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Community garden nurtures campus and neighbourhood

GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS: Angelo Infantito (top) and Astrid Markus, both retirees from the Scarborough community, are among the members of the community garden club who have a plot on the campus. (Photos by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

It’s not just young minds that are growing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

The community garden, located on the lower half of the campus in the Highland Creek Valley, nurtures every sort of wildflower and vegetable and provides a unique form of relaxation and camaraderie.

Fruits of the earth are thriving on various plots tended by the loving hands of those in the garden club. Members include faculty, staff and even community members from the surrounding Scarborough area who have no other connection to the campus. The garden club is a great example of the “town and gown” relationship that a university can have with its neighbours.

Considered the only one of its kind at a university campus in the Greater Toronto Area, the garden features some 50 plots, each measuring 15 by 30 feet (5 by 10 metres) in size. The individual plots contain an eclectic mix of plant life – seasonal vegetables, herbs and flowers. Each gardener gets his or her own plot and a key to the communal tool shed.

The garden club has existed for 30 years, and was founded by geography professor Michael Bunce, who introduced the idea of a community garden as a way to maintain the land, which was once the site of horse stables and farmland. The two club coordinators oversee the shed from which members borrow rakes and hoses.

“I like to watch things grow before my eyes,” says Nick Spasevski, a retiree who lives in the Scarborough area and has worked his plot for 20 years. “This is such a nice open area here. I have a garden in my backyard, but it is shady, and this area is so sunny and peaceful. Everything from here tastes so nice and fresh, not like what you get in the stores.”

Spasevski could outfit a salad bar from his plot: tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, leeks and okra are among the species he grows. He says gardening keeps him young. “I am 67 years old, but I feel 35,” he laughs. “I like to keep moving, and working in my garden makes me feel happy and fit. It’s also important to grow food. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, because if no-one gardens, we aren’t going to eat.”

Another community gardener, Angelo Infantito, 74, says that tending his plot is his favorite activity now that he has retired from a career in construction work. “I don’t like to watch television so this passes the time,” he says. Eggplant, rapini, tomatoes, basil and lettuce are among the items in his garden. His plot also harbours some Italian-style hanging zucchini that is almost the height of a primary schooler. “The zucchini is not as good this year with all the rain,” he says. “Last year it was seven feet tall.”

Some of the plots are lush with growth, says Michelle Verbrugghe, Director of Student Housing and Residence Life, a gardener and one of the club’s two coordinators. “You can see that some sections look just like a fairyland, with vibrantly coloured flowers and beautiful fresh vegetables,” she says. “I grew up in a rural area and our family did a lot of gardening, so the fact that we have this amazing resource on an urban university campus where I work is the best of both worlds. This garden is very meaningful to me.”

The garden builds a sense of community and solidarity, she adds. “The gardeners here share tips and ideas as well as produce. If one of us is going on vacation, we can ask our fellow gardeners to keep an eye on our plots or help with them.”

The club members are passionate about getting their hands dirty, and many of them have other gardens at home as well, according to Verbrugghe. The soil is good, the valley is lovely, and the gardeners are congenial, she says. Members can learn a lot from one another about gardening techniques and different types of plants.

Roger Francis, Director of Arts & Science Co-op at U of T Scarborough, is the other coordinator of the community garden. He notes that the club is a good place to start if you have an interest in gardening but lack experience or confidence. Club members often distribute their vegetables to others, exchange information, and meet and befriend others who possess a common interest in gardening, he says.

Francis notes that busy staff members who work on campus enjoy the garden because it provides a chance to slow down and get perspective in the midst of nature. “The garden really adds value to our workplace,” he said. “The University of Toronto Scarborough is a fantastic place to work, but because we’re here so much and working hard, it’s wonderful to have access to this very unique element of campus life. Some gardeners say they like to come here instead of going to the gym because they can get exercise and fresh air at the same time – not to mention some fresh vegetables.”

Real estate values in the community garden are the best in town. Membership for new gardeners is only $20 per year, with annual fees for ongoing members set at just $10 per year.

(with files from Amanda Kwan)

© University of Toronto Scarborough