Abundant garden space in Ottawa could take bite out of food costs

Ottawa has a growing supply of cheap, public garden space that may change how some residents source their produce this year.

Eating local won’t satisfy a pineapple addiction, but common vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers can be grown easily and at a cost similar to buying them at the grocery store.

Room to grow

Ottawa has seen a proliferation of community gardens led in part by the city, which created an official plan for the spaces in 2004. A revamped plan in 2009 set aside an annual $75,000 to expand and create new gardens.

In 2009 there were 19 community gardens and today there are 36, according to the sustainable food advocacy group, Just Food.

The price to use a garden for a year can be less than a trip to the grocery store. For instance, a garden plot on the roof of a reclaimed heating plant, at the Sweet Willow community garden, costs $10 for about 40 square feet.

Serious gardeners can pay more: to garden 1,000 square feet at the Riverside South community garden will cost $120 for the year.

For the budget-conscious, a plot at the Carleton University garden, run by the graduate student union, is free.

That garden’s co-ordinator, Chris Bisson, said there used to be wait times to get a plot at a community garden.

According to a report by the city’s operations department to council, in 2009 there were waitlists of up to two years at 80 per cent of Ottawa’s community gardens.

Now, Bisson said the increasing number of plots in Ottawa has reduced wait list times across the city.

Save green

Bisson said having a garden can also supplement your grocery supply throughout the year and take strain off your wallet. That is if you’re prepared to work hard, store your squash and turnips, preserve your tomatoes and pickle your cucumbers.

“You don’t have to worry about the management or capital,” he said, because most gardens provide soil, water, and tools to get started.

All you buy are seeds—about $3 a pack, he said.

“You couldn’t squeeze more than $20 of seeds into a community garden, and that would be pushing it,” he said.

Bisson said for cost-conscious gardeners, the best thing to grow is produce that is the most expensive to buy.

“You don’t want to grow potatoes, or wheat,” he said.

Squash and cucumbers are grown often, he said, but tomatoes are leading the way. Gerry Labelle, produce manager at Herb & Spice Shop, said the price of tomatoes and cucumbers fluctuate over the year.

Right now vine-ripened tomatoes are most popular and go for about $5 a pound, which is their most expensive, Labelle estimates, but later in the year will be down to around $2 a pound. Cucumbers will be about the same.

“If it’s a really good tomato season and everyone has tomatoes, that drives down the cost,” he said.

Labelle said local and organic produce has seen a decline in price as more products enter the market, and he expects the trend to continue.

But he said with most estimates pegging the average tomato plant at yielding between 10 and 15 pounds, the cheapest option, only considering money spend, seems to be growing it yourself.

Extra costs

The catch to gardening, Bisson said, is the extra time it takes to grow your own fruits and vegetables.

A diligent gardener will devote about an hour a day to his plot, while someone less diligent could work about three to four hours a week and get by, he estimated.

But he said the garden has value to offer besides produce, and may yield long-term benefits.

“Your time spent at a community garden with knowledgeable people around you could be seen as training,” he said.