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Getting Your Hands Dirty in a Meaningful Way: Tips for Creating a Community Garden Group
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In Toronto, an innovative program is helping people who are homeless or living in poverty to find new community connections - in the garden. The Fred Victor Centre Garden Group tends to a community garden plot. Together, the group harvests well-being and teamwork as well as flowers and produce. The HRC’s Suzanne Zerger spoke with providers Audrey Alfred-Duggan of Fred Victor Centre and Fiona Husband of Street Health to learn more about tips for creating a community Garden Group.
Getting Your Hands Dirty in a Meaningful Way: Tips for Creating a Community Garden Group

Flowers, vegetables, and herbs tell an empowering story. It is about finding a place in the garden to reconnect with some part of our essential nature that is stolen on the streets. The isolation of homelessness is replaced with the understanding that we have the capacity to grow. At the same time that we are tending to the garden, we are tending to ourselves.

The Fred Victor Centre Garden Group in Toronto, Ontario maintains a plot in a community garden in Toronto and has been in operation since 1998. Fred Victor Centre offers a continuum of community services and programs, including housing options for adults. The Garden Group gives adults living in poverty and experiencing homelessness the opportunity to develop gardening skills, spend quality time outdoors, work together as a team, and be part of a larger community of gardeners across the city.

Providers Audrey Alfred-Duggan of Fred Victor Centre and Fiona Husband of Street Health recently sat down with the HRC’s Suzanne Zerger to share sha share tips for creating a community garden group. Street Health works to improve the health and well-being of people who are homeless and underhoused in Southeast Toronto, and is co-facilitator of the Fred Victor Centre Garden Group.

Audrey and Fiona emphasize the advantages of being located within a broader community garden. It gives group members the opportunity to meet and work with other community gardeners and to share gardening tips. This helps develop people skills and encourages positive interaction in the process. Being integrated into a larger community of gardeners helps diminish stigma and isolation, serious challenges faced by people who are homeless. Members of the Garden Group also report that working in the garden helps to improve physical and mental health and to reduce substance use. Once a Garden Group member has built up confidence and is ready to graduate from the program, he or she can sign up for their own plot in the community garden.

Every year the Garden Group works on a special project. Projects create structure and a focus, and sustain interest and energy over the weeks when the garden is at a low maintenance point. Past projects have included:
  • Publishing a “Garden Book,” with garden-related stories, anecdotes, recipes, gardening tips, and artwork by the clients.
  • Creating a video featuring the Garden Group in collaboration with an art student from the community; creating a photo exhibit of garden images.
  • Making “Tea cards,” which are greeting cards with images of herbs grown in the garden paired with recipes for herbal teas.
The group proudly showcases their projects at an annual Harvest Festival, and sells their creations to raise funds for the Garden Group. At the Fred Victor Centre Garden Group in Toronto, people are harvesting home.

Tips from Fred Victor Centre for Creating a Community Garden Group:

  • Enlist and work with a strong core group of people who are very interested and invested in gardening. Encourage group members to teach and learn from each other.  Listen to the group’s ideas and let them take the lead when they are ready.
  • Setting the tone of the garden is very important. It’s important to focus on the value of the gardening process itself, not just the products of the garden.  We remind everyone that the main benefits are sharing the produce and spending the time in the garden.
  • Encourage peer support. Every year the Fred Victor Centre hires a Peer Assistant to work five hours weekly for the eight-month season. The Peer Assistant takes responsibility for organizing the Garden Group’s meetings, bringing snacks, and overseeing the garden activities. This person helps to encourage and motivate group members. It is important to provide employment opportunities and staff support to the Peer Assistant.
  • Hold planning meetings.  This helps to provide structure and to set the tone. Keep records and record attendance. At the end of the year, hold a final meeting to review, analyze, and discuss what worked well and what needs to be improved.
  • Celebrate!  Fred Victor Centre holds a Harvest Festival every year for clients, volunteers, and friends in the community. They exhibit photos of the garden taken by participants throughout the season, serve fresh produce grown in the garden, share plans for next year’s project, and showcase the work of the Garden Group.  
  • Get to know other garden groups in your city. Plan field trips to other community garden groups to inspire group members, and to learn more about different methods of gardening and the benefits of networking across the city. This helps everyone to feel like they are part of something significant in our community: a citywide network of people who care about gardening.

Click here to learn more about Fred Victor Centre.

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