Forbidden fruit: MTO destroys pandemic-inspired 'guerilla garden'

An Ottawa mother-daughter duo is mourning their garden grown on National Capital Commission property during the pandemic after it was destroyed because it was an illegal use of land, and the produce could be contaminated.

Garden destroyed last week due to potential contamination, illegal use of land

Chantal Rodier, left, and her daughter Melanie Gosselin survey the damage they discovered last week after the MTO removed their garden. (Stu Mills/CBC)

An Ottawa mother and daughter are mourning the loss of their pandemic-inspired garden, which sat on public land, destroyed for being an illegal use of land and the potential contamination of the harvest.

"It's almost mean ... it was in full production," said Chantal Rodier, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

"It's like a death. I had to mourn it."

At the beginning of the pandemic, Rodier and her daughter Melanie Gosselin cultivated more than a dozen varieties of fruit and vegetables behind their Old Ottawa East townhouse.

Partly concerned by food scarcity, and wanting a way to keep busy during one of the lockdowns, they created self-labelled "guerilla garden" that measured about a quarter of the area of a basketball court where the Nicholas Street on-ramp joins westbound lanes of Highway 417

Rodier, who grew up on a farm, said she was able to return to what she loves 30 years later, managing to raise 160 kilograms of harvest including ground cherries, melons, zucchinis, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, green beans, carrots, beets and squash in their first year.

Some of that bounty was donated to the Shepherds of Good Hope, much of the rest was shared with friends and neighbours.

Chantal Rodier was able to watch over the garden from her office window at the University of Ottawa. (Submitted/Chantal Rodier)

Garden on former landfill

A spokesperson for the National Capital Commission (NCC), which owns the land, says it contacted Ontario's Ministry of Transportation (MTO) in June about concerns with the garden.

The NCC said it advised the MTO the property is "highly contaminated" and human consumption of vegetables grown there would be "inadvisable."

The property appears in a Treasury Board database of contaminated sites, with records showing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, metalloids and organometallic compounds had been detected.

The land was the Greenfield Dump and from the 1920s until the 1960s, it was a locomotive train yard until the Queensway was built.

Though she had no reason to suspect it, Rodier contacted a lab last year to inquire about having the soil tested, but soon abandoned the effort due to cost and a lack of guidance.

Then on Aug. 11, an MTO notice was posted on the garden warning of illegal activities like gardening in the right of way of a provincial highway. That could have led to a fine of $5,000.

The garden was removed one day before the warning date posted on the MTO notice. (Submitted/MTO)

MTO jumped the gun

The gardeners were then warned their hours of hard work would be destroyed last Friday, but they never saw that notice.

When they went to check the garden on Thursday evening, the ground had been plowed over and the hard work was all gone.

"I cried. We both did. I was crying yesterday talking to my parents about this, who are farmers," she said.

The MTO admitted it destroyed the garden one day earlier than planned.

"Due to the concerns with the gardening being ready for harvest and the possibility of members of the public consuming the vegetables, staff made the decision to remove the garden as quickly as possible," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

A few chili peppers were the only produce remaining after workers plowed over the garden. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Rodier said they had just one negative interaction regarding the garden, when an Ottawa police officer pulled off the road in 2020 to advise them not to park their car on the shoulder of the ramp when watering the plot.

She said the 100 kilograms of zucchinis, radishes, snap peas and beets, harvested this year, will be analyzed to ensure they are not contaminated before eating or sharing with others.