Mac digs the first of the new potatoes at the Howard House Garden on a hot afternoon.
“This has turned out to be a labour of love,” he said as he took time for a tour around the flourishing one-third-acre garden filled with well-tended corn, carrots, beets, tomatoes, green vegetables and herbs protected by marigolds and sunflowers.
Mac and some other participants of the nine-month-long Addiction Recovery Program brought their experience and expertise together to make the garden. The Howard House Garden began as a community garden 10 years ago, then the Mormon Church took over for several years. This spring, Mac AKA Dr. Dirt, and the other men planned the garden and did the clean up which had been stopped by snow last fall. The soil was dug several times and the irrigation system redesigned by one of the residents who had a background in irrigation. Others brought their farming and gardening backgrounds to the project.
About 95 per cent of the produce goes to the Howard House kitchen with anything to spare going to the Upper Room Mission. The garden also grows some things that are a little different, like radicchio, bok choy and kohlrabi, which the cook incorporates into meals for the residents to try. The most popular items are the fresh corn and strawberries.
“The corn was up to my shoulders two days ago and now it’s over my head. Everything is doing well and we’ve kept it all organic, even picking the bugs off by hand,” said Mac. “When we first started the garden in the spring and it was all raked, it had a Zen feel. We wanted to grow vegetables but we wanted to keep that feeling, that is a spot where we, all of us here, not just the ones doing the gardening, can come out and rejuvenate. We are hugely grateful for what they are doing here for us and it’s a way of giving back.”
He thinks that the garden, which is much admired by people walking or driving by and stopping to say they appreciate seeing it, makes the community look at Howard House in a different way.
“I think it helps people see that Howard House is not the place they think it is. There are a lot of good men here who fell through the cracks. Six years ago, I had a good job, I had everything. Then I lost it and ended up on the streets — a shock when you’re not used to it. We struggle to get help and we want to turn our lives around,” he said.
“The residents here, even those who don’t garden, like the space. They have helped with getting materials to recycle and found objects for decorations. They might do something like spend $4 out of their welfare cheque to buy two lights. One of our guys made our scarecrow, Howard, out of the corn cobs from last year.
“This garden has been a godsend to me. I’m always out around the garden. I come out in the evening to relax.”
The garden was planted with bought and donated plants and seeds, and the gardeners are grateful for the advice from Briteland and the donation of woodchips from Tolko for the paths. There is also a greenhouse to start plants.
“They want to do this. It’s very therapeutic building something beautiful and functional,” said Barbara Levesque, executive director of Howard House. “The men have put hundreds of hours into the garden, sometimes working 12-hour days. Some of the men not directly involved in the day-to-day work helped with the preparation, like the man who put in countless hours of digging to get the soil ready for planting. The garden is planted every year but this year the men planned it all and have been the most enthusiastic. People stop and yell to them, ‘You’re doing an amazing job.’ Creating food is a fundamental human endeavour and manual labour with a profound purpose is healing.”
Randel Erbacker, addictions recovery coordinator, likes to use the metaphor of the garden as a place for healing and growing in his program.
“There is a sense of accomplishment, of brotherhood. One client rebuilt the gates and painted the covered seat on his own initiative. This is not only a productive garden, it is a beautiful garden. Some of the people living here are chefs or have cooking experience and they help make good meals from the produce. I enjoy eating lunch here every day,” he said. “We talk about gardens as being like our lives, that they need to be kept clean, the weeds, our issues, pulled, dealt with, and that new life can come even when things look as unhopeful as a small, dry seed.”
The garden produced more than 2,000 pounds of produce last year and the frozen tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries are just being used now.
“We struggle with the perception of who our clients are and the beauty of the garden is that it is the work of the men. Addiction is an isolating experience and here people can become part of a community, learn to work together, make plans and take responsibility and have a sense of accomplishment,” said Levesque.
There are 55 residents at Howard House, with nine to 11 in the Addictions Recovery Program. All of the men who live at the house work to keep the house up, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, in the kitchen and cleaning.
The garden will go on, even as the gardeners move on in their lives. This year’s planners are talking about fruit and nut trees and more strawberries to leave as a growing legacy.