A Winter Update From Building Roots’ Urban Farm at Ashbridge Estate

The Building Roots urban farm at Ashbridge Estate is small (there’s not a lot of room in a city) but mighty – mighty enough to transform this worrying year to reliable joy for a dozen participants. From May through October we gathered weekly to perform and witness many small magics.

First there’s the obvious – from minuscule specks of seed and spindly 3” seedlings, we produced … food.

That’s peppers, tomatoes, peas, beans, zucchini, bitter melon, turnips, kohlrabi, garlic, chard, mint, dill, thyme, basil, and more.

We know the seed needs to be in the right place (for sun), with the right resources (water and good soil) and the right helpers (soil micro-organisms, and a human helper (to provide a stake, prune suckers, protect against pests and disease).  

So far, that’s just like a child growing up to be a poet or an engineer or an analyst – to flourish, both seed and child need  many things to come together: a suitable environment, resources, helpers – and time.

But then there’s the mystery of it. We don’t know all about how a seed becomes a mature plant, and certainly not about how a child explores and develops its talents. Watching something creative and mysterious unfold is a joy that nourished the farm crew every week. (It also sent a few of us to botany books!)

Second, the farm is volunteer-powered, raising this food not for ourselves but for the Building Roots produce bags distributed at the Moss Park Market year-round. 

The kindness of people to each other is another magic, one of the greatest there is. Our dozen participants joined a river of human decency that flowed this year. 

We also produced food for bees and other pollinators – borage, yarrow, dill, cosmos, zinnia, apple blossoms, and clover among our well-received offerings.

Over the season we put in more than 800 hours; why? Making a gift of time and attention is very satisfying and more-ish. There are reductionist explanations for the pleasure of giving to others (a boost of oxytocin is one), but the experiential fact is that we’re social beings and like to connect. 

At the farm – masked and distanced – we are engaged in a collaborative project, connecting strongly with each other, with the people who eat what we produce, with the warm-hearted staff at our host, the Ontario Heritage Trust, and with a dozen businesses and organizations that were generous to the farm. 

To name just four – Miceli’s Seasonals gifted us 15 (!) flats of seedlings; Lazy Daisy Café provided coffee grounds for soil amendment; FoodShare through CAMh gave garlic to plant and a beautiful cedar 3-bin composter; and with our participation Not Far From The Tree delivered a few hundred pounds of organic fruit to the Moss Park Market. (And Manning Canning turned some of that into jars of applesauce for the market.)

This is the instigation of a virtuous cycle – resources flowing to us that we put to use for others, enabling them in turn to be more for those around them. 

To all who supported the urban farm this year, our deepest thanks for enabling this flow of goodness.

We also gave to each other – blueberry muffins, nasturtium pesto, green-tomato chutney, kombucha starter, gecko keychains – and connections beyond the farm to mushroom foraging, tai chi in the park, and more – and ad hoc workshops on pruning, propagating, raising caterpillars to butterflies, hugelkultur, plant families, Three-Sisters plantings, tying secure knots and splices. The Building Roots urban farm is a learning place!

Third, every week we turned our backs on cement, pandemics, job worries, and odious politics … to spend a sunny morning surrounded by trees, flower beds, and birdsong, collaborating with companionable others in light physical exercise that has a kindly and creative purpose. 

That’s a checkmark on most of the major factors that contribute to personal and social well-being.

That’s how this otherwise difficult year paradoxically gave us six months of laughter, abundance, and delight. It’s how we delivered weekly harvests to the Moss Park Market. And it’s how, from small seeds, we at the urban farm nurture the Building Roots mission of social cohesion. To manifest its potential, social cohesion – like a seed or a child – needs a nourishing environment, resources, helpers … and time.

My wish for 2021 is that, whatever else is going on, ever more of us engage in the small magics that give others – and ourselves – the joy of flourishing.

This picture as a group was taken while health and safety regulations permitted gathering in small numbers with the express consent and awareness of each individual participating.