For as long as I can remember I’ve had a love affair with plants. It’s in my DNA, coming from a long line of farmers, with my grandfather a world-class chef and my mother tending a bounty of houseplants. I always dreamed of one day having a garden of my own. In March 2017 I was gifted the use of a 60-foot by 20-foot plot of ground by my father-in-law Lynn Chouinard, who owned a ranch in the foothills near DeWinton. I felt like one of the luckiest people in the world.

I started with little firsthand knowledge but loads of enthusiasm and planted every square inch of that garden; everything from root veggies to tomatoes. The results were amazing. I produced a couple hundred pounds of squash, dozens of eggplants and peppers, and beans of every colour and variety I could imagine. I canned, froze and dehydrated food, and stored roots for months—so much more than my family could use that I started giving away the excess. I created a sharing page on Facebook and reached out to community groups to distribute the bounty. It wasn’t hard to find people eager to receive locally grown, chemical free, heirloom veggies that were so fresh they still had earth on them. And I soon realized I could do more.

Fast forward to today and my little garden has expanded to a 300-foot by 25-foot plot named “The Giving Garden.” Each year I prove myself capable of taking on a larger section of land. After my father-in-law passed, the ranch’s new owners graciously allowed me to continue. Through word of mouth I found volunteers to do everything from weeding to administration and distribution.

We now annually produce thousands of pounds of vegetables and give it to individuals, families and charities throughout the Calgary area. Our produce is generally distributed to whoever is in need at the time of harvest. Our drop-off locations relieve strain on other organizations that address food insecurity and homelessness. Last year a group organized a community fridge in Calgary, where we can now ensure our produce goes directly to people in need—80–100 people a week—at any time of day, no questions asked.

Through our first four years we’ve learned a lot and poured out much blood, sweat and tears. But I embrace the challenges and see them as a chance to learn. We’ve had good crops, great crops and bad crops. One year our beets were the size of footballs and won awards at harvest festivals; the next, the entire beet crop failed due to a combination of drought, smoke and gophers. That same year, we produced around 1,000 lbs of zucchinis, which went to countless individuals and five community organizations. The next year, we were lucky to get 100 lbs of zucchinis from the same number of plants.

I’ve learned that flexibility, diversity and a light heart go a long way. You need to be creative, willing to try new things and be OK with the failures that go hand in hand with unpredictable weather—drought, hail, frost, smoke—and a never-ending battle with various creatures that wish to consume all of our hard work. It’s even more challenging when you choose a pesticide- and herbicide-free philosophy. Gardening isn’t for the faint of heart, but it teaches you, and you grow with your garden.

Through my experience as a nurse and community advocate, I’ve seen firsthand how access to good food and permanent housing affects social outcomes. I’ve joined groups that advocate for people’s rights, and I’ve witnessed the failure of our leaders to address these issues. Food insecurity is an unnecessary problem in Canada. We have one of the lowest population densities in the world, and our cities especially are full of underused land. We have the space to grow enough food for everyone. It’s a challenge—but we can make a change, one garden at a time.

Authored By Dawna Britnell for Alberta Views Magazine