Nova Scotia

Halifax newcomers find a piece of home at Common Roots Urban Farm

An unused grassy area hemmed in by whizzing cars in west-end Halifax has turned into fertile soil for newcomers rebuilding their lives through gardening.

'It heals my soul, my physical, spiritual, my entire me,' says Janet Niyonkuru

Imelde Nduwimana, left, and Janet Niyonkuru are avid gardeners at Common Roots Urban Farm. They're growing crops that aren't easily found at stores in Halifax. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

An unused grassy area hemmed in by whizzing cars in west-end Halifax has turned into fertile soil for newcomers rebuilding their lives through gardening.

Located on Bayers Road next to a ramp to the Bicentennial Highway, the space is the new home of Common Roots Urban Farm, which uprooted in the spring from its large, high-profile location at the corner of Bell Road and Robie Street. The move was needed to help facilitate a hospital expansion.

The new space is less than one-tenth the size of its previous space, but in just one growing season, more than 50 urban farmers have proven that patience, determination and hard work can grow bountiful harvests in underutilized spaces.

"It's beautiful, it's safe," said Janet Niyonkuru as she smiled and looked up at the sky.

A survivor of the Rwandan genocide, the former refugee is a now a Canadian citizen who is reclaiming agricultural skills learned as a child to feed herself and her daughter.

Janet Niyonkuru's fall harvest includes beans, radishes and leafy greens. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Gardening is also therapy. Having lost her father during the Rwandan Civil War and two children in a Ugandan refugee camp, she experienced post-traumatic shock depression.

But thanks to gardening, she no longer takes medication — her cure comes from digging in the dirt.

"It heals my soul, my physical, spiritual, my entire me," said Niyonkuru as she happily chatted about lenga lenga, a leafy green that's rich in iron and is a staple in parts of Africa.

The new location is owned by the city. It's connected gardeners with office and mall workers who cross the road to have lunch on the farm, and YMCA kids who spent the summer helping build the beds.

Sara Burgess is the co-ordinator of the Common Roots Urban Farm, which is now located across the road from the Bayers Road Centre. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

But there's a wait list to rent a garden plot. Thirty-six plots have been snapped up by newcomers, apartment dwellers, neighbours and people who gardened at the hospital. There are also 17 plots set aside for veggie and flower market sales, and three where people can show up and take food that they need.

At the old location, there were 200 plots.

An administrative order limits how much of the green space can be farmed. Sara Burgess, the co-ordinator of Common Roots, said she's hopeful the rules change to allow more garden beds.

She said the years spent on the hospital grounds has proven what's possible.

"This is year one. Maybe it will be [adding] multiple sites, maybe it will be expanding this site. But there's room to grow," said Burgess.

Imelde Nduwimana shows off a large squash and her crop of amaranth greens called lenga lenga. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

On Thursday, Imelde Nduwimana harvested a large squash from her plot. But the refugee from Burundi doesn't just eat the gourd. Like other people from her culture, she whips up a nutritious stew from the edible leaves that aren't sold at stores.

In her 1.2-metre by 3.6-metre bed, she also grows mint, beans and lenga lenga.

After more than 20 years living in a refugee camp in Tanzania, Halifax is where she's learning English and returning to her agricultural roots at a city farm that reminds her of home.

"I'm feeling very well," she said proudly about her garden that provides her with food year-round.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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