From left, Mary Lu Merritt and Marion Tompkins say they helped organize a herb garden at their Eau Claire condo in an effort to create a better sense of community and to 'get their hands dirty.' Photo by Michelle Hofer/For CREB®Now

Planting roots

Condo herb garden project sparks sense of community

If you want to know what’s going on in your neighborhood, just lean over the fence and ask what’s growing in the garden.

That’s a British saying that’s as true in a Kent country cottage as it is in a downtown Calgary condo.

But how do you find the space?

For Marion Tompkins, retired and living in an Eau Claire apartment tower, it meant re-imagining some under-utilized space right under her nose into a communal herb garden.

“I love the excitement of being right in the hub, and I have great friends in the building, but there had been some turnover, and I was feeling like I had lost something. I missed the feel of community,” she said.

Tompkins started by recruiting like-minded residents at every turn: condo board meetings, in the hallway, the elevator and at the recycling bin. It wasn’t long before the newly formed gardening committee of four was convened, and the hunt for soil was on.

Mary Lu Merritt, newly downsized from a home in McKenzie Towne, admits that, beyond pansies, she didn’t have a clue about gardening prior to the project, but couldn’t wait to get her hands dirty.

“It’s a bonding exercise,” she said. “I’m a social person, and I think it’s important to forge new relationships. It’s not even about the gardening. This is a way to connect.”

A seasoned gardener from her Rosedale days, it wasn’t long before Tompkins and her crew were eyeing a 10th-floor 800-square-foot communal patio – part blazing hot sun, part shade, and with the added bonus of a half dozen massive concrete planters already on deck, and a water outlet to boot.

The four-by-four planters were immoveable and over-grown with a Karl Foerster ornamental grass that likely looked good from neighboring buildings, but wasn’t functional or appealing to the people who actually lived there.

Dense and root-bound, a sharp shovel couldn’t penetrate the grass, and so enjoined the men, saws in hand and wheelbarrows at the ready, who gingