In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Verdun was covered with farms. In fact, it owes its status as a municipality to a group of English and French-speaking gentleman farmers in 1874 who wanted to avoid a perceived tax grab by the City of Montreal. Plus ça change… Farming remained in Verdun long after it had disappeared from the rest of central Montreal. The Douglas Hospital grew all of its own food until the 1960s and Monteith Farm was still a going concern in the 1930s.
Roy Sargent is a different kind of farmer, an urban farmer, although I doubt he would define himself that way. I have been around farmer folk and many of the men remind me of Roy, lanky and lean, with a wide smile. Director of Woodland Community Garden, Roy has been a gardener for almost thirty years. He learned to grow things from watching his father back in Kelowna, British Columbia. In 1985, Roy retired from pipefitting for the railway and took up gardening. But what began as a pastime has become a full-blown passion. Most mornings from May and until October he can be found at the foot of Woodland Avenue tending his vegetables and making sure the water is turned on and the shed that houses the tools is open for business. The vegetables he grows he mostly gives away to the Manna food bank and to the Southwest United Church, where he sings in the choir.
I asked Roy who gets to be a gardener here. There is a waiting list that people can sign up for, he told me. It generally takes two years before people get their first garden. New members are given a smaller plot which, if they cultivate successfully, will qualify them for a larger 13 x 26 foot garden when they come available. In all there are a hundred and thirty six allotments.
Members are allowed two large plots, and the four person executive, which includes Roy, have the added perk of being able to cultivate flowers on a section of land that was decontaminated a few years ago. Roy slipped that bit of information into our conversation without pause. When I pressed him for details he told me the soil had been contaminated with oil and gas but that things were growing just fine now. The City had tested the soil over a five-year period and completely replaced the topsoil, solutions which appeared to satisfy Roy. This is not the only community garden that has had this problem but finding empty spaces that have not been contaminated by industrial use is a challenge.
When community gardens first appeared in Verdun in the 1930s there was a lot more land to choose from. The Great Depression made guerrilla gardeners out of the unemployed, and in Verdun they took over vacant lots, some of which Roy recalls were along the Aqueduct. By 1932, the then City of Verdun was distributing seeds and equipment for free to those growing their own vegetables. The practice spread and the community garden movement was born in Montreal.
As we walked among the beds the gardens looked like a veritable United Nations of gardeners and vegetable varieties: Chinese eggplant growing next door to chili and jalapeno peppers tended by Spanish speaking women, adjacent to a beautiful Okra patch being watered by a Southeast Asian gardener. Stalks of tomatoes and runner beans still abound, but the diversity of plants reflects the changing face of Verdun. Gardening has become more popular, especially among the young, Roy remarks as we pass by the smaller gardens where some of the younger members are installed. I asked him if the more experienced gardeners helped out the young and he replied in the affirmative, everybody helps each other.
Roy is ninety years old and still giving back to his community. As a steward of this small commons he is keeping alive a connection to the land that has been all but erased from our city landscape. These days there is a lot of talk about food security and the importance of eating local. But people like Roy have been doing it all along. Thank you, Roy Sargent.
Read more of Rover’s Who’s Your Farmer series here.