Gardens Above Gridlock

Writer Anne Read, seeks to plant a rooftop garden, and finds a community growing all around her.

photos courtesy of the Backyard Agriculture Collective

Recently, I moved to a new apartment. In the back storage shed I found a ladder and used it to climb up to the rooftop for a new view of the city. In front of me spread rows and rows of flat roofs, kilometers of untouched space. In Montréal, a city of over 3 million people, vacant space is not only coveted, it is almost impossible to access. From my rooftop perspective, seeing things differently, I began to wonder what potential for green space this city had.

To re-envision my cityscape, I asked my friend Sofya Raginsky for a tour of Montréal. Raginsky is a gardener, and an urban agriculturalist. “I’m fresh. I’m learning as I grow,” said Raginsky as she loaded her bike up with bags of soil and gardening tools, and lead me through the alleyways of Montréal’s Plateau. In the backyards of my neighbours a world of beauty opened up before me. No longer surrounded by high-rises and cement, I found myself in an expanse of vegetables, flowers and fruit trees.  

“Beauty gives huge amounts of deep pleasure, and humans need beauty,” Raginsky said as we looked around. While her delight is to beautify the spaces she lives in, gardening is also her tool for creating community. Her interest in urban agriculture was first sparked while living in low-income housing and seeing the isolation and confinement people were subjected to.

“It was difficult to get people involved in projects,” she said, “so we planted the gardens, and then had a harvest dinner, and starting learning to cook together. That’s when community started.” Raginsky soon joined Montréal collective, Action Communiterre, which runs collectively-managed garden projects and supplies the local food bank with their surplus harvest. Their goal is to create awareness about food security, and provide access to outdoor space for everyone.

Back at home, I began to transport a few plants and soil onto my new roof.  I wanted to learn how to care for my new space so I went to visit Santropol Roulant, Montréal’s meals-on-wheels organization, who grow their summer supply of food on urban rooftops. They are working with people living without personal autonomy and bringing community back into the lives of everyday Montréalers.

“People come here from all over - the excuse is to garden”, said Benjamin Grégoire, Santropol Roulant’s Sustainable Projects Coordinator. Gardening in urban centers reveals just how interdependent we are; growing food establishes communities where there were once only individuals. “The act of gardening creates a physical link between me and the environment. I care for that plant in order to care for myself,” said Grégoire.

"This … is about our connection and interconnections to the earth and each other. It is about dealing with the disconnection of human life to nature or the disconnection with ourselves and others. It is about our relationships and interrelationships with each other and the land."

Based on hydroponics, the Santropol Roulant rooftop garden uses the soil-less technology of recycled plastic barrels cut sideways, with a tube feed system which connects each growing barrel to a rain barrel. The tube feed system is monitored by a float, similar to one found in the back of the toilet, which measures the water level to avoid flooding or over-watering from occurring. Each plant is equipped with wicks which drop down into the water container below and soak up an appropriate amount of water. Not only is this technology affordable, it is possible to make an entire garden out of 100% recycled material.

“We’re always in the process of experimenting; trying to find out how little soil we can work with,” said Grégoire. While Santropol Roulant’s rooftop garden sells kits to individuals to tend their own food on balconies, the Roulant has been working with city architects to institute building codes which support rooftop gardens in greater Montréal. Rooftops typically sustain 49 lbs. per square foot, and considering that watered soil can weigh up to 125lb per square foot, the stress on rooftops is unsustainable. Soil-less gardens provide a realistic alternative.

Santropol Roulant’s goals are long term, although they already have many local and international gardening projects. “This (rooftop garden) movement is going to go beyond us,” Grégoire said, as the Roulant pushes forward with new ideas, such as using spaces that are currently vacant to grow vegetables in abandoned storage containers.

In urban centers, outdoor space is typically for the well-moneyed. Cement block housing, prevalent in low-income neighborhoods, generally does not enable access to yards or balconies where gardens can be grown. Montréal Environmental Consultant, Nicole Fournier, wanted to change that through her Backyard Agriculture project. Backyard Agriculture connects those who own a yard with those who have no access to land. The project enables two or three families to share a single yard and create a collective flower or vegetable garden. Through Fournier and Backyard Agriculture, people not only meet their neighbours, but share their living and eating spaces. “It depends on the space and the people,” Fournier said. “So the work involved is coordinating to find the right matches and chemistry between people, and finding the homes who want to share their backyard space with others.”

Within her outdoor communities, Fournier turns each garden into performance art. Participants of backyard agriculture use the garden itself as a feasting location in what Fournier terms “live dining” installations. Not only are people planting, weeding and harvesting together, they are also eating together in their shared outdoor space. For Fournier, art is as important to community building as growing gardens. “This artwork, performance, event, live action installation, is about our connection and interconnections to the earth and each other,” she says. “It is about dealing with the disconnection of human life to nature or the disconnection with ourselves and others. It is about our relationships and interrelationships with each other and the land.”

Standing on my roof and surveying my new gardening space, these urban gardeners act as my teacher. Through gardening I realize how interdependent my community and I are. In urban centers, gardens improve air quality, provide food security and preserve biodiversity, but the deeper I dig, the more I find there is much more to gardening than growing plants. As each of the above organizations show, gardens are the tools for growing community.

Anne Read is a staff writer for ascent magazine. She currently lives in Montreal and is enjoying her new home.

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