How We Do It

How Can We Boulevard Garden in Victoria?!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe City wishes “Victorians [to] have access to…resources to produce and process their own food in urban areas” (Official Community Plan, 17.B).  In keeping with this goal, boulevard gardens have been popping up for years. In July 2014, City Council approved a set of boulevard gardening guidelines on an interim basis. In February 2016, Boulevard Gardening Guidelines were approved “for good”, to support and shape these micro-projects.

Technically, leaving anything on the boulevard or removing anything from it still runs off-side City Bylaws.  Through the Boulevard Gardening Guidelines, the City is essentially saying that it will not enforce these outdated Bylaws against those who garden safely and responsibly. As a matter of policy and practice, the City allows immediately adjacent property owners (and others acting with the informed consent of adjacent property owners) to pursue street-side gardening.  The City anticipates amending its Bylaws in the not-too-distant future.

Victoria’s Boulevard Gardening Guidelines are based primarily on Vancouver’s Boulevard Gardening Guidelines, which were reworked to better suit Victoria’s unique wants and needs. Victoria’s Guidelines offer plenty of helpful direction in relation to boulevard gardening, including how to avoid underground utilities, how to find maintenance help, and how to cope with soil contamination. The City’s permissive posture is encouraging and exciting!

CAUTION: Before pushing your shovel into the Earth, push buttons on your phone. Call BC One Call for information on underground utilities, at 1-800-474-6886.

How Do You Boulevard Garden in Victoria?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy answer takes the form of a question:  How would you like to do it? There’s plenty of room on city boulevards for different gardening styles. It can be helpful to learn by doing, and to teach by showing. At the same time, if you pursue boulevard gardening as a group project, I’d recommend a high degree of communication and consensus within that group. To me, it’s a lot more fun to work as part of a team when everyone concerned can share diverse opinions, then find a way to pull together toward a common vision.

If you’re interested in permaculture gardening, I’d recommend a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway. Permaculture is short for ‘permanent culture’ or ‘permanent agriculture’. Sustainability is the goal, and that means working in harmony with natural processes, not against them. For example, if you are constantly pulling weeds in a garden and leaving bare soil exposed, you’re pitting yourself against a force of nature. Seeds from pioneering plants love bare soil, so holding open that habitat is a sure-fire way to invite them to return your way, creating needless weeding work. If we cover bare soil with thick mulch, like dead leaves, we mimic a forest ecosystem. We add fertility, retain moisture, and discourage weeds from getting a toe-hold.  And if they do take root, is that so terrible?  On deeper reflection: Maybe the hard part isn’t reshaping the garden; maybe the hard part is reshaping ourselves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt may shock you, but cutting-edge permaculture principles say to welcome ‘weeds’ to a degree, even dandelions. As one of my gardening mentors once said: “If you want to be a permaculture gardener, you’ve got to learn to love the dandelion!” Dandelions send deep roots downward, drawing nutrients upward. Chopping-and-dropping dandelion leaves into the garden makes fertilizing mulch (the flowers and seed heads can be sent to a hot compost bin, to avoid spreading dandelions more widely than you want). Dandelion parts are edible, and dandelion wine delightful (or so I’m told). Dandelions bloom early in spring, when bees need them most. Dandelions are just dandy!

Walk in a forest, and drink in the diversity. Notice how hard it is to find any wild things growing alone, or in straight lines. In a garden, I cringe when I see the same plant marching in regimented rows. Sow in straight lines if you like; it is your garden after all, and rows of kale are much better than blades of grass. But if the goal is to mimic ecological processes, consider one of Alfred Kinsey’s gardening slogans: “Straight is the line of duty but curved is the line of beauty.”  Neat rows might be more efficient, but why should efficiency trump everything else?

Planting the same plant shoulder-to-shoulder is an invitation to infestation.  Pests move in, and hop happily from meal to meal.  I’m drawn to diverse plantings loosely organized into small patches, using curvy strokes and colourful splashes. I want the gardens where I work to look like an artist’s canvas, or at least an artist’s palette. To me, that looks more appealing to many passers-by, less appealing to many pests.

I also like to consider how different plants can support one another in ‘guilds’. A comfrey plant I don’t eat, but I plant comfrey in the garden next to dwarf fruit trees because the flowers attract bees, and the leaves create mulch.  Adding multi-purpose plants to your garden, especially native varieties, can whittle your workload and double your pleasure. Grass offers none of these benefits.  Lawn?  Yawn!

How about the Paperwork?  Any Paperwork?

