Urban farmers scout out fertile ground in Ottawa

Urban farmers Matthew Mason-Phillips and Madeleine Maltby turn back lawns into vegetable plots, and they're looking to grow.

Britannia Backyard Edibles looking for room to grow their business

Madeleine Maltby and Matthew Mason-Phillips are working hard to grow their business, Britannia Backyard Edibles. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Matthew Mason-Phillips is only 31 years old, but he says some days, after hours of planting and weeding, his aching back and knees make him feel like a sleep-deprived octogenarian

But between his soil-packed fingernails and the gentle way he picks heirloom tomatoes off the vine, it's easy to see that despite the hard work, Mason-Phillips loves being a farmer in the heart of Ottawa.   

"For me, working outside — I don't know what I couldn't like about it," he smiles.

Along with Madeleine Maltby, 27, Mason-Phillips co-owns Britannia Backyard Edibles, an urban farming operation now in its second year. Together they've transformed 10 backyards — and one front yard — into vegetable garden.
One urban plot transformed into a bountiful garden by Britannia Backyard Edibles. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Mason-Phillips says there's a good supply of fertile but underused green space in central Ottawa that could be put to work for food production. 

Maltby refers to their venture as "a hyper-local version of the 100-mile diet." It's also the perfect sustainable business model for wannabe-farmers who aren't ready to leave the city, and can't necessarily afford a large, rural plot.

Lawns become liability

To find the urban plots, Maltby walked around neighbourhoods and peeked over fences, looking for large yards with unobstructed sunlight. When she found a likely candidate, she knocked on the door.

"A lot of people were taken aback and they were like, 'You want to do what with my lawn?" recalls Maltby. "The lawn becomes a liability in the summer when you have to water and mow it, and a lot of people don't want to do that so we dig it up and grow food." 

One mini-farm in a Westboro backyard is 6 by 9 meters. While the "hosts" aren't required to do any of the hard work, they may water between rainfalls.

In return for giving up a portion of their yard, homeowners receive a share of the bounty from all the gardens. In addition to that arrangement, 25 subscribers pay for a weekly basket full of eight different vegetables. The selections change with the growing season.

It's all part of what participants call a community-supported agriculture program; consumers get a reliable supply of fresh, locally grown produce, and producers get a guaranteed markets for their harvest.  

Making a living

Before starting the business last year, Maltby interned on a farm in eastern Ontario, where she learned about planting, germination and crop selection. Before that she studied environmental science, while Mason-Phillips studied international development.

They work seven long days a week during the growing season, but say they are making a living. The two sell excess produce at the Wesboro farmers' market on Saturdays, and they run a greenhouse where they grow micro-greens for several restaurants.  

Mason-Phillips says they'd love to expand their business next year, but they need larger yards to boost productivity.

Like Maltby, Mason-Phillips says he's also taken up scouting out potential plots, a habit that's become something of an obsession.

"It's almost become pathological ... Wherever I'm walking or driving I'm always scanning. 'What kind of backyard is that? What could I grow?'"
Co-owner Madeleine Maltby says her business promotes 'a hyper-local 100-mile diet.' (Laurie Fagan/CBC)