How eight city gardeners are growing food at home

How eight city gardeners are growing food at home

Food prices continue to rise in Canada, but not everyone in the Greater Toronto Area has access to enough land to grow their own food. Or maybe they do: these eight people in different parts of the region have created flourishing gardens in whatever spaces they have — be it on a tiny balcony, inside a condo with limited sunlight, out back with lots of space or at a community plot. 

From a retiree in the suburbs to a busy chef right downtown, they told us about the stress relief of reducing their grocery bills and ensuring a bit more food security in an era of supply chain upheavals and climate change. They also told us about the pleasures of bringing delicious things into the world, wherever they can. 

A salad grows in a condo: Mel Bronwyn

A freelance video journalist, Mel Bronwyn recently moved with her partner from Cambridge, Ont., to Toronto’s downtown core. She makes the most of the limited space in her condo by growing microgreens, herbs like basil and cilantro, radishes, spinach, sweet potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables.

“A space should be nourishing. It should feel welcoming. It should feel lively and I feel like plants do that for you. But I didn’t feel like it was affordable to just buy decorative plants. So I decided to buy a bunch of herbs and vegetables and things like that because I could eat them. It’s also just a better use of money.

Growing in this kind of space is actually pretty easy if you invest in devices. They don’t have to be extremely expensive either, right? I spent around $400 because I waited [to find] used and good plant equipment and lights. I usually go through $12 to $15 worth of soil monthly because I tend to replace soil and grow new plants often once I’m done harvesting.”

“Seeds are so inexpensive. You continually harvest so many vegetables with a $3 package. That’s pretty efficient. Also herbs are really inexpensive. Basically, I bought one basil. I propagated it and now I have like a billion things. So it just seemed like it made sense. Why would I ever buy basil again? That’s kind of how I went about it.

It’s also a lot more accessible. If you go to a grocery store and purchase this, it’s just a lot of money. My grocery bill is really low now and I’ve managed to purchase less produce. I haven’t had to pay for basil, cilantro, microgreens or things like that in a very long time.” 

“I also think it’s kind of influenced the way my partner and I eat. We eat a lot healthier for less money. 

Vegetables at the grocery store are also not as healthy too because they’re not freshly cut. You don’t know how long it’s been there. You don’t know about the pesticides, whether or not the soil was extremely nourishing. At home, I have control over all aspects of this. I also appreciate my food a lot more.”

Temperature and watering levels for Mel Bronwyn's condo garden.
Bronwyn has specific watering and temperature levels set for her garden. “It’s very low maintenance. I think I spend about seven to 10 minutes in the morning,” she says.

“From a nutritional perspective, I really care about my mental health and physical health. And they very much relate to each other. If it’s easy to be healthy from my home then I’m likely to be healthy. When I have my microgreens available, I have ways of making a salad extremely healthy. I have ways of just sprinkling fresh vegetables that have been freshly cut.”

Mel Bronwyn in her condo garden.

“If I had advice for people who want to do something like this and they’re afraid to start, I’d say always start,” Bronwyn says. “I always tell people to start with herbs. They’re very easy to grow. They multiply a lot. You can propagate them.”

“I also know that when I am depressed, for example, or if I’m not really taking care of myself, it will visually show in my garden. When you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not necessarily taking care of your garden either. So it’s a very good way of gauging. Like, wow, I really haven’t watered this in several days, now. They’re starting to get a little wilted. Then you have a sense of, ‘hey, where are you at?’

And then you start taking care of them and you start taking care of yourself. It’s a very beautiful relationship.”  

Mel Bronwyn in her condo garden.

Two generations of growers : Munawar and Sana Ahmed

Munawar Ahmed and his daughter, Sana, use most of Munawar’s backyard in Brampton, Ont., to grow potatoes, okra and other vegetables. 

Munawar: “My father was in agriculture and research. He would experiment with food and gardening for his job back home in Pakistan. Even at home, he and my mother would garden. I was young at the time. I would watch what they were doing.

At the beginning of my gardening journey, I was making mistakes [like overwatering and underwatering plants]. Eventually, I started to get the hang of it.

When I came to Canada though, I couldn’t garden right away. I had nothing. No house. Nothing. I was living with somebody else, renting a place. But my desire to garden was still there. 

I had lots of books on gardening. When I bought [another] house before this one, I tried to make a garden. But because of my profession as a welder, I spent more time at work and less time gardening, in comparison to now. Again, when I got to this country I had nothing. I had to work hard, and then when I got married and had children I had to work even more hard.

Now that I’m retired and at this house, I’m able to garden a lot more. It keeps me busy and gives me peace of mind. And I’m able to grow a lot of food, like zucchinis and cucumbers. Everything here is built by me.”

Munawar Ahmed in his backyard food garden in Brampton, Ont. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Munawar waters his cucumber plants, which are supported by a wall that he built from scratch. The wall helps keep the plants upright.
Munawar Ahmed in his backyard food garden in Brampton, Ont. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Munawar also has his own compost bin, where he puts loose leaves that fell from his vegetables. 