The City of Victoria does not require any paperwork to be filled out by aspiring boulevard gardeners.  No formal application process has been created at City Hall, and no formal gardening permit is issued by City Hall.  In effect, the Boulevard Gardening Guidelines serve as permission to you from the City of Victoria to garden on the boulevard immediately adjacent to your property (or to allow others to do so), on the condition that the gardener follows the rules set out in those Guidelines.  In other words, by engaging in boulevard gardening, you are agreeing to comply with the Guidelines, in return for permission to garden on certain City boulevards (according to para. 3 of section 6.3 of the Guidelines themselves, read together with section 1).  Of course, all of this assumes that we are talking about a boulevard within the boundaries of the City of Victoria.  “VicMap” can help you figure out where City boundaries lie, and also where lies the line between private property and adjacent boulevards.

Now, that’s not to say that paperwork has no role to play in relation to boulevard gardening.  To me, it depends on the circumstances.  I’ve been involved in three boulevard gardening adventures, none of them adjacent to property that I own.  Each garden presented very different “social soil”, meaning very different sets of social circumstances, calling for different degrees of formality.

In the case of “the Common”, I was invited by the adjacent homeowners to help out in their existing boulevard garden, on an ad hoc basis.  Margot and Rainey (and their neighbours) got the garden going, and Margot and Rainey were the only ones doing watering and maintenance when they invited me to lend a hand from time to time.  The trade was basically my labour for their knowledge, plus they encouraged me to take away kale and other edibles, in moderation.  All of this was worked out verbally, and each visit I made to the garden was unique.  Each visit, Margot and Rainey gave me maintenance instructions, and I asked them for harvesting permissions.  As life got busier, my visits became less frequent, and ultimately, Margot and Rainey invited other acolytes into the garden to pick up where I left off.  In short, no paperwork was ever put in place between me and these homeowners, and under these particular circumstances, I think using verbal communications worked out just fine.

In the case of “the Annex”, the garden had been established by students way back when, with the consent of the adjacent homeowners.  Then the house changed hands.   The new homeowners, Todd and Lisa, liked the boulevard garden, wanted to see it kept in place, but didn’t want to do any watering or maintenance.  I heard about this situation by word-of-mouth, and volunteered to help.  I worked out an understanding with Todd and Lisa, by email.  Basically, they said they would provide water from their hose as needed, I said I’d provide the labour.  If you count email as “paperwork”, then we did do a little of it.  More detailed paperwork was never required or desired, in part because these homeowners chose to take a largely “hands-off” approach to my watering and maintenance decisions.  I still work to water and maintain this boulevard garden, and I’m now looking to pass the baton to someone new, someone Todd and Lisa can accept.  Please let me know if you are interested!  I want to focus on “the Field”!

In the case of “the Field”, I actually helped establish the garden with the active participation of several friends and neighbours.  The adjacent homeowners, Norma and Gunnar, had seen me working in another boulevard garden, stopped to chat, and expressed an interest in seeing a boulevard garden created in front of their home.  This was a new and exciting situation for me, but it also presented obvious challenges.  What if the garden didn’t meet Norma and Gunnar’s expectations?  What if the vision I had in mind was at odds with my co-gardeners?  I realized it wouldn’t be a sustainable project if I didn’t establish a detailed understanding among all concerned.  I drafted a letter addressed to the adjacent homeowners laying out some basic expectations, and floated the draft to the homeowners and my co-gardeners.  Norma and Gunnar suggested at least one change:  they didn’t want anything too tall planted along their property line.  Six co-gardeners ultimately signed the letter, reassuring Norma and Gunnar that the garden would be watered and maintained regularly.  My main point:  under these circumstances involving a highly-collaborative effort including virtual strangers, a signed letter was a helpful way to come to a common understanding around how the boulevard garden would initially take shape, and stay in shape.

To sum up:  depending on the “social soil”, a verbal understanding between property owners and boulevard gardeners can be enough to ensure street-side harmony.  Sometimes, an email exchange seems wiser, even if only to confirm a verbal understanding.  Other times, a formal letter may seem fitting.  For the benefit of others, I’ve reworked the letter I wrote to Norma and Gunnar, made it more “generic”, and expanded it to handle more diverse requirements and preferences in relation to a new boulevard garden.  Please feel free to download this document, and shape it to suit the wants and needs that you hold in common with other stakeholders.  Bear in mind that it is written from the boulevard gardener’s point of view, and is meant to be addressed to the owner of the property immediately adjacent to the boulevard in question.  If you are establishing a boulevard garden immediately adjacent to your own property, and you are doing all the work, then a letter like this one would have no work to do.

Letter of understanding v4

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