Faces of Sustainability

Sandra Ngo, Campus Community Garden

The Campus Community Garden marked a significant milestone this summer, moving into its second decade of operation. The garden first opened in 2003 when a team of student volunteer gardeners from Sustain SU and APIRG cut a 12 x 12 meter plot into the sod in East Campus Village. Compost donated by the university and seeds donated and purchased from local farmers brought the soil to life. Since then, the garden has expanded to cover 300 square meters, and grown to include a hothouse, rain barrels and a composting centre.

Over the years, nine different coordinators have guided the volunteer gardeners through successes and challenges, helping people of all ages and abilities learn to grow food. As this year’s Garden Coordinator, Sandra Ngo oversaw the garden through an unusually cold and wet summer—but she kept it a warm and welcoming environment for her volunteers. Sandra capped off the summer by organizing a tenth anniversary celebration, inviting the whole neighbourhood to get to know the garden and its personalities a little better.

How did you get involved with the campus community garden?

I’ve always been really interested in sustainability and food. But the way I got into community gardening is kind of backwards. I’m involved with Sustainable Food Edmonton, so we support a lot of community gardening. I’m a co-chair of their Fund Development Committee. So I started out in a sort of leadership role, and then only here is where I started to learn how to actually garden.

I do have experience with greenhouse gardening in one of my volunteer gigs back in the day. That was basically just flowers. I volunteered with Alberta Hospital for six months. It was wonderful.

What is your role here, as Garden Coordinator?

With my volunteers, I try to do the best to answer their questions or find out their answers for them. I’m really more the conduit through which they direct their initiatives. They’ll say: “Sandra I want to try this” or “I want to get this done.” It’s not so much that I’m facilitating their projects, it’s more like I’m helping them to learn and answer questions and help them do their own experiments and do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do.

Honestly, starting this job, I’ve learned a lot.

Why were you interested in working in a community garden to begin with?

I’ve always been interested in food security, that’s my background. I’m doing my Masters in Resource Economics. We always do work with home gardening, local food systems, and that kind of thing. Food is a universal concern. No matter who we are, or where we go, or what we do—we all eat. We are all connected through this way: what we choose to eat or choose not to eat.

Food is one of those things that people take for granted. They don’t stop to think about where food comes from, what was put into making it. I’m interested in this connection to food that we’ve lost. How many times have you heard a kid say ‘chicken comes from a grocery store’? They don’t really know what it’s like to hold a freshly laid egg, or pull potatoes from the ground and turn it into french fries. People don’t even prepare their own food anymore. It’s just not something that we sit and appreciate anymore. Even the sociality of food is going away.

How do you bring that social experience to the garden?

Well, one thing that the garden does is we hold weekly salad parties so that people can come together and enjoy the food that they've grown together. You get people talking about things like flavour, how it was grown, what they like about it, that kind of thing. We also do a lot of cooking workshops. For example, there was one for salsa making, one for canning and for oil infusions. People can swap tips or ideas too. So it's not just through eating that we share food, but also in how it’s made and prepared.

It’s kind of preaching to the choir, though, because people who are interested in food and passionate are the ones who come here. They’re already engaged and know the value of it. It would be good if we could do more outreach to people who wouldn’t normally get involved in this thing.

What would you say to someone who had no interest in food politics to get them interested in the community garden?

It’s a really great way for people to come and learn to grow their own food, get fresh produce cheaply, and come somewhere to take refuge from stress of daily lives. Just come and enjoy the outdoors and nature. As cheesy as that sounds!

This is the best place if you’re stressed. It’s so tranquil here. Even if you are angry or upset you can take out your frustration on a couple of weeds or something. I know some of my volunteers just really love ripping out weeds, just destroying a weed patch. It’s pretty great.

Who can get involved with the Campus Community Garden?

There’s something here for everyone. One guy has been here for three years, another for four. He knows way more about gardening than I do. Some people are really, really new. There are some who’ve never pulled a weed before, others who’ve never planted before, some who didn’t even know what a potato looks like when it’s growing.

The space is for everybody, so you are more than welcome to come in and poke around.

The Campus Community Garden is always looking for more volunteers. To find out how you can get involved, visit the website of Sustain SU.