Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


People, Plants and Homes

Brings Gardens to life.

Reprinted with permission.
community connections,
Issue No. 4, February 1996
An idea exchange for Tenant Associations
Contact: Joyce Fitz-Gibbon

Prepared by: Community Information and Education
BC Housing Management Commission
an agency of the
Ministry of Housing, Recreation and Consumer Services

The Program Now And Then

BC Housing's People, Plants and Homes Program was inspired by the work of American horticulturist Charles Lewis who first promoted the concept of urban gardening for residents of inner-city housing in Chicago and New York. In a presentation at the housing symposium Habitat 1975 in Vancouver, he described how subsidized housing tenants who planted gardens developed a more positive attitude toward their homes and their environment. His work captured the imagination of employees at BC Housing, which manages 8 000 units of social housing across the province. In 1977. BC Housing established its own urban garden program offering tenants free plants, grass seed and fertilizer to help beautify their backyards and common areas In that first year, nine per cent of BC Housing tenants participated.

Nineteen years later, participation runs as high as 50 per cent in some parts of the province. More than 1,850 tenants are actively involved in the program and large community gardens flourish at 26 housing developments. Last year, 750 children received special kids' garden kits.

People, Plants and Homes
Brings Gardens to life.

When Charlene Bold moved into her BC Housing-managed townhouse at Blanshard Court in Victoria, her backyard looked empty. There was something missing.

"There wasn't a flower in sight -- it was a very negative thing. It didn't look good or feel good, so we decided to do something about it," she says. Five years later Charlene and her sons David, 12, Aaron, 10 and Daniel, eight, have a backyard they can be proud of. It features a pond and a rock garden and is a mass of colour all year round. BC Housing assisted with the transformation by providing top soil, bedding plants and fertilizer through its unique People, Plants and Homes Program.

"Gardening is contagious," says Charlene who, like many fellow gardeners, supplements her free bedding plants from B.C. Housing with carefully selected perennials. "Every year my garden looks better and better," she adds. "People in other units see what can be achieved and they want to get involved. Neighbours start talking to each other about gardening, which contributes to a feeling of community spirit. As a result of the gardening program the whole complex looks cared for, like a real home."

Charlene recommends garden work, "because it releases my stress and makes me feel good inside." Even her boys enjoy growing a wide range of vegetables for the family table. "Growing something we can eat has been an unexpected benefit," she adds.

Gardening Inspires Individuals and Groups

The program, administered through the Housing and Community Services branch of BC Housing, is a year-round program. "People, Plants and Homes is more than just planting seedlings and maintaining garden plots. The program encompasses Christmas and hanging basket workshops, in addition to supporting the work of tenant garden clubs," says Jim Woodward, director of housing and community services. "This program is one of BC Housing's most exciting tenant activities, because it allows people to really use their creative expertise in a variety of ways throughout the year.

According to program coordinator Joyce Fitz-Gibbon, tenants are involved in a variety of activities, from container and balcony gardening to community gardens with individual plots where many enthusiasts grow specialty flower varieties and cultivate their own fresh produce.

Interest in community gardens is growing, she says. For example, Nicholson Towers in Vancouver's West End has quite a waiting list for half a plot in a raised bed, a space three feet wide by seven feet long. "It's quite amazing what people can do with a space that size," says Nicholson Towers garden coordinator Don Watson, who specializes in dahlia production.

"Our community garden sits on a piece of vacant land that was never used. People saw it going to waste and gradually took it over as a garden. Today we manage it very carefully and ensure that it's put to very good use."

Don says gardening gets people out of their units and keeps them healthy and motivated. "Many of our seniors enjoy coming out here to work. We have a bit of a garden club and people throw suggestions back and forth. As you can imagine, there's a healthy trade in fresh vegetables down here."

Behind The Scene

To promote participation in the People, Plants and Homes Program, BC Housing encourages tenants across the province to order bedding plants and fertilizer each spring.

"We also offer year-round workshops where tenants can learn a number of different skills such as starting plants from seeds and cuttings, making hanging baskets, growing herbs and "forcing" bulbs for indoor blooms during the winter," adds Joyce Fitz-Gibbon. Last year, Joyce and assistant Catherine Dale organized 45 hanging basket workshops in the Lower Mainland, Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Prince George and Prince Rupert.

The season traditionally ends with a province-wide competition in July, followed by garden parties combined with official awards presentations in late August. Last year some 900 seniors and families attended two garden parties in Victoria, two in Vancouver and one in Prince George. In all, 215 BC Housing tenants were honoured in 10 different competition categories, ranging from novice to expert.

