Women in Lennoxville, Que., are growing food and social connections with collective garden

In the 14 months since the Lennoxville and District Women's Centre started the garden —  on donated land from a local couple, right next to D’Arcy Bennett Park — both the number of participants and the garden itself have doubled.

What started as a pandemic project has turned into a popular and prolific destination

From left, participants Evelyn Lalonde, Kat Abdella, and organizer Lucie Levasseur in front of the Lennoxville and District Women's Centre community garden, where they've been growing their own produce. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

At a community garden in Lennoxville, Evelyn Lalonde cuts a bunch of cilantro to take home, while Kat Abdalla waters the hay bales where herbs are growing and then takes a bite of fresh dill. 

Both are members of the Lennoxville and District Women's Centre, which launched its community garden in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving participants the chance to get outside, grow their own produce and fight social isolation.

In the 14 months since the organization started the garden —  on donated land from a local couple, right next to D'Arcy Bennett Park — both the number of participants and the size of the garden have doubled.

Programs co-ordinator and community outreach co-ordinator Lucie Levasseur says she'd always hoped to build a garden for the centre, but the project got fast-tracked when the pandemic hit in 2020 and outdoor activities suddenly became one of the few safe options. 

"And this is such a good way to break isolation and see other people too," Levasseur said. "Just being in contact with nature is just so therapeutic."

There are more than a dozen women tending the garden on a regular basis. They grow garlic, potatoes, peas, and dozens of other fruits, vegetables, and herbs. 

The Lennoxville and District Women's Centre community garden is growing dozens of different fruits, vegetables, and herbs. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

"We planted hundreds of bulbs of garlic that will be harvested at the end of July, so everyone can take some garlic home," Levasseur said. "We just plant everything." 

She explained that users are also welcome to make suggestions on what else to plant, especially if it means adding to the herb collection. 

"We just have a pretty good variety of vegetables, so there's some for every taste," she added. 

Levasseur said it makes her very happy to see women from the area reconnecting with nature and becoming more self-sufficient. 

It's her firm belief that the world needs more community gardens. 

Levasseur's first degree was in botany and ecology, before she went on to study horticulture and work as a greenhouse producer for many years, but she was always involved with community organizations, she says. 

"And I have just been able to combine both worlds now, so that's excellent," she said. 

Sharing the load

Abdalla didn't have much gardening experience but when she read about the project in the women's centre's newsletter, she decided to lean in and give it a try. Now, she works in the garden often. 

"I'm learning so much," she said. 

She does her best to support the local farmers' market, but finds that with the community garden, she can take only what she needs as a single person, and try new things. 

Kat Abdalla waters the hay bales where various herbs are planted at the Lennoxville and District Women's Centre community garden. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

"And it's so little work, there are so many of us," she said. "I didn't feel confident at first, but now I do because I realize we're all working together and there's nothing one of us could do that would ruin anything, so we're sharing the work."

"It's really spectacular, I love it," she added. 

Abdalla says she loves the sense of community she gets by working with the other gardeners as much as she enjoys a contemplative visit by herself. 

Lalonde, too, has learned a lot since starting her weekly visits to the community garden. 

She has hip problems that make bending low difficult, but since some crops are planted in hay bales, it's easy for her to reach them. She's learned fertilization techniques and how to put up fences. 

"That's what gardening is great for, you can learn so many things," Lalonde said.

Unlike a lot of pandemic activities, this one has given her the opportunity to make new friends — and reconnect with old ones. 

"I mean, I've been doing art at home and I've been doing knitting at home, but that's all alone," she said. "But when I come here, there are other people and we're hungry for other people."

The women have learned to put up fences for some of the climbing plants, such as peas. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

Levasseur says the garden has proven to be great for the mental health of the women who tend to it, so the women's centre has moved all of its summer activities outside to D'Arcy Bennett Park, including its forest school, watercolour lessons and some exercise classes.

"I think it's definitely safer and it's just so good for our mental health," she said, adding participants still follow all the health and safety guidelines. 

Vegetables aren't the only things growing: so is interest. Levasseur predicts the garden will be even bigger next year. 

"We have no choice but to keep expanding it every year," she said.