Marwan Iskandar is a Farm Steward volunteer at the farm. A Master Gardener in training, Marwan loves to share his knowledge and passion for gardening to farm visitors. We sat in the arbour area of the farm, surrounded by flowers, to talk about learning how to garden in Canada, the importance of farming in cities, and the mystery and resilience of plants.
SG: Are you a new or experienced gardener?
MI: I have been gardening for many years before I came over to Canada, but it’s a different way of gardening. The weather, the soil, the type of plants, the kind of temperatures we get: It’s completely different. So I did garden before, but it’s if I am a new gardener.
SG: In what countries have you gardened?
MI: I come from Jordan. That’s where I gardened for some time. My mother is a gardener, and we had a small cottage outside the capital with land. But, Jordan is probably one of the ten most dry countries. In one year we have maybe 200 millimetres of rainfall – probably what NS gets in a week! And, our rainy season is only between December and March. It’s completely arid, with completely different plants.
SG: What motivates you to garden?
MI: It just makes me happy. Whenever I’m in a garden, my stresses go away. If I’m stressed out, I go to any place where there’s trees or products of vegetables or flowers and I feel much better. So I really feel happy.
But there’s so many other things why I garden. It’s great exercise. I use my phone to know that I do something like 7 or 8,000 steps in one afternoon here -that’s great! I do more walking when I’m gardening here on Thursday or Saturday afternoons than I do in a whole day outside. So there’s a lot of exercise. And, you stretch your legs, your elbows, your muscles, your knees.
A very important reason I garden is to talk to people and meet people, and learn. I would say about myself that I am a lifelong learner. It just makes me happy to learn something new. Even if somebody tells me the name of a weed, or the name of a flower, for me, this is nice, this is exciting. So whenever I’m in a garden, learning something new, it makes me even happier!
SG: What is an urban farm?
MI: The words are clear, I think. An urban farm is something we should have more of. It’s not nice to have only buildings and concrete all around. The urban farm, where you can grow things that you can eat or enjoy, is useful for enjoyment, and because growing in your own environment is healthier for you than eating produce that is made in India or China or South America. It’s more like, this is your weather – the microbes that are in the ground here belong to you, they belong to us, it’s part of us. So maybe if we eat from our own farm, next door to where we live, it’s healthier.
Urban farming is something that should be implemented in city planning. Whenever you have a city, if I was somebody in charge, I would say, “You can’t have a house without having a certain piece of land next to it, where you can plant. You don’t want to plant? Maybe somebody else will plant it for you”. It just could make our lifes so much better, I believe.
So urban farming is a must. What it is? We’ve been doing it – it’s eating healthy food, fresh food. Tasting a tomato when you’ve just cut it off the plant, it’s much nicer than buying the prettiest tomato in the shop. I really appreciate that. I grow a few tomato plants on my balcony. I’ve got five or six tomato plants, and I’ve got such a good produce. And every day, I go out and there are two or three tomatoes that are just right. And the taste of these tomatoes is so great, it’s unbelievable. It’s just so enjoyable to eat them. It’s the joy of being able to see them AND eat them fresh, you know? It’s like a miracle. It’s so tasty, it’s healthy, you don’t use any chemicals, you know there’s been no hormones or pesticides or insecticides, and you know that you’re eating something that’s good. From the soil. Clean.
SG: How does Common Roots contribute to healing and health?
MI: It’s a great idea to have the farm next to the hospital. It’s so great. I do see and meet some people from the hospital who come over here and walk – or roll, sometimes they’re in wheelchairs. I got the opportunity to talk to some. I noticed that some people want somebody to talk to; I never really pushed to start a conversation, but I noticed that often these patients being pushed in a wheelchair or sitting quietly, they want to ask questions, they want to know: They see my green vest and ask, “OK, what do you do? What have you planted?” They really want somebody to listen to them, they want to ask questions, and have a short conversation.
It’s definitely a good positive thing in their healing process, having people to talk to, and in such a peaceful and beautiful environment – look at all these flowers around us! How can’t you be happy with all these flowers around?!
SG: What’s your best Common Roots Urban Farm story?
MI: A few weeks back, we had some teenagers from all over Canada [from the SHAD Valley summer program at Dalhousie University] come for a visit. I volunteered to help that day, and gave a tour to small group of them. They asked me questions, and I felt good! I answered, and some of them were so eager to learn – like, they want to know! I thought, “these beautiful souls are here to help work, and they want to learn, and this is such an opportunity.” I wish we had that group and other groups more often. We can give some of what we have, our knowledge, and know-how. Maybe some will become gardeners one day.
SG: What have you learned through Common Roots Urban Farm?
MI: So much! I’ve learned a lot, actually.
First I learned how to do things “the Canadian way” – how patient and polite people are – this is very important, you know! I come from a very different culture, where people will not usually talk to you in the street, or stop and chat with you for no reason. Here, at the farm, if somebody’s working next to me, we start talking. It’s so useful to create this good relationship and feel more comfortable, and learn from what they’re doing.
I’m learning a lot about plants. When to plant, when not to plant, what are weeds for you, what are not. Here, you have in these paths a lot of chamomile – chamomile is a plant that we cherish [in Jordan], we boil it with water, it’s very healthy, and people here, they’ve got so much of it, it’s like a weed for you. So I learned about soil, about plants, about the weather, how to prepare the beds, and most important, I learned more about the people who work with me. I learned about how they think and how they do things, and this is quite important, maybe just as important as the farming itself.
So what did I learn? I learned so much. I learned I’m starting to become a Canadian. I’m learning to love the Canadian way.
SG: What is the most underrated activity in gardening?
MI: Probably what we don’t see. We don’t see what’s going on in the soil. We see the plant coming up, we see the flowers, the fruits, but we don’t see what’s beneath the soil. This is, I think, the most important for the plants anyway, because they take all the nutrients from the soil, they have their roots there, they’re well established in the soil. So, what’s done in preparing the soil for planting is most important. We don’t always appreciate that, sometimes we just plant. There is soil, and we plant, and we don’t think “Does this plant like to live here or not?” We just put it there. We have to really consider more how the soil is prepared for the right plant to be happy in that place. Soil preparation, is what we call it.
Under the soil, we don’t only need to add these amendments – that’s not enough. I think there’s a whole world under the soil, there’s microbes and germs and ants and insects. And there’s billions of them each square foot. And how they react to new plants there, and how they react to the roots, and how they change the chemicals from one substance to another so the plants can grow, this is something that we don’t fully appreciate, we take it for granted. We just put the seeds and they grow, but there’s so much work under the ground that we don’t fully appreciate. In fact a lot of the new research they say about these microbes and the fungus underground, they transmit information between different plants. I don’t know much, but I read!
SG: If you were a plant, what plant would you be?
MI: I suppose, given such a question, I would like to have the choice of where to be planted! Because I can’t be an orange tree in Alaska… So I’m going to assume an appropriate climate!
I really appreciate olive trees a lot. Olive trees live a very long time, hundreds of years, and they grow much prettier when they grow old. Have you ever seen an old olive tree? It is so beautiful. The outside texture and bark of the tree is full of grooves and different shapes. It really looks artistic, you know? If you cut an olive tree all the way down to the ground – and I did this in my small garden back home – it grows up again! You cut it all the way to the ground and next year there are new shoots coming up! It’s so tough, this tree!
And, olives are great. I really love olives. The oil you get from pressing the olives is something that’s very healthy. Most of our food in the Mediterranean uses olive oil. Not only that, the product that comes from the pressing of olives is this pulp, with the seeds and things that don’t turn into liquid, they compact and use to heat their houses. It’s so full of oil, it lights easily.
And maybe, maybe, because olive trees are a sign of peace. Like you have an olive branch, you are a peaceful person. So maybe I would choose to be an olive. I would like to be an olive tree, in a place where it’s so high that people cannot cut it down, maybe on a mountain.
SG: We met for the first time at the Farm Stewards’ orientation, and you just mentioned your mother. Could you say more about your family connection to gardening & farming?
MI: Well yes, my mother is a gardener, and I spent a lot of time helping her out. She still gardens now, but she’s quite old, so whenever I’m back home I do most of the work for her.
But my grandfather – my mother’s father – used to live on a farm, with an orchard, and he used to grow oranges and fruits. He made a living farming, along with wine and stuff of that sort.
Back at home I used to work in the garden with my mother, and we learned by experience and mistakes! We never knew how to do things right from the beginning, it seemed. First we would sow some seeds, and then we would lose them to the ants. Then we’d cover the soil with fabric, but we’d forget the fabric there, the leaves would grow up through the fabric, and when we removed the fabric we lost the crop – all the roots came out! Then there were pests, like slugs, and birds: It’s crazy! We spent so many seasons, just learning. We didn’t have a school to go to, and whatever we have learned from the people before was very basic, really. You are lucky here in Canada because you have people to help you out, tell you, and teach you.
SG: Like the Farm Stewards?
MI: Yes, we know a lot just in one season, you know? If I had to do it on my own, it would have taken such a long time, years, just through trial and error.
SG: Has Common Roots introduced you to new people? To different cultures?
MI: I’ve met a lot of new people. I’ve been here, in Halifax, over two years, and the number of people I’ve met this summer at Common Roots is much more than what I’ve met in the last two years. It’s something I’m happy about.
When I first came to Halifax, I didn’t know a single person. Not a single person, you know? Just me and my wife. We arrive here, we know nobody. This is not easy! Now, I think this opportunity to be in Common Roots Urban Farm has helped me know a lot of people, at least acquaintances, like I wouldn’t say very close friends, but we’re getting there. Like, we’re talking more, sometimes we exchange emails and texting. This is so helpful.