In the weeks to come, Edie Pujo will seed a 60-square foot vegetable garden on her acreage east of Calgary. On the semi-arid plains of southern Alberta, a region notorious for drought, hail, wind, slugs and aphids, Pujo’s garden is an act of defiance. It is also a beacon of hope—and a place of immense spiritual comfort. To Pujo, time in the garden is “one-on-one time with the Big Guy. It’s so peaceful. I plant, and I pray. My time in the garden is time with God.”
This spring, Pujo will also work alongside vegetable growers—and fellow believers—at Calgary’s St. Albert the Great parish. Located in the southeastern community of McKenzie Towne, the parish added a community garden to its property in 2018. The 3x3-foot beds rented quickly—simultaneously producing fresh vegetables and nurturing a new community of gardeners.
An idea germinates
The St. Albert the Great Community Garden began in 2017 after a couple of people talked to the parish priest. Pujo chatted with Father Julian Studden (now in Airdrie) about her love of gardening. Together, they mused about the spiritual connection between growing food and caring for the Earth as a gift from God. Pujo, a Vincentian, also talked about how nice it would be to include home-grown vegetables in hampers delivered by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP). When another parishioner pointed out an under-used space beside the church as a problem area—good for nothing but grass—Father Julian urged the two to chat.
Before long, Pujo and fellow parishioner Mike Alvares were co-chairing a community garden committee. Scott Harrison, another member of the fledgling group, teaches culinary arts at a Catholic high school. He linked the group to a not-for-profit that teaches groups how to build the portable wooden garden frames now used at St. Albert the Great. Other committee members, James Dalton and Paul Schneider, brought their expertise and passion.
By the spring of 2018, the group had prepared 42 beds for planting. The entire project, including eight fruit trees, was completed with grants and donated products. “This was a real community project, and it was 100 per cent self-funded. We didn’t ask the parish for any money,” says Pujo.
When one would-be gardener had to back out after renting her bed, she donated the $20 plot to SSVP. Quick to recognize the opportunity, Pujo assumed responsibility for the bed and seeded it all to beans. “I can’t tell you the number of hampers that got green beans last year, but it was a lot.”
Feed the Hungry
Closer to the city’s core, Linnea Ferguson has her eye on five small garden plots at the FCJ Centre near the Calgary Pastoral Centre. Ferguson, who coordinates the Diocese’s Feed the Hungry Garden, used the plots last year to grow onions, garlic and parsley. Guests of the dinner sowed the parsley seed and all were harvested for use by Feed the Hungry chefs. Last fall, Ferguson helped young women from Elizabeth House harvest the garlic and plant a new garlic crop for 2019.
Ferguson also organizes the work crews that plant, weed and harvest about an acre of potatoes east of Calgary. Donated by Annette and Theo D’Souza, parishioners at St. Gabriel the Archangel, that land will eventually be used to grow other vegetables. “It made sense to grow potatoes for the first few years as that helps to prepare the soil,” explains Ferguson.
The Feed the Hungry Garden, started a few years ago after the D’Souzas approached Joann Churchill, Development manager with the Diocese. Churchill talked to then-Bishop Frederick Henry, “and he loved the idea from the start. He wanted us to open the door and see where it takes us.” Today, Feed the Hungry uses what it can and donates the rest of its harvest to the Calgary Food Bank. That agency supports Feed the Hungry, “so this is a great way for us to give back to the Food Bank,” says Churchill.
“There has been such an outpouring of support from so many,” adds Churchill. Every year, a Red Deer farmer donates the seed potatoes, while garden neighbours and generous community volunteers contribute their time, expertise and in-kind services. Companies have donated equipment and tools and St. Gabriel parish has embraced the garden, too.
The harvest is plenty—and the labourers are pleased
The Feed the Hungry Garden is a great way to combine Church teachings about food production, caring for the marginalized and building community,” adds Ferguson. Spring and fall are the busiest times and Ferguson always reaches out for volunteers. “The Bishop comes to the planting and gives a special blessing. It really ties what we’re doing to the bigger issues about our role in caring for the environment and serving the marginalized.”
Last fall, the youth group at St. James in Okotoks sent 45 young people to help with the harvest. “It was really something to see all of those young people helping out,” notes Ferguson.
Edie Pujo admits it’s the young people who catch her eye—and heart—at St. Albert the Great’s garden. Experienced gardeners “all got such a kick out of everyone learning about where food comes from.” The garden, which includes a stepping stone pathway and a picnic table, is also a popular stop for locals out for a summer walk. “People often stop and ask questions about what’s growing, so we’re getting to know the community. The garden really fits into the neighbourhood.”
To demonstrate the garden’s place in the larger environment, the site includes a compost area and two 1,000-gallon water tanks that will eventually collect rainwater from the church roof. “We do want to use the garden to teach people about growing vegetables in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way,” says Pujo.
Information about community gardens in Calgary neighbourhoods is available from the Calgary Horticultural Society. For details on how to donate your own garden’s bounty, reach out to your SSVP or the Calgary Food Bank.
Written by Joy Gregory
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers