On Vancouver’s Westside, they’re riding the rails. Locals of a certain age may recall that for more than 50 years, following its incorporation in 1897, the Vancouver and LuLu Island Railway Company or “the interurban” as it was known to Vancouverites, transported commuters along the Arbutus corridor from downtown Vancouver to Steveston. The rusted ribbons of metal are still there, but it has been more than a generation since the clang of the trolley’s bell announced the train’s arrival.
To the casual observer the interurban line may appear abandoned, but it’s still inhabited by a community of gardeners. This narrow strip of land is sandwiched between East and West Boulevards south of 49th Avenue. Guarded by a scarecrow in Reebok sneakers and a sun-faded Salt Lake City 2002 T-shirt, there’s an eclectic collection of gardens. Some are roughly hewn from the fields of Queen Anne’s lace, a lofty white flowered weed that threatens to choke the life out of the tender young plants, while other garden plots are painstakingly maintained. Neat rows of vegetables and flowers behind cedar picket fencing are marked with the name of the yet-to-sprout crop. Handwritten signs identify early tomatoes and sweet-tasting basil, the beginning of a pizza garden.
There was a time when every Vancouver backyard boasted a vegetable garden. Kids would make excursions into the neighbours’ yard after dark to liberate a fresh carrot or a red-cheeked apple. Today, all along the interurban tracks, there is a bounty of tempting crispy green salad fixings, vine-ripened fruit and multihued flowers.
The gardens are as varied as the gardeners who tend them. There are families, community groups and individuals like Sue and her canine sidekick. As she tends their garden, Sue shares that the cool spring produced less-than-desirable results. A couple of plots away, three generations of one family grow berries so lush that the man picking raspberries deep within the thicket is nearly invisible. He picks the berries for his parents, his way to thank them and show his daughter the gardeners’ ways.
“As a gardener, no matter how much you think you know Mother Nature will prove you wrong,” he says and adds with a touch of gardeners’ optimism. “But there is always next year.” A lesson he learned from his parents – a lesson now being passed along to the next generation.
“Take some of these with you,” says an older Italian lady in broken English. She gardens in a faded sundress and straw hat, her weathered hands cradling blood red Roma tomatoes fresh from the vine.
Much to the chagrin of her neighbouring gardener, the old lady’s corn is also almost ready for harvest – one of the vagaries of nature and the green thumb. “Everything she touches grows,” Ursula points out.
Ursula is a little camera shy but more than willing to share her gardening wisdom. She shrugs and complains the bees haven’t been visiting her garden this year. Ironically, just steps away a hive is alive and buzzing. Ursula has been working her plot for a decade and can‘t remember a summer like this one.
To a passerby this place may appear to be a community garden. To those who spend time bent at the waist, their neck red from the sun and their fingernails forever soiled, this is a garden community. A community of carefully nurtured seeds or much-loved plants pooled with fellow growers, or freshly picked tomatoes proudly shared with a stranger. This is a garden where, like life, the important lessons are learned from parents and grandparents – not with words, but by getting hands dirty and waiting patiently for the results of consistent effort.
Gardens change with every season. Rich red rhubarb matures as tender sunflower seedlings emerge from their soil bed sheltered from the cool night air by milk jug greenhouses, soon to stand guard over the late summer garden; followed by orange pumpkins and wintering onions.
The sun is warm as more gardeners arrive to tend their plots; no doubt, they will stay to weed and prune until dusk. For those who decide to visit, whatever time of day or season, start with a walk along the tracks. Stop and talk to a gardener or two. Most times, they will be happy to engage in dialogue about their favourite fruits and vegetables. In part, it’s a relief for them to stretch their well-worked backs. Stay as the sun goes down over the rooftops before the walk home. Stop along East Boulevard to smell the sweet-scented nectar of the honeysuckle vines with one of the resident hummingbirds.
A day spent in this garden community will leave visitors with some great memories, new acquaintances and, with a little bit of luck, a handful of vine-ripened tomatoes without having to wait ‘til after dark.
Take the #49 bus or the #16 Arbutus bus to 49th and West Boulevard and be sure to wear a comfortable pair of shoes for touring the interurban gardens.
For more information about plot availability, call City of Vancouver’s Social Planning department at 604-871-6031 and ask for Wendy Mendes.
OCTOBER 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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