Ottawa gardeners are findings ways to bring sustainability to their urban spaces

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press

Published Saturday, January 21, 2023 6:38AM EST

Last Updated Saturday, January 21, 2023 6:38AM EST

Cole Etherington was not always a green thumb. In fact, he said his first year of gardening was plain horrible: his crops from him did not grow, the soil was not right and everything that could go wrong, he did.

“It just absolutely sucked,” said Etherington.

But that failure only pushed him to evaluate where he went wrong and how he could improve. The following year when the snow melted, Etherington began again at his home 45 minutes south of Ottawa.

He said the game-changer was when he started using his chickens’ manure as fertilizer. Since then, his budding garden has produced fresh vegetables including squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and a stunning array of herbs.

Etherington has always been interested in ways of reducing his carbon footprint and increasing plant diversity through farming.

“Even just one tomato plant in a pot of flowers on your balcony is part of the fight against climate change,” he said.

As food prices continue to climb, more people are also turning their love for gardening into a way to save money.

Shabana Buwalda, who lives in a townhouse in Ottawa, is one of them.

Her city backyard is not the biggest plot of land to start growing food, but her family now has several garden beds,

Now, going into their sixth season, the family of four has preserved herbs and a whole winter’s supply of tomatoes. They grow much of their produce including carrots, beans, kale and beets, and preserve whatever they can.

“I would encourage people to start really small, just to get curious,” she said. “And with each passing season, you’ll start to realize how little we need to rely on grocery stores.”

Deborah Smeltzer had to downsize and adapt her gardening hobby after she moved out of her house two years ago.

“Years ago, I had a huge garden. Every space in my yard was some kind of garden, and so I built a lot of knowledge through doing that — and then life changed,” she said.

Since moving into a one-bedroom apartment, Smeltzer has been experimenting with ways to grow food in a minimized space. In the warmer months she started growing produce on her balcony, but an ongoing feud with pigeons has forced her indoors.

She has now built a plywood shelf overtop of the heater by her windows to make room for an ever-growing collection of avocado and lemon trees.

For Etherington, urban farming has led to a growing sense of community.

He has now started a small business putting together starter kits for people who are interested in gardening, with an emphasis on making the gardening beds small enough to fit comfortably in an apartment indoors.

When he first started out he was hesitant about telling the world that he is a trans farmer, fearing backlash from a community that he didn’t think he would fit into. But he has received messages of support from others who also didn’t think they’d see anyone like themselves in agriculture.

“I thought it was important to be that person, and getting messages from people saying they appreciate it just means the world to me,” said Etherington.

Each of his kits comes with a bed made of reclaimed hardwood and lined with upcycled chicken feed. They also have seedlings ready to be grown, a set of instructions and manure from “the world’s happiest chickens.”

“Growing food right at your house, it doesn’t get more local than that,” he said.

“My hope is to empower people to embrace gardening by giving them food access, food security, but also showing that they can help make a difference.”

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