Sana: “I went back to school for my environmental studies. I started learning more about the importance of growing local food. I got really interested in food systems and all that. 

We’re so disconnected from the environment, especially in urban settings. By having this space to grow the food you can understand these food systems. 

And with climate change, it’s especially important to grow food locally … with the way things are going, these systems are uncertain. We’re seeing food prices going up. So I think knowing how to grow your own food helps you take back that food sovereignty.

Munawar Ahmed in his backyard food garden in Brampton, Ont. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Zucchini is one of Munawar’s favourite vegetables. “Yesterday we had about five zucchinis and Sana said ‘we’re going to make toriya, a zucchini curry with them.’ So we did,” he says.

Sana: “So I told my dad that I want to start helping out. I want to say the last four or five years, I started helping him and he showed me how you plant stuff and how you grow them. And since then we would have ideas, just dreaming of big things. We talk about greenhouses all the time for instance. 

It’s been a good way to bond and learn. It’s nice that we have that similar interest.” 

Munawar Ahmed and his daughter Sana in his backyard food garden in Brampton, Ont. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

An influencer out front: Mary Vo

With nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, Mary Vo is a gardening influencer who grows tomatoes, peppers, kale and much more in her front yard in Toronto’s St. Clair West neighbourhood.

“I’ve always kind of dabbled in gardening but never really had a focus because I was busy with other stuff. It really didn’t happen until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the big oak tree in our front yard fell during a storm. 

It kind of coincided. I started more for mental health and mindfulness and it just kind of progressed from there. I started documenting my journey on Instagram and then everyone became interested. There was such a want from people to learn.”

Mary Vo in her front yard food garden in Toronto. Photo by Ramona Leitao
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vo has documented her garden journey on her Instagram account, where she posts gardening tips. She has nearly 30,000 followers.

“So I started posting what I did, and some gardening tips to help people because I believe that everyone should have the ability to learn. It was kind of a way to be involved in a community of like-minded people.

I learned a bit of gardening from watching my dad garden when I was growing up. So I kind of had a little background. I also borrowed a lot of different books and just read a lot of different material. I was also watching some other Instagram accounts and on Facebook as well. There’s a garden community within the neighborhood: depending on which area you live in, you can kind of search for gardeners within that community which is really great, because there are a lot of plant swaps and seed exchanges that happen. 

Because my space is small I try to take advantage of growing vertically and using different-sized plants — like dwarf tomatoes — and just growing on the veranda balcony.”

Mary Vo's front yard food garden in Toronto. Photo by Ramona Leitao
Having a garden in the front yard is  “a great way to meet the neighbours,” Vo says. “They’re interested in what’s happening.”

“I’d say be more prepared for what may come. Sometimes I don’t do certain gardening tasks because I think ‘Oh yes, it’s fine, it looks okay.’ The next day the plant is like flopped over because there was a big gust of wind and my tomato snapped in two.”

Mary Vo's front yard food garden in Toronto. Photo by Ramona Leitao

“I’ve been to the grocery store lately, and it’s almost horrific in terms of the prices. I was shocked because I’m so used to shopping in my garden. It’s concerning what the cost of, like, a head of lettuce is nowadays.

I do think gardening is this sort of an investment upfront. You’re investing in, you know, your soil, your potting bags, your containers. But yeah, the investment pays over time. 

My husband does some of the labour. And my kids help up with the harvesting. They’ll tend to specific containers that are theirs, and help take out what they want to grow. Every year, we go through these seed catalogues and they’ll point to something that they like and want to try. I want them to feel a part of this. I want them to experience the joy of learning and carry that on later.” 

Mary Vo in her front yard food garden in Toronto. Photo by Ramona Leitao

Berries on the balcony: Sam Pramanik

Having lived in multiple homes and apartments in Toronto, Sam Pramanik knows what it’s like to garden in small spaces. She currently resides in the Dufferin Grove neighbourhood with her partner. 

“I grew up watching my parents garden a lot, especially my mom. As a kid, I didn’t really care. But I think always being surrounded by it subconsciously made an impact on me.  

When I moved back to Toronto after school, my first apartment had this tiny little balcony. I thought I might try growing some herbs because I cook a lot. So I just grew really basic stuff like basil and cilantro. I was pretty shocked at how much I enjoyed it.”

“It was low maintenance. It was like literally two bins. I’d just water every day but it was so satisfying to see them grow and to be able to actually cook with them and eat them. 

Now I’m here. I have quite a few different plants in a small space but it’s really fun. It feels very nourishing for the soul to be able to come out and just clip your plants, your vegetables. It makes me feel connected with the physical earth — obviously, I’m not planting in the ground, but there’s something very nourishing. Just watching something grow simply by watering it and giving it light. I think it’s really cool. I’m also super hands-on so anything crafty or like gardening where I can shut my brain off and just do manual labour is something I really enjoy. So this is very conducive to that.”

