontario.

We came back together this week and shared the stories of our summers – servicing solar-powered pumps, sheet mulching, sharpening tools, and seed saving; transplanting, tree grafting, tincturing, and taste-testing tulsi tea. At lunch, still brimming over with stories, we shared tips and anecdotes around the table like they were hockey cards. If there was one constant in the conversation, it was our collective gratitude to the farms and their farmers: for allowing us onto their land, to make mistakes, and to learn. And so, to Mason Street Farm, Fireweed Farm & School, Raven Rock Farm, Rebel Roots Herb Farm, and Tree Eater Nursery, from all of us: thank you.

(L-R): Sam giving a grafting demonstration using a Crataegus douglasii (Hawthorn) rootstock; a garden sign made using split bamboo and baling wire, developed by Devin for use at Raven Rock Farm, Pender Island; garbling (hand stripping) herbs for a tincture during our practicum debriefs.

I’m a downtown kind of kid, and so I traded in the hills’ slanting morning sun and the thrum of pollinators at our rural classrooms for a summer in the city dirt, at Mason Street Farm in Victoria. It’s  five minutes’ walk from my place if you know the shortcut: down the street, past the barbershop and across the parking lot, then turning yourself sideways at the end to squeeze through an old gate. We’d visited as a class over the winter, and I wrote then about the scrappy character of the farm and those who’ve fiercely tended it: squaring off through the years against unfriendly laws and creeping gentrification; committed, always, to the neighbourhood.

Now, arriving again in the summer, it was full steam ahead at the farm. Rows of salad greens stood cheek-to-jowl, with just room enough between them to heel-toe your way along at a wobbly shuffle – arugula, lettuce, mustard greens, mizuna. I learned to harvest by feel, crouched low with a pair of scissors, anticipating patches of shadow in which to stow the harvest basket before they were cleaved across by the morning sun. In the wash tent an old washing machine drum performed stand-in duty as a salad spinner. On the other side of the fence, a morning commuter often walked past with a phone to his ear, brisk snippets of conversation and heels sounding staccato.

Walking through pondside grasses, Ravenhill Herb Farm, with a goat-topped weather vane visible in the background; a chicken on the prowl; garbling dried Eschscholzia californica (California poppy) for tincturing.

In the greenhouses I trained vining tomatoes to snake up towards the rafters, and then watched cascades of purples and oranges and reds appear suddenly in the middle of June like clusters of marbles. Prehistoric-looking sunflowers sprouted at cheeky angles around the idle aquaponic system in the furthest greenhouse, its fish tanks falling victim this year to a failed pump and tenacious city raccoons.

Construction of a mixed-use commercial and housing development across the street was in full swing, and the rhythms of conversation, meted out neatly in between hammerfalls and the whine of impact drivers, would rebound off the new cladding and drift down to my ears in the garden. It was a bit like listening to a radio scan up and down its bands: sports, politics, an exclamation, a fragment of a joke. Sometimes I could tell the conversations were about us across the road, stooped and forking over a bed or wading bowlegged into the squash patch – What is that place over there?

A flamingo looms over some cacti at Northbrook Farm, Saanichton.

We met some of the workers as the summer went on. Council had loosened bylaws that restricted retail sales for city growers, and this season was the first that the farm was allowed to operate a farm stand on site. Ours was a little wooden table beside the sidewalk, which we loaded up with produce in the mornings before hauling the advertising sign – a folding plastic children’s easel with an arrow on it – down to the corner thoroughfare.

In the wash tent, I agonized a bit over the display, bunching and re-bunching carrots so that their tails twined elegantly; curating the tomato punnets for maximum colour variety; fluffing the bags of salad mix like miniature herbaceous pillows. The quality of the farm’s produce is highly regarded and sells briskly to city chefs, but something about sidewalk sales to the neighbourhood felt like a different and important kind of barometer.

Standing in a rehabilitated jostaberry patch at Northbrook Farm.

The early days were quiet, figures moving past without turning their head in the way that people do when they aren’t sure if acknowledging the presence of a new thing will precipitate a glare or a sales pitch. But the neighbourhood has its own mycelial network: eyes in apartments, craned necks, inquisitive kids. Word got around. One day a couple of plasterers from across the street stopped by on their lunch to buy cherry tomatoes. Then more showed up. People wanted to visit. By late summer we were sometimes selling out the stand by mid-morning and then fielding questions about our harvest schedule into the afternoon.

This, I think, was my favorite part of the whole thing: the great jumble of smiles and stares and confusion and curiosity that greeted us every day as we welcomed the neighbourhood to stop and engage. Everyone came to life a little bit, in different ways, when they paused at the farm stand and then looked up and absorbed more fully the playful anarchy dancing in the lush, ramshackle yard in behind it. I think this is what Mark Lakeman meant earlier this year when he told us to “garden outside the lines” – to celebrate and explore the energy this kind of positive subversiveness brings. You know it when it’s there.

(L-R): An old mariner presides over the chicken hutch; burdock growing in repurposed rain barrels at V1 – Estevan Village; talking shop with Plant Buoy Matt Gravel, partner in The Village restaurant’s #VillageGrowShow initiative.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.