The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Why small-scale farming in the city yields much more than fresh vegetables

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as it turns out, could have been a happy allotment gardener. Former farmer Bill Smart has come to the same realization, which he describes as "new terrain" in his essay, Allotment Garden.
Bill Smart grew up on a farm, and when he moved to Toronto, he yearned for a piece of home. He found himself with an allotment garden, which he describes as an 'absurdly small space.' (Submitted by Bill Smart)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as it turns out, could have been a happy allotment gardener.

"Man needs only a small patch of earth for his pleasures," he wrote, "and a smaller one still to rest beneath."

Bill Smart details how he came to the same realization in his essay, Allotment Garden.

After years on the farm, I couldn't imagine life without it. But even my dog sensed change was coming. "Yeah," he said. "Maybe 73 is too old for both of us." What could I ever find that would replace the farm's pleasures, even on the exhausting days? I moved — a long way — from the farm to the city. That first year in "The Big Smoke," I wasn't sure I could pull it off. Then one day I stumbled on a crazy idea.

There is a large group of Torontonians who stare all year at one date on the calendar. Soon after dawn every February 1st the line-ups form outside a fifth-floor office at the Scarborough Civic Centre in east Toronto. At 9 a.m. the phones and the wickets open, and the stampede starts for one of Toronto's 1,414 allotment garden plots located in 11 sites throughout the city.

The scenes can be quite dramatic: whoops of joy from the successful applicants or screams of anger — even tears — from those turned down. Because I had prior experience meeting the dawn, I got my allotment plot on the first try (unheard of — but don't tell anyone).

Container gardening

I scurried away with my precious permit, a map of the garden plots, a small key to the padlocked gate and a long list of policies and conditions, most of which made little sense to a farmer: no harassment or racial discrimination, no selling of vegetables, and "violence will not be tolerated."

My new "farm," Allotment Plot #112, had shrunk to a 15 foot by 30 foot strip of humped earth and snow. What a come down, literally. On the farm, the canola or corn crop wasn't exactly container gardening.

Clearly there were things to come to terms with. It's a different kind of farming experience, working a municipal allotment garden. My Ford 3000 would never be able to make the turn at the end of these cramped rows. I had to re-learn much — and what I couldn't quite accept was forced on me by the absurdly small space.

I had to re-learn much — and what I couldn't quite accept was forced on me by the absurdly small space.- Bill Smart

My little rectangle also came with the tutelage of someone my fellow gardeners talked about in hushed tones, called "the master gardener." 

She made impromptu visits from some office to give friendly, but compulsory suggestions to all who formed around her.

No pesticides, or herbicides, or anything ending in "cide." Weeds were good, part of Mother Nature's overall plan. The gardener may uproot them (gently) but they should be re-laid over top of the soil to die peacefully and to add to the nutrients. Moreover, the ground in the spring should not be overturned deeply; this common mistake released valuable nitrogen, encouraged more weeds and destroyed important microbes that my new babies were going to need. I was a greenhorn, the master gardener implied.

'More remarkable than vegetables'

Mother Nature has startling powers — I already knew that from the farm — but I had no idea that so many diverse and healthy vegetables could boom in the rough little 2x6 boxes I made for a variety of vegetables. I had no need for my Ford 3000; everything was accomplished with a broken rake and a hoe left for me by the previous tenant, plus a few seed packets from the Dollar Store.

The old thrill of the farm was repeated when I saw the first shoots of the beets, radishes, onions, peas slice through the tops of that joyful earth, a mystery and a music that never palls.

My little garden also grew something else, even more remarkable than vegetables.

During my afternoons digging in the sun, suddenly and quietly, a new fellow gardener would appear beside me. "Hello!" It would start with a handshake, exchange of first names and garden small talk.

The old thrill of the farm was repeated when I saw the first shoots of the beets, radishes, onions, peas slice through the tops of that joyful earth.- Bill Smart

They looked human enough, these folks. But frankly, they were more, well, more exotic than I was used to.

At the farm, conversation was generally with familiar faces who spoke overlong on matters that were predictable and gently repetitive.

At the allotment garden, the conversations were conventional, but only at the start. I grew a sense that when it came to human natures, this place was new terrain.

Bill Smart's dog Casey lies among sunflowers from his tiny garden. (Submitted by Bill Smart)

For one thing, no one's name matched their nationalities. There was Sam and Annie, a South Asian couple who repeated the same five words in English and who grew (and shared) impossible vegetables — such as cucamelons and pineberries, and edible flowers.

I met Donny who revealed the secret (which I'll never divulge) about growing perfect Romano pole beans, but cried in front of me one morning when he confessed that as a teen back in Italy, he had killed his beloved dog by forcing it to drink a bottle of wine.

There was Jason and Cynthia, his very pregnant wife, who practically gave birth between the rows. They brought their baby, days old, and laid her down happy amid their cabbages. That little being shocked me — in a way that my canola field never did — with a simple truth about the power and the immediacy of the life force.

Life lessons

I was startled daily by this human array, and I was reminded of another famous gardener's words for this situation: "Can such things be, and overcome us like a summer's cloud, without our special wonder?"

Now, as I dig away in the common dirt of this small place, surrounded by condos and the noise of traffic, besides a new sense of special wonder and bafflement, I've also developed a sense that most of the forces around me — the farm, the tiny garden, the day itself — stay as allotments, not entitlements. And that some of the best things in life aren't actually free; they're borrowed.

One day I'll have to learn to shift again — laying down all tools, joining myself this time, to a final and even smaller allotment of earth and plants.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.