Tom Adair shows off his successful cucumber patch in his square of the Burnaby and Region Allotment Garden Association in the south end of the city. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

Burnaby’s little slice of garden heaven

If the city wants to tackle food security, the Burnaby and Region Allotment Gardens Association offers a great template.

By Dustin Godfrey | August 12, 2021 |4:40 pm

A bumblebee hovers to and fro, from flower to flower, leaf to leaf in the shade graciously cast by a wall of vines.

The bee isn’t alone—several more buzz nearby in the abundance of flowers and fruits and vegetables in this area, nestled into the southeastern corner of Burnaby.

I’m in the Burnaby and Region Allotment Gardens Association’s (BARAGA) leased land tucked between Marine Drive and Marine Way, amid a whole ecosystem of agricultural lands. And I’m in awe of how quiet the space is, given its proximity to major traffic arterials.

This little space—from the family farms to the apiaries to the community gardens—is a 250-hectare ration of peace carved by the Agricultural Land Commission out of the growing city.

‘It’s very cosmopolitan’

The community garden itself is a 5.9-hectare haven, divided into 372 plots of about 93 square metres. With some plots divided into 2 half-garden plots, BARAGA serves a membership of roughly 400, according to vice-president Dick Mackin.

And it’s a space that, as the city considers issues of food security, including urban gardening, could offer a template for future community gardens in the city.

“It’s very cosmopolitan,” says Kenji Mizoguchi as he prunes a cucumber plant.

He and other gardeners I spoke to agree that the place is a little international village, as vibrant as the gardens themselves—and Mizoguchi says you can often tell a person’s nationality by what they grow.

Italian gardeners, Mizoguchi and other gardeners note as an example, grow beans, and romaine and arugula lettuce. Mizoguchi, meanwhile, grows Japanese cucumber plants.

Most gardens I saw had some variety of tomatoes—those seem to be universal, albeit with a wide variety. In a small greenhouse on his plot, Mackin offers me a midnight snack tomato.

It’s small, round and mostly red, save for a splash of the tell-tale colouring in one spot—a dark purple, almost black colour that covers the tomatoes past their initial green stage but before they’re ripe.

“I don’t have any salt to offer you,” he jokes.

And that hints at part of the appeal of BARAGA—this friendly nature is abundant in the gardens. As I wander through the gardens, after speaking with Mackin, each of the gardeners I speak to greets me like a neighbour.

Lyndi Lasdoce offers me beets—”I’ve been eating beets … for 2 weeks,” she says with a laugh. She tells me about working overnight shifts as a nurse and coming to the gardens in the morning after work.

Tom Adair tells me about his successes of the year and some of the bad crops—his tomatoes didn’t do so hot, but the onions are doing great, and the cucumbers are huge. (I can confirm this, as a recipient of a gigantic cucumber.)

Burnaby and Region Allotment Garden Association vice-president Dick Mackin stands in his little space in the community gardens. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)
Burnaby and Region Allotment Garden Association vice-president Dick Mackin stands in his little space in the community gardens. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

The gardeners tell me about the sense of community within BARAGA, and it’s not hard to believe. On the way to Mackin’s plot, he’s greeted by a fellow gardener who thanks him for his help on a project. Later, a neighbouring gardener greets Mackin amicably over the barrier between their plots.

Growing popularity

The community gardens were first developed in the 1970s, then owned by the provincial government before being transferred in the 1980s to the city, which has leased out the property to BARAGA ever since.

“The city determined that they didn’t want to be managers of the property, so gardeners formed the gardening association,” Mackin says.

But the name is a bit of a misnomer now—particularly the “and Region” part of it.

“At the start, gardening wasn’t as in vogue as it is today, and they couldn’t keep the plots full, so they opened it up to the Lower Mainland that could make it here,” Mackin tells me.

“We still have a few members that are in New Westminster and in South Vancouver and even a couple from across the river in Delta.”

Since then, however, as gardening became more and more popular, BARAGA’s popularity has steadily risen with it. Currently, the waitlist to get into the garden is just shy of 400 people long—that could fill almost every plot in the garden.

As a result, the association stopped renting out spaces to people outside of Burnaby just a few years ago.

“We used to need to fill the place, but we’ve got a waitlist … almost as big as our membership,” he says. “If you were to put your name on the waitlist today, you might get something in 5 years.”