Sam Pramanik's balcony food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Sam Pramanik's balcony food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Sam Pramanik's balcony food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

“When you’re not growing in the ground, you’re kind of limited to what you can grow. So there’s that. I also chose the things that I knew I would want to eat. That’s why I have a bunch of herbs because I’ll use those every day. Tomatoes are my favourite vegetable and they’re really easy to grow in these small pots. And then my partner and I both really love spicy food, so we grow peppers.” 

“To anyone who has a small space and wants to start growing their own food, I would say, just pick one or two things to start with. Experiment and figure out what you can do.”

Sam Pramanik's balcony food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Friends growing food: Steve Perrotta and Marleigh Fox

Marleigh Fox and Steve Perrotta have been friends for several years but Marleigh just moved into the house Steve has rented in the Dovercourt Village neighbourhood for five years. This is their first time gardening together.

Perrotta: “I don’t know how I got into gardening, really. It was probably a combination of boredom and seeing my family do it. My nonna grew tomatoes and we’d make tomato sauce every September. The first summer I moved here it got me thinking, ‘why don’t I try that in our big backyard? We have the space.’ Now I’ve been gardening for five years.”

Steve Perrotta in his backyard food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Perrotta: “I would recommend looking up stuff on YouTube. The info’s out there. Learn from the pros. I’m not really a pro yet but I try to learn from the pros.”

Fox: “I moved in five months ago and joined that journey. It’s impossible to find this kind of space in the city, if you’re a renter at least.

I’m a first-time gardener so I started with herbs. I feel like most people who garden start out with chives and basil. I was also exposed to my dad who has a really green thumb. He grows squash and really exotic plants that I would never think of, like pineapple. I also feel like during the pandemic everyone’s plant obsession kind of exploded.”

Marleigh Fox in her backyard food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Fox: “If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s how to water the plants. So water more at the very beginning, when they’re seedlings. I feel like that was our first mistake. We weren’t watering as often as we should have.”

Marleigh Fox and Steve Perrotta in their backyard food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Fox tends to kale in her backyard.

Perrotta: “And every summer I have like a lull where I just forget about the garden or my mind just doesn’t compute and I forget to water it. You also need to upkeep it because it’s more than just watering. You need to make sure it’s not super overgrown. You have to have something to hold the plants up properly. So it’s a lot of work if you want to get it to flourish.” 

Fox: “Sometimes we’ll be working and we’re like ‘Do you want to go outside and see the garden?’ Just as a work break sometimes. It’s cute. When we have our off weeks, we kind of like, pick up for each other. If I’m away for a weekend, Steve will water and if Steve’s away for a weekend, I’ll water. I feel like it’s easier because we have two of us.”

Marleigh Fox and Steve Perrotta in their backyard food garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

A chef in the community: Su Jin Won

Su Jin Won is the co-founder and chef behind SuLee, a Korean restaurant and company known for its customizable kimchi and homestyle comfort food in Toronto. The restaurant is at Dundas Street West and Bathurst Street, steps away from Won’s community plot garden at the Scadding Court Community Centre.

“I decided to try out gardening here for the first time. You just buy the $10 membership here, and you can use all the facilities — everything — to garden. You only pay $1.50 for seedlings.”

“At first, I asked myself ‘What did I do?’ But it changed my life, I’ve got to tell you. It changed my life in every way. I was stressed before but gardening takes all the stress out. It’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made. You don’t think of anything but the plants. I never knew I could accomplish something like this, especially with how busy I am at the restaurant. But it’s a strategy. You need to figure out when to water the plants, how much you should water them, how to support your plants with sticks or wood and so on.”

Chef Su Jin Lee at her plot at the Scadding Court Community Centre garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Won did not expect her plants, like this cucumber vine, to flourish as well as they did.

“Every day is different. For example, one cucumber will be super small but then all of a sudden tomorrow you come back to the garden and it’s more than twice the size. I like to make pickled cucumbers with them, as well as pickled zucchini and pickled kale with my other crops. I’ll also try to use leek and chives for garnishing customers’ food.”

Chef Su Jin Won at her plot at the Scadding Court Community Centre garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal
Pickles made from vegetables Won grew in her garden plot.

My mom [who died in 2018] loved plants. She had so many plants at home. I had always seen her take care of them. And then when I was young, I’d ask, ‘Why do you bother?’ But then she’d say ‘I just wanted to live in a place that has gardening’ and now I’m feeling the same. I just never knew. I never knew I would follow that step, but it just happened naturally. 

And now I talk to my mom here every day. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, butterflies. That’s my mom. My mom’s here.’

Chef Su Jin Lee at her plot at the Scadding Court Community Centre garden in Toronto. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Updated on Aug. 27, 2022, at 10:10 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct the name of Su Jin Won, who was earlier misidentified as Su Jin Lee.

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