Our Collaborative Garden: An “island of sanity”

Diane Lefroy
Living Systems Network
6 min readMay 9, 2019

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Drone view of the garden

In 2010, I purchased a small vacant lot across the street from where I have lived and worked for almost 20 years- in the Brewery Creek neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia,

When I say small, I mean just over 2000 square feet- less than half an acre. With money from an inheritance to invest, I had been looking for something I could afford close to home for some time. My goal was to develop a project to bring community together around a shared vision that would improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. When this lot suddenly came up for sale, I had to make a decision.

I could afford it, but it felt like a big risk- even such a small property in this city was not, is not, exactly cheap. I knew this was a decision that would be life-changing and after some initial hesitation, I decided to go for it.

The lot had been fenced and covered with blackberries for the previous 15 years or longer. More of an eyesore than anything, it was certainly not contributing to the neighborhood other than being a convenient place to toss garbage over the fence. Even at this early stage, friends and neighbours came together to help clear the property and make it usable during the planning process.

Knowing that the design and planning process would take at least a year, if not more, ( in hindsight, a lot more) it made sense to create a community garden on the property in the meantime. I had lived in a house with a large yard after university and missed digging in my garden. So I put up a sign asking neighbours to contact me if they were interested in having a small plot. Several of them took me up on the offer and the seed was planted for what is now the coFood Vancouver Collaborative Garden Project sometimes fondly known as “Gardeners of the Galaxy”.

Gardeners of the galaxy

Over the past 8 years, 2 different plans to develop the property, the first for artist live-work studios built to Passive House standards, the second for “Out-of-the-Box”, a shipping container-based local food hub with climate controlled agriculture, have not been pursued to completion. This is a story for another post, perhaps. . .

During the more than 6-year planning process with 4 different architects and the City of Vancouver planning department, the garden continued to thrive and evolve - and began to become a neighborhood hub of sorts. It was a more “traditional” community garden for the first 3 years, with individually managed small plots.

Then in 2014, we initiated a “permaculture” design experiment on the site, led by my then business partner who had just completed his Permaculture Design Certificate. The philosophy of Permaculture, developed by Bill Mollison, is a vast departure from traditional gardening. Its overarching goal is regeneration of the soil through no-till agriculture: letting Nature do most of the work.

On a small urban site this is definitely a challenge, but we also see in the 12 Permaculture Design Principles more than a way to grow food- it teaches “patterns and relationships we can find in nature … applied to all aspects of human habitation, from agriculture to ecological building, from appropriate technology to education and even economics” — a blueprint for a new way of living more in harmony with the natural world, a living system of which we humans are an integral part.

Meanwhile, in 2012, the old house on the neighboring property burned down, and soon after, the elderly man who owned it died. His son decided to sell. That lot has since had 2 different owners, and during the planning stages for its development, we gained permission to extend the garden. The neighbour’s building project was due to start construction after one season in 2017, but we felt it was worth it to have the opportunity to expand the impact we could make in the community, even if only for one year. We are now in our third season gardening together on both lots.

As part of the development of Out-of-the-Box, an emergent network of local food-based initiatives started to come together. This was the birth of coFood Vancouver. We facilitate regular long table dinner events and invite speakers to present on several topics related to the local food system. From Permaculture to Food Supply, Food Justice to Food Tech and Food Waste — we’ve convened over a dozen such events in the past 3 years and met many amazing folks doing the necessary work to build a healthy, resilient local food system. One of our goals is to connect these projects into a local network for information, locally produced goods and skill sharing — the analog and digital framework for a local food economy.

2 choirs performed a summer concert in 2018

The coFood Collaborative Garden is a project of coFood Vancouver- one of the nodes in the Living Systems Network(LSN). The core team profiled on the LSN website is responsible for the planning, coordination and maintenance of the garden, and we welcome anyone who wants to contribute, be it casual volunteers to help with watering and small building projects, or those willing to engage in a more formal role.

We are community activists doing the work on the ground in this local context and creating value far greater than our own personal desire for “return on investment”. Wealth is not defined only as accumulation of financial resources or property. We define wealth in terms of friendships, new skills, enhanced well-being, the health of our community and the land we inhabit. This makes our garden very different from a traditional community garden in several fundamental ways.

It really is a “social experiment” as well as a garden. How do we coordinate our activities and make all participants and collaborators feel their contribution benefits the greater whole as well as themselves ? Who is “in charge”? What do you lose in efficiency but gain in heart and soul? How do we help facilitate the move from I/me/ mine to We/us/ours? How can we mitigate the “tragedy of the commons”?

The collaborative garden is a safe place to practice together the kind of positive behaviours that can help regenerate the ecosystems that we humans have exploited for generations. It’s a new way of thinking. Not everyone gets it. Yet. But we can’t continue doing the same things and expect different results. The hierarchical power-driven economic system we imbibed with our mother’s milk is broken. Unless we learn from Nature, from the network of interconnected processes that create a greater whole than the mere sum of individual parts, we will not survive, let alone thrive.

Here’s my second piece on the collaborative garden. A few stories from this past season: A Garden as an Act of Rebellion.

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Diane Lefroy
Living Systems Network

Community activator, gardener, core contributor at Living Systems Network and coFood Vancouver