NL·From The Ground Up

These are the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners. Their plan? Get more people growing in St. John's

A group of green thumbs on the Avalon Peninsula hopes to encourage more people to grow their own food, and is doing so one clove at a time.
Sandy Cossar is a vegetable gardener in Mount Pearl whose idea to help people get into gardening has snowballed into the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

From The Ground Up is a new CBC series in collaboration with the Food Producers Forum, looking at how small-scale growers are digging and dreaming agricultural innovations in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

A group of green thumbs on the Avalon Peninsula hopes to make vegetable gardening more accessible to more people, and in the process revive a rare heirloom crop — a mission it's carrying out one clove at a time.

The Guerilla Garlic Gardeners began last harvest with a few bulbs, passed among friends. Sandy Cossar had spent the previous four years cultivating an unusual garlic a fellow gardener had given her: "Newfoundland tall," an almost  baseball-sized bulb that has nearly disappeared from local gardens, despite being bred to flourish on the island.

Cossar could either put it on a plate, or plant it in the ground, but it was never really a hard decision.

"They just seemed too precious to me to just eat," she said.

Cossar had immersed herself in vegetable growing a few years before, transforming her petite Mount Pearl backyard into an array of raised beds, buds, and Newfoundland tall bulbs. Along the way, her ability to feed herself and her husband bloomed to the point she began regularly gifting away green things to friends and family.

As she bequeathed two Newfoundland tall bulbs to fellow gardener Dan Rubin last fall, she did so with an offhand comment that proved to be a seed in itself.

"I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could build raised vegetable beds for people who couldn't afford to do it themselves, and show them how wonderful this is growing their own food?'" Cossar said.

Brian Yager holds the growing bulb of a Newfoundland tall garlic plant. By the end of the season, it will be almost baseball-sized, he says. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Breaking down barriers

Rubin, as enthusiastic as he is organized, ran with the idea, and pulled aboard some allium expertise in the form of the Guerrilla's third member, Brian Yager.

Yager may just lay claim to the most scenic farm in Newfoundland with his clifftop fields in Ferryland, where he runs a garlic farm and kelp fertilizer business under the name the Natural Gardener, with his wife Jane. From that vantage point, the Yagers have been watching the pandemic fuel a backyard growing craze.

"You could see that, with the amount of sales at the garden centres. The owners are telling me they're doubled and tripled, and the same thing is happening this year," he said.

Alongside that boom, Yager saw barriers: raised beds, and the soil and seeds to fill them, can be a costly hobby. When Rubin called with plans to raise funds to cover those expenses for people in need, he jumped aboard.

"[There] are a lot of people who have the means, financially, to go out and do that on their own, but there are some people who don't have the means in town. And we're trying to help those people who don't have the means," Yager said.

Dan Rubin is the third member of the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners, working with groups like Seniors NL and the Single Parent Association to find potential gardeners who can't afford to get into it. (Adam Walsh/CBC )

'Small steps' to healthy living

As winter idled any outdoor gardening, the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners spent their time fundraising, and have so far topped $2,000, along with other in-kind donations.

With the price of lumber through the roof — another pandemic surprise — that money is enough to build and give away 10 raised beds, set to happen over the next few weeks. The guerillas are working with groups including the Single Parents Association and Seniors NL to match the infrastructure to interested people in the St. John's area.

"I think it will be great, especially young families with young children, [to] see where their food comes from. It doesn't all come from Foodland or Costco; it comes from the ground somewhere," said Yager.

As a retired nurse practitioner, Jane Yager said the benefits of getting your hands dirty is almost beyond measure, even if a green thumb proves elusive.

"I think a lot about well-being," she said. "Children learning at a very young age about growing food, being healthy, considering what you eat and how much exercise you can get just by having your own little garden."

Jane and Brian Yager farm about 20,000 garlic plants in their fields in Ferryland, and will be lending their expertise to the new gardeners in St. John's. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Add in the pandemic that has spurred people to think more about health, and "the world is changing," she said.

"We can take advantage of the changes, by doing very small things. Very small steps. Gardening is not hard; it's really fun."

The return of Newfoundland tall

Yager and Cossar will be donating their expertise to the guerilla project, and helping fill each raised bed with garlic in the fall.

If growing your own food is an addiction, garlic is the gateway drug. It's nearly foolproof: stick a clove in the dirt in the fall, and by spring it shoots up. As long as its flowers are clipped off before blooming in early summer, a bulb will be ready to eat by late August, even if watering and fertilizing fall by the wayside.

Newfoundland tall garlic plants sprout up at the beginning of May on the Yagers's farm. They have 200 plants this year, and hope to have 1,000 next year. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"If people who have never grown vegetables before, if we build them these beds and this is their first foray into growing vegetables, if they plant garlic in it and are successful the following spring, I'm just hoping that it will inspire them to want to have another bed, with something else growing in it," said Cossar. 

"It's just a starting point."

If all goes according to the guerillas' plan, those beds will all hold Newfoundland tall garlic.

From the two bulbs Cossar started with, she's grown dozens of plants, giving many away. Some have ended up in the Yagers' fields, where they're being fed a hearty diet of kelp fertilizer they harvest from a beach a short walk away from the farm.

The Yagers have 200 this year, and they hope to multiply it to 1,000 next year. True to its name, the garlic has height, reaching 3½ feet, according to Brian, and its hardiness and huge bulbs make it a standout that he hopes spreads to other farms.

Find out why these farmers hope to take a heritage garlic right across N.L.

3 years ago
Duration 5:02
Carolyn Stokes speaks with Jane and Brian Yager, who have hopes for a variety called Newfoundland Tall

Eventually, he'd like to have 15,000 bulbs in the ground, and another dozen farmers with the same.

"I think that'd be incredible," he said.

Brian Yager harvests kelp from a beach in Ferryland to use as a mulch for his garlic plants, and to turn into fertilizer. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

With the future of Newfoundland tall looking good, the guerillas will also be able to mark another milestone this fall, and find out what the garlic actually tastes like.

"I feel confident enough now that there's enough around the province that [it's] not going to die out because I'm having some in a stir fry," laughed Cossar. "This'll be my lucky year."

Her lucky year, and a few others', too.


Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.