British Columbia·Photos

Beans replace begonias as Vancouver Park Board grows veggies for families in need

Vancouver's Sunset Nursery normally grows flowers for parks and green space across Vancouver. For the first time, the park board is using some extra space there to grow vegetables for non-profit organizations that provide food for families in need. 

Sunset Nursery usually only grows flowers for the city's parks and green spaces

Vancouver's Sunset Nursery recently started growing vegetables to distribute to families in need. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Vancouver Park Board superintendent Bruce McDonald has unintentionally become a farmer later in life. 

McDonald is used to keeping an eye on production at Sunset Nursery, which normally only grows flowers, trees and shrubs for parks and green space across Vancouver. But lately he's been inspecting batches of kale, beans and turnips as well. 

"I really love vegetable growing and vegetable farming," McDonald said, walking through rows of raised beds at the park board facility near Main Street and 51st Avenue. 

"I've never had a chance to do a large-scale production like we're doing here."

Vancouver Park Board superintendent Bruce McDonald has inadvertently become a farmer later in life. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Staffing cutbacks across the city because of COVID-19 this spring meant floral production at Sunset Nursery was reduced to about 60 per cent of its usual output. Instead, the park board is using some of the extra space at the nursery, along with some donated supplies, to grow low-maintenance vegetables for non-profit organizations that provide food for families in need. 

The food is distributed to hundreds of families through the Fresh Roots and Grandview Woodland Food Connection programs. McDonald says the park board is also growing vegetables at the city's golf courses and at Van Dusen Gardens, although the nursery is the biggest supplier. 

Normally Vancouver's Sunset Nursery only grows flowers, trees and shrubs for green spaces across the city. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

McDonald says many of the seeds came from unused stock at Van Dusen's gift shop, which means the staff at Sunset are growing vegetables people wouldn't normally see at the grocers. 

One of them is a blue-black tomato McDonald has to squeeze to check if it's ripe. 

Sunset Nursery got its seeds from Van Dusen Garden, including this unique variety of tomato. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Another is puntarelle, a tall green plant harvested for its stems. 

"It's basically a glorified dandelion," he said. "I know a little too much about it because I watch too many cooking shows."

McDonald says most the vegetables don't require much manpower.

Bruce McDonald says Sunset Nursery has had good success with several crops of lettuce so far. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

"They kind of take care of themselves," he said. "It's getting things planted at the right time."

So far staff at the nursery have had success with crops of lettuce that have already been harvested four times. Kale, turnips, carrots, bush beans, leeks and onions are also doing well. But there have been a few duds. 

The nursery has been struggling with some of its squash, which has been battling fungus. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

"We've made some mistakes," McDonald said.

The spinach was planted when it was too hot, and it went straight to seed. Same with the radishes. Rats and raccoons occasionally chomp at the crops. And fungus continues to attack the squash plants.

But that hasn't deterred McDonald and his staff from experimenting, and looking for ways to improve. They've already started on the kale seedlings for winter. And the Brussel sprouts still have a ways to go. 

The Sunset Nursery is preparing seedlings for winter. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

McDonald says the nursery is scheduled to be redeveloped in the next few years to make better use of space, and he's not sure what will happen to the vegetable program when that happens. 

Still, he hopes to continue farming for at least another year.

"It's been fun," McDonald says. "It's been good, it's been productive." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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