JoAnne Douglas works in the hospital and rents a community plot with her co-workers. She met me on the farm this summer to talk about dandelions, Tree Baths, and what the farm means to hospital staff and the rest of the community.
SG: Let’s start with what you do at the farm and how you became involved with it.
JD: I work right next door at the QEII hospital, in orthopedic research with a spectacular bunch of people. We’re office workers, and we sit down most of the day. When this started up, we thought it would be a great opportunity to be outside, it would give us a place to go on breaks, as just a social place. We found that it started to become more than that – it’s more a place we come to relax but we also have discussions about work. It is a different environment, and it’s creative. It’s like going to a coffee shop but better.
SG: You just shared with me your lovely plot. Do you work that with your co-workers?
JD: Yeah! And we’ve grown it over the years – now we have fancy wooden sides, and amendments to the soil. There are good coaches here on the urban farm to tell you timing for planting, soil preparation , and so on. And I’ll be honest, we let it go to weed sometimes, but it’s part of our social thing that we come out and fix it all up. We always have big plans – even through the winter, we’re deciding what we’re going to plant. It’s a topic of conversation – it brings people together.
SG: Are you a new or experienced gardener?
JD: I’d say I’m an intermediate gardener (laughs). I always have a backyard garden at home. Even when I was renting places, I would always try to find somewhere with some green space – it’s important to me. But there are so many people to learn from here at the Urban Farm that I can’t say I’m a pro. There’s so much to learn.
SG: Do you have any family connection or experience with gardening?
JD: I have a strong family connection to farming: on both sides of my family my grandparents are in rural communities. Vegetable plots were always a way of providing for their families. It’s something that my parents continued , even in the suburbs outside of Halifax.. It’s a natural part of what you would do in the summers.
SG: What motivates you to garden?
JD: It’s a relaxing hobby. But also it’s the joy of growing something yourself. It just tastes better.
SG: If you were a plant, what plant would you be?
JD: (Laughs) We had a good laugh – I shared these questions with my colleagues, and they said, “I think you should say that we’re dandelions, cause we’ll thrive wherever you put us. We’ll just find a way.” So, dandelion.
SG: Aha! And also beautiful, and edible!
JD: Many different phases.
SG: And resilient! (Laughs)
JD: Resilient, and pesky… and attractive to bees!
SG: And you come in multiples!
SG: Are you a social or solitary gardener?
JD: Social. Social here, but at home I do a lot at my own. I think it’s still social, because when you’re out in front of your house, even in high-density living, people stop and chat. A conversation starter is “What’s growing?” It’s good for people. It’s a common bond.
SG: What about gardening stresses you out? What about gardening relaxes you?
JD: I don’t find it stressful at all. Because I’m not depending on this for my groceries, to be honest, so it’s just all fun for us.
It’s extremely relaxing. And I think it’s important: when you live in a city, you need to an opportunity to be in a green space. In Japan, they’re recommending “Tree-Bathing” for health purposes. It means that you’re supposed to be somewhere green, not just a nice hobby. Tree Baths, look that one up. Google it.
SG: What is the most underrated activity in gardening?
JD: Watering is therapeutic. You come out here and you see the ground’s all dried up, because we’re having an unusually dry summer here. And it feels good to be helping something grow.
SG: What is an urban farm?
JD: An urban farm is complicated and great. It’s just a space that’s available with access to anyone. If you’ve got an interest – if you’re a beginner, wherever you’re from, you’re welcome here. And it’s social.
It’s asking how can we be more connected to what we eat, and how to make something grow, and if we’re capable of it. And the answer is “Yes, we’re capable of it all.”
There’s so much to learn here from other people. There’s lots of experts, lots of people who think they’re experts, there’s room for everybody.
SG: What are we farming at Common Roots?
JD: We’re trying to grow some vegetables. We’re trying to do a good thing for the food bank. But I think we’re trying to grow community. We’re trying to say to new Canadians that this is a safe place to come and we value what you know. We’re trying to say “it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic [status] is, we’re all equal, and we all have it in us.”
SG: Has Common Roots introduced you to new people? To different cultures?
JD: Yeah, it certainly has. And not just out here. It’s a draw for people I work with to come here. We work with a lot of international folks, and so they’re here for short terms, like for a medical fellowship or residences or nursing. We use the farm as an outdoor space for baby showers , wedding showers our welcomes and goodbyes.
But also there’s so many people from other cultures here. And that has introduced me to a lot of people.
SG I love how the farm plays a role in connecting you to other people in the hospital, as well as other people at Common Roots.
JD: Oh it absolutely does. People always ask us, even the ones who don’t come out, what’s going on in the garden. It’s a small-talk opener that allows for bigger things to happen.
But they’re also happy to gobble up all the peas and tomatoes and all the things we bring in to share. And we always talk about how we’re going to have a big potluck here some day.
SG: Has Common Roots affected your attitude to food?
JD: It makes me more aware of what seasons things grow in – so eating local in that idea, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. And our farm market (stand) is great, and I am amazed at how much the market gardens are able to produce – not just for business but also for food banks. It’s shocking. They’re better than I am yet, and so they’re getting the most production out of a small space…
Oh my gosh – there was a family over here that had a greenhouse, and they grew long past the season that I thought was growable, and I’ve lived here my whole life. And they were throwing it down! They had tons of greens so early in the season. If they can do it, so can we. It’s inspirational.
SG: How does Common Roots contribute to healing and health?
JD: Obviously it’s just good to be outside. You get a lot of walkthroughs from folks. I know that when we’re in our plot, there’s a lot of people coming from Emergency. Some patients, but also the people who are with those patients who need to kill some time waiting, and they walk around out here. Working in the hospital, I know what their stories are like when they’re inside that building. Outside it’s a different story, and it gives people a chance to regroup, refresh, and start new so that they can go back and deal with the hospital situations better.
SG: What’s your best Common Roots story?
JD: My best one is that we had a wedding shower here for a friend. We had people who don’t usually come out come to the garden, and were so surprised at what’s here, right beside our offices. This is a five-minute walk from where we sit at our desks, and they had never been out here before. It was just such a good time, so much better than being in the conference room, and we have great pictures of that. It’s a good memory.
SG: How has Common Roots made a difference to your life?
JD: I eat a lot more peas. (Laughter)
I think it’s a good thing for the group I work with. I’ve learned that busy hands make great conversations.
SG: Did you have anything else you wanted to add?
JD: I think that the folks who are here on staff and volunteers are doing a great job. I don’t know how long the garden will be here – I know that the city will grow and this space will be redeveloped. This little chunk of time has been great. Every year they (CRUF) grows. If it needs to find another home that is certainly something we should all support. Halifax, we can do that.