Categories include "Best First Year Garden," and a "Non-competitive" section for gardeners who want feedback on their progress, without feeling the pressure of competition. "lt's wonderful to see the enjoyment that people get from gardening" adds Joyce. "While not everyone wishes to compete, those who do are always thrilled when their efforts are recognized publicly."

David Tarrant, education coordinator at the University of BC Botanical Garden who also has his own televised garden show, has been a staunch supporter of the People, Plants and Homes Program for 17 years. He was a long-time garden competition judge and is still a popular guest speaker at BC Housing's summer garden parties.

"There's no question that this is a really wonderful program," he says. "It's a fairly small investment on the government's part and yet it makes a tremendous difference to peoples' quality of life. When you're involved with gardening it doesn't matter if you have a million dollars or no money at all-- you get the same sense of self-worth and accomplishment. It's very rewarding to see so much enthusiasm."

Tenant Involvement Stimulates Program Benefits

Today tenants have input into certain aspects of the People, Plants and Homes Program and have input into landscaping and grounds care. Many developments nominate a garden coordinator to work with BC Housing employees and hold regular garden meetings to discuss concerns or glean technical information from videos or guest speakers. They distribute newsletters and bedding plants, allocate community garden plots and supervise children's gardens.

Over the years, residents of developments across B.C. have become involved in light grounds maintenance and planning in common areas, which adds to their sense of ownership and commitment. In turn this frees ground crews for more specialized activities such as tree and shrub maintenance, turf management, pest control, fertilizing and pruning which further improve the appearance of the buildings and grounds.

According to People, Plants and Homes Program employees, seniors are particularly keen to spruce up their common areas. Ella Allen, of Steeves Manor on Vancouver's west side, is an example of someone whose love of gardening has spilled over from her award-winning balcony display into various nooks and crannies throughout the complex.

Assisted by her husband Gordon, who builds trellises, cupboards and anything else she needs, Ella lovingly tends common areas for year-round enjoyment by all her friends and neighbours.

"We have a sundeck at the end of a hallway in our building and it's my job to nurse that," she says. The result is a glorious display of colour, including a carefully tended rose bush covered in more than 60 blossoms. "Now it's a beautiful place which everyone can go to and enjoy I personally find that very rewarding."

It's this kind of individual involvement and commitment that make today's social housing developments a good place to live and raise families, says April English, BC Housing's Manager of Community Services. "A lot of people fail to recognize that the People, Plants and Homes Program has tremendous benefits for community development. It brings people together cooperatively to coordinate a whole range of different activities for their neighbours. It also promotes and sustains a sense of energy and enthusiasm which is a very important ingredient in building strong communities."

Over the years, social housing authorities across North America have shown considerable interest in the BC government's urban garden activities, and for good reason. According to Peter Robinson, BC Housing's director, regional operations, there are four other positive spin-offs from this modest program.

  1. "First, when children become involved in local gardening they develop a sense of pride and ownership for their homes. This in turn can lead to a decrease in vandalism.

  2. Second, the program encourages seniors to get out of their units and meet like-minded gardeners.

  3. Third, there's the added nutritional benefit which comes from people eating the fresh produce they grow in their gardens."

  4. Finally, adds Peter, urban gardening contributes to more liveable and attractive neighbourhoods, and helps to accent the positive points of social housing. "Thanks to the People, Plants and Homes Program, these sites are among the best looking in the area.

Think You Might Have A Green Thumb? Get Involved.

All BC Housing tenants who reside in directly-managed units can participate in BC Housing's People, Plants and Homes Program. Participants receive free plants, bulbs, and fertilizer and can attend gardening workshops designed to suit all skill levels. First time gardeners are especially welcome -- all you need is some space in a backyard or patio. and the desire to nurture plants. Children's garden kits are also available in the spring.

Here's how to learn more about this popular program.

Here's a calendar of annual events related to the People, Plants and Homes Program.

March Bedding plant order forms distributed.
May Bedding plants delivered.
June Hanging basket workshops held.
July Entry forms distributed for garden competition and garden judging takes place.
August Garden parties held, competition winners announced.
September Bulb distribution.
November Christmas craft workshops.

If you have any further questions about BC Housing's People, Plants and Homes Program, or if you wish to organize a special workshop at your development, contact:
People, Plants and Homes Coordinator
BC Housing's Home Office
Suite 1701, 4330 Kingsway
Vancouver, B.C. V5H 4G7.
Phone: (604) 433-1711.

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Revised March 11, 2008

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture