Oct 24 2013

Vancouver's Victory Gardeners

I’m usually not the type of person who notices cars in my daily life, but if I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, I’m pretty sure that I’d recognize one of Victory Gardens’ trucks driving around town. They’re hard to miss: one a tiny 1992 Toyota Hiace, the other a hulking 1992 Dodge Cummins, each outfitted with a giant red beet on the hood and door, and a phrase printed along the length of each vehicle reading “We help you grow food”. It’s in these two trucks that Lisa Giroday, Sandra Lopuch, and Sam Philips traverse across Vancouver to teach residents and restaurants how to grow and harvest food, build planters and raised beds, consult with others involved in urban agriculture, and lead and attend events connecting people with the seasonality – and fun – of growing your own food.

Victory Gardens gleans its name from the gardens that citizens planted during the first and second World Wars to take pressure off the national food system and to ensure communities’ own health in a time of food shortages. Just as Portland-based artist Joe Wirtheim was inspired by the Victory Garden movement to create a series of insightful, empowering posters, the women of Vancouver’s Victory Gardens have taken that concept and freshened it up with modern implications. Part of the organization’s appeal is its link to the past, whether it is the retro-looking trucks, the use of organic, non-invasive gardening methods, or the business’ adaptability to the environment and clients, much like Victory Gardeners in the past had to adapt to their own environmental and monetary limitations.

Yet the business is very much grounded in 2013, morphing low impact, flexible methods with decidedly modern approaches and interactions: those retro-looking vehicles run on recycled biodiesel; the website features an updated blog and a detailed list of services rendered. The women behind Victory Gardens engage with their customers and community via Instagram and twitter, and harness these modern communication tools to connect with the larger urban agriculture movement in Vancouver, participating and creating events ranging from “An Afternoon of Homesteading” with The Pie Shoppe and Sugo Sauce, to partnerships with Carley Mendes Nutrition, to an upcoming Kinfolk event.

I met Victory Gardener Sam at a house located in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighborhood. The front yard housed four raised beds, some with towering brassicas, others featuring lettuce and herbs. Armed with a wheelbarrow full of hay for mulching around the fall crops, Sam was there to winterize the garden, trim dead growth, and harvest any remaining lingering food. Before she got back to work, we chatted about the business, starting with Victory Gardens’ origin story. As Sam tells it, that story is actually “super simple”:

We were all [already] friends. We’d garden in Lisa’s yard .... We were just in there gardening, it was about this time of year. We were talking about how a lot of our friends were always asking us “can you teach me how to grow food?” We realized that there was a huge gap and no one was really doing that. There were a couple urban farm CSAs where you could go buy the produce, but there wasn’t really a widespread business to show people how to do it for themselves.

After recognizing this missing link in Vancouver’s blossoming and collaborative urban agricultural movement, the women’s excitement grew as they began to structure their new business. They designed Victory Gardens to appeal to a wide range of potential gardeners, from the total novice to someone who might need a bit more structure or a helpful reminder every now and then. “We realized that there were people who wanted to do it themselves, but there were also people who just wanted [the garden] there, readily available for them,” Sam explained. These personalized and tailored services allow Victory Gardens‘ clients to grow food in a way that meshes with their unique lifestyles and personalities. As Sam remarked, “gardening is highly subjective. It’s very much based on your experience – it’s so personal.” Along those lines, Victory Gardens offers infrastructure (construction and design), education (coaching and workshops), and maintenance services (everything from landscaping to “garden sitting” when you’re out of town).

Before officially launching the business two years ago, Sam, Lisa, and Sandra spent concentrated time working with another friend, graphic designer Elise Beneteau, on the logo and illustrative elements for the website and promotional materials. They also honed their individual roles and responsibilities. Lisa acts as the first point of contact for Victory Gardens: along with marketing duties, she meets with interested customers to help tailor personal garden plans, taking into account everything from the light in the yard to the customer’s schedule and food preferences. Sandra is in charge of Victory Gardens’ accounting, design work, and general business tasks – “figuring out how we can better things,” Sam summarized.

Sam is the garden manager. She coaches, devises planting maps, and keeps in touch with ongoing customers. As we talked in the Kerrisdale garden, I knew Sam was juggling a few projects and felt sensitive that our interview might create an unwelcome speed bump, yet she exuded a calm, present personality, one that must easily translate to her interactions with eager or apprehensive gardeners. She grew up with an awareness of seasonality from watching her father garden, though she didn’t start gardening in earnest until college. While pursuing an art degree at Emily Carr, Sam started gardening anywhere she could – small plots of land, garden escapes, various friends’ yards. This passion ultimately led Sam to become a master gardener, as well as a quick study on garden layouts and maintenance.

Victory Gardens is now finishing out its second full season, and according to Sam, the differences between last year and this October seemed too momentous to really put into words. They work with around 100 clients on tasks that range from weekly mentoring, to seasonal check-ins, to constructing planters for homes and restaurants. Along with cultivating more neighborhood relationships, they anticipate expanding their services to include more restaurants, enjoying the challenge of creating “results oriented” gardens. Sam explained that when they created an off-site garden for The Acorn (a restaurant in Vancouver’s Mt Pleasant neighborhood serving refined vegetarian fare), they had to figure out what food to grow that could actually feed the restaurant. They decided on plants that have a high yield and low square footage requirements, like kale and lemon balm. Sam enjoys the challenge of creating a productive and useful garden out of limited square footage, laughing that restaurants are “probably not going to grow beets – they take too much time and space.”

Victory Gardens merges youthful energy with gardening and marketing expertise and an intimate knowledge of the bigger agriculture picture in Vancouver. Instead of recreating a pre-existing business model or adding their voices (and trowels) to Vancouver’s other urban farms, they found an untapped outlet. In the local, seasonal, farm-to-table movement, most cities are at a stage of improved access and awareness. A motivated person can buy seasonal food, walk by homes growing food, and even grow it themselves if they have experience and confidence. Sam, Lisa, and Sandra nudge people who are curious but unsure, or busy and stressed, into the next stage of seasonal awareness: gardening.

Whether you’re managing it yourself, sharing responsibilities with a coach, or just doing the harvesting, a front or backyard garden is an improvement to the neighborhood and environment, and another tactile example of seasonality. And a single entry point can create a domino effect: a person who wants weekly coached gardening sessions might eventually only need the women of Victory Gardens to visit once a season. As these customers cycle into a more autonomous stage of gardening, their blossoming, verdant front yard gardens might then inspire others to take those first steps. Growth, of food and of Victory Gardens’ impact, seems boundless.