This popularity has only grown more since the start of the pandemic.

And that’s a good reason for expanding community gardens in the city. But Mackin is skeptical.

“I’m not sure the city has any interest in expanding community gardens,” he says. “If they did, they would have. There’s the old school down here. There’s close to 9 acres of land that’s just sitting fallow.”

Tackling food security

The issue has come up in city council meetings in the last year.

Coun. Joe Keithley sees community gardens, along with backyard chickens, as part of an issue of food security, with the aim of shifting even a little bit of our food dependence to local sources.

Last fall, he pushed for staff to study both issues and return with a report—and he told Burnaby Beacon earlier this summer that he’s hoping for that report within the next few months.

The city’s hesitation on the issue has been, at least in part, about how public land is allocated—by using public land for community gardens, you’re limiting who can use that land. But on the other hand, so do city-owned golf courses and community centres.

Lyndi Lasdoce waters some of her plants in the Burnaby and Region Allotment Garden Association. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)
Lyndi Lasdoce waters some of her plants in the Burnaby and Region Allotment Garden Association. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

“What’s the difference between this and a park?” asks Mackin. “The general public can’t come into here, but we’ve got 400-odd Burnaby families involved here. So it seems to me that it’s a good use of land.”

Plus, gardens come with an added benefit to the city, Mackin notes: the city doesn’t need to take care of the land. Whereas a park requires maintenance from the city, all management of the BARAGA lands comes from the association itself, although to set up a community garden would require a fair bit of infrastructure, like irrigation systems.

Much of the talk at city hall has been about things like sectioning off an area of a park to add community gardens, but Mackin says those aren’t sufficient.

And it’s not hard to agree with him, particularly if the reason for community gardens is to increase food security in the city. A small box in a park, while nice, is hardly enough space to grow enough food for a family, let alone enough to tip any balances in a city of about 250,000.

A handful of gardeners at BARAGA rely on the food they grow, Mackin says, but the vast majority grow for the love of it. However, that doesn’t mean the gardens don’t contribute to food security in the region.

Every week, BARAGA donates to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

In all, BARAGA donates 15 to 20 boxes, each about 12 cubic feet, of food every week from July to September, when the gardens are actively producing food, according to Mackin.

A worthwhile endeavour

But doing something on the scale of BARAGA would come with its own challenges in a city of rapidly growing demand on ever-diminishing land.

Community gardening won’t be expanded at that scale, Mackin says, unless the city takes it upon itself.

“[It’s] entirely at the discretion of the city. They’re the only people who own the land. None of the land outside of the ALR [agricultural land reserve] that the highest and best use would be community gardening,” he says. “So it has to be, if the city wants to expand it, or wants it to be expanded, they’ll have to look at their land bank and say, ‘Well, what can we do with this?’”

Another garden in the Big Bend area, where BARAGA is, would focus community gardens in too tight of a spot and wouldn’t truly serve the community, Mackin says.

Still, it’s hard to imagine many places in the city being able to fully reproduce the secluded feel of BARAGA. The land in this area is sparsely populated, with no commercial district. As I walk through the gardens, I can only barely see the tops of a couple of towers and cranes in Edmonds, and even then only from the right angles.

Kenji Mizoguchi prunes a Japanese cucumber plant in his space in the community garden. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)
Kenji Mizoguchi prunes a Japanese cucumber plant in his space in the community garden. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

As Burnaby continues to grow, the number of spaces that are truly sectioned off from the bustling city is dwindling—but still far from gone. Forest Grove, for instance, is similarly flanked by major roads while maintaining a feeling of seclusion.

Considering BARAGA’s waitlist, the demand for another major community garden clearly exists in Burnaby. And from my couple of hours at BARAGA, it feels like something worth trying to replicate elsewhere in the city.

On a sunny Tuesday in South Burnaby, surrounded by innumerable varieties of flowers, vegetables and fruits, I feel totally at peace—in part from the setting and in part from the sense of community that reverberates through the place.

And on my way home, I continue to buzz with what feels like a post-vacation afterglow.

Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

Latest Articles

August 12, 2022

Burnaby Mtn residents want to speed up archaelogical surveys for new fire halls

In May, city council officially approved a $50.4-million contract for two new fire halls in the Burnaby Mountain area.

August 12, 2022

What’s going on in Burnaby: Aug. 12-21

Need something to get up to this week?