An orange and black Monarch butterfly with thread-like legs is perched on Olivia Clancy’s forefinger. Part of her job as Food Security Coordinator for the Crescent Valley Community Centre in Saint John is to oversee the development of the community garden, “The Growing Place”. And part of that job involves caring for Monarch caterpillars until they emerge from their chrysalides and are released into the garden. “I didn’t expect when I started here to spend an hour a day cleaning up after caterpillars. They poop a lot.” But, she knows that pollinators are important for plants.
Before we head out for a garden tour, she carefully coaxes the newly-emerged male into a mesh hamper. We know he’s a boy because he has dots on his wings and is more thin veined than a female. He is tagged for a migration study. Outside he’s placed gently on a milkweed plant.
Olivia is a Registered Dietician and a Community Food Mentor and enjoys the hands on work of making things grow. She took her CFM training in Spring 2019, at Horizon Health and then assumed her role as garden project organizer. When did she start at CV? She says CFM training gave her credibility as a food activist and fostered connections in the community.
She didn’t know much about gardening but says, “I’m learning on the go...there’s a lot to it.” She gestures to the burgeoning array of garden beds, sheds, fruit trees, pollinator gardens, and the greenhouse under construction.”We had an ambitious plan for the community garden. In April there was nothing here but grass. We have had a very successful year.” That’s kind of an understatement.
Twenty three organic raised garden beds were made available to members of the Crescent Valley community for $15, and two were tended by Olivia to grow food for the North End Food Bank. A shed full of tools and a basket of seeds was also provided for the gardeners.
They started with a series of workshops including ones on composting, garden design and planting. Those workshops, and observing other more expert gardeners helped her learn. “I had never seen a pepper grow before...how it starts so small —that has been absolutely thrilling.”
She shows me some impressive bean and tomato plants that she grew for the food bank, bedraggled from Hurricane Dorian, but I can tell that they were good producers. Eventually, some participating gardeners will volunteer to grow food in the common space for the food bank and she’s setting up a system to facilitate that.
Many garden beds were rented by Syrian newcomers. Olivia learned from these experienced gardeners, many of whom worked in agriculture in their home country. “It was extremely impressive to see their gardening skills.” They introduced more unusual vegetables to the garden like fava beans and eggplant, were enthusiastic teachers and shared their produce.
Next year, she’ll cultivate grape vines for the fruit and the leaves which are a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. “If we grow grape vines, the leaves will get used.”
Eventually there will be 42 raised beds and seven wheelchair accessible beds. As we spoke, heavy equipment roared in the background, laying the foundation for a commercial sized greenhouse and permanent water system. Once the greenhouse is ready, food will be grown year round with supplemental heat and light.
The future vision? Olivia sees a gazebo, barbecues, outdoor events venue, more fruit trees and larger pollinator garden. Outside the fencing, a patch of small fruits — blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. We talk about the idea of a food forest and and then she lifts her gaze to the hillside beyond: “That property is for sale. I really want chickens and a goat.”