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‘Unsettling’ changes at High Street garden spark accessibility debate

October 15, 2021


‘The issue is they’ve made this garden an exclusive thing and all the communal space is gone,’ says citizen; City official said change was made to avoid ‘free-for-all’

The High Street Community Garden has been a “communal garden” for many years – a place where people could harvest and access food at any time. For many, it was an alternative to using services such as the food bank.

Recently, the City of Orillia made some changes to the garden which has upset some neighbouring residents like Valerie Kitchen. She says the city has added “private garden beds” that are accessible only to community members who request space to grow crops.    

“There is no communal space left. It’s been privatized to whoever signs up and all the others are to be excluded,” Kitchen said of the new policy.

“I went last week to harvest some lemon balm and I counted over 15 signs in the garden that say don’t eat the food if you didn’t plant it, don’t touch it, respect the gardeners rather than respect the community who has been harvesting there for 10 years. I just found it to be very unsettling.”

Kitchen says, in the past, neighbourhood kids often stopped at the garden after school to pick crops like strawberries.

“One child, who is a regular at the garden recently asked for one ear of corn and he was told no. I don’t remember a time ever when we’ve told a kid they couldn’t have food, especially just one ear of corn,” she explained.

“The issue is they’ve made this garden an exclusive thing and all the communal space is gone. Where is the space where I can take my 100 strawberry plants for the kids who want something to do after school?”

Kitchen was hopeful that the City of Orillia would allow for half the garden to be used for private programs and leave the other half for free community use.  

“I think they should donate a quarter or half of the garden boxes that are meant for private community members to be open to the community for everyone to access. I think they should put signs back up that say ‘Help yourself, this is your garden.’”

Emily Wilson, a volunteer who was the community garden coordinator for the City of Orillia this summer, says the High Street Garden recently installed private allotments that community members can reserve for the season instead of leaving the garden to be a ‘free-for-all’.

“Having those allotments has made the garden more accessible because we often had feedback from community members who were putting time and energy into growing food but didn’t get to decide when it was harvested or what went in there. So, they felt less inclined to garden there,” Wilson explained.

“Most of the garden is still communally managed. There are two drop-in gardening days a week where anyone who shows up is welcome to participate at any level,” said Wilson. 

“If you just wanted to harvest, that is totally fine and you are welcomed with open arms. If you wanted to be involved with planting and getting your hands dirty, that is also available to you. There are no restrictions on who can participate during those times,” said Wilson.

Before the allotment system, Wilson says many gardeners found the garden to be too chaotic and it created a barrier for those trying to access the garden.

“There was a lot of mixed messaging with that garden before, there wasn’t really one clear central message,” she said. 

“If you asked some of the people there if you could come and harvest anything any time, some would say yes, and some would say no. The lack of clear messaging was quite a barrier for people who wanted to harvest food and participate,” she said.

For more information about the High Street garden or to request access to a private allotment, click here.

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