Thursday, April 9, 2009

Community impact: The Biggest Little Garden Planter

There is a lot of posturing and judgment that springs forth (pun intended?) every year around this time, when people with the time, funds and energy are planting little gardens in their backyards and in the pots that take over their balconies and terraces. Or if you don't have access to time or energy, you can pay a hefty price to support a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in your area. I've found CSAs in the DC Metro area cost anywhere from $100 or so upwards to more than $600, depending on the schedule and the produce you're interested in acquiring. That's a hefty price for a lot of people who could be better served by cultivating a small garden of their own, with seed prices next to nothing and dirt and water relatively inexpensive and plentiful. But like I said, what if you don't have the financial resources in order to care for a mini-garden, let alone start one?

Shift to New Westminster, a Canadian city where 70% of the residents live in apartments and 25% qualify as low income. Diane Cairns, a local resident, was concerned about the health and welfare of the citizens of her city, so she conceived a plan to help them and the environment. She designed and developed The Biggest Little Garden in Town program and planter, which is designed to fit onto the smallest apartment balconies and through narrow doorways. Constructed of rot-proof cedar, these planters have been (and continue to be) distributed around greater New Westminster to all residents living in apartments and townhouses. Her program is supported, and recently congratulated, by United Way and the City of New Westminster.

Her plan:
First - let’s get every person living in New Westminster having access to fresh, home-grown vegetables.

Then – (10 years from now?) let’s have.…

* vegetables growing in every nook and cranny in New Westminster
* streets lined with veggie planters
* every parking lot bordered with veggie planters
* vegetables growing in parks, schools, alleys, courtyards
* every public building (hospitals, libraries, community centres) surrounded by fruit trees.

Could New Westminster be world renowned for being the urban city that is bursting with fruits and vegetables?
The most delightful part of her program is the fact that these planters, which are designed with three easy-to-reach tiers and a small portion of latice to support bean and squash vines, and the accompanying soil and seeds are provided FREE to the citizens of New Westminster. Each recipient of a Biggest Little Garden in Town planter is asked to signed a "contract" which commits them for a year's time to the cultivation and consumption of the "fruits of their labor":
As a member I understand that I will receive a container to suit my needs, soil and vegetable plants/seeds of my choice. I will care for the vegetable plants as they grow.

I will ensure the vegetables are eaten by either my family or friends or I will donate them to the food bank. I promise that no food will be wasted.

I understand I am permitted to keep the containers from one year to the next as long as I am a member of the 'Biggest Little Garden in Town'. If I become unable or unwilling to maintain the garden or continue to be a member, I will contact Fraserside and make arrangements to have the containers returned.
She's able to provide these visually stunning and practical planters to people of all ages, to teach them both the importance of taking care of themselves affordably with healthy fruits and veggies, but also how creating a sustainable garden (no matter how small) also helps the environment. This is such a valuable, judgment-free approach to helping people of all socio-economic backgrounds understand the value and importance of sustainable living.

The Biggest Little Garden planter is available for purchase locally from Fraserside for $175 Canadian (about $140 U.S.). Those who live outside the Vancouver area can buy the plans to build their own Biggest Little Garden for $25 Canadian (about $20 U.S.). All proceeds go to the program. For details, call Cairns at (604) 522-3722, Ext. 117, or e-mail

[link: LA Times]
[images courtesy Wikipedia/Fraserside]


  1. oh, that's been the great debate:
    CSA vs. container

    i love it! once i get this new climate figured out, you can bet there's going to be a biggest little garden on the fire escape (out of harm's way of course!).

  2. I live in New Westminster, and the program has been a great success. In addition to everything you mention, the program also supports Plant A Row, Grow A Row, which is a program that encourages backyard farmers to donate extra produce to the local food bank, so that low-income neighbours can have fresh food to eat. Despite so many of us being in apartments, there is a lot of interest here in growing our own food. In the broader region, people are becoming interested in keeping chickens again (allowed in New West, newly allowed in Vancouver, and debated in many other nearby jurisdictions). There are also a number of homeowners who have turned over their front yard to vegetables, including the city's horticulturalist (who is also my neighbour). There's something inspiring about this new version of the "Victory Garden" - and it's great to see our local efforts get so much attention from elsewhere!

  3. Most CSAs offer a payment plan, that is always what worked really well for me. Some might even take food stamps! CSAs also help support the local economy and sometimes have a sliding scale as well. Just an FYI.

    I'm a little biased though b/c I was one of those farmers at a CSA about 10 years ago. That was a time when you said "CSA" and people said "HUH?" Its well worth the price and you could easily split the cost with another family, especially if you eat meat. I found it hard to get through all the produce even as a vegetarian and avid vegetable eater!

    That said I also believe strongly in home gardening. I think one thing that deters people who live in urban areas is space (though containers are good) and the ability to get dirt and compost to your home without a car. Carrying a fourty pound back of compost up the stairs is not an option for most people!

    What it boils down to for me is that both are good, one probably suits a family better than the other, but ALL PEOPLE DESERVE ACCESS TO AFFORDABLE AND HEALTHY FOOD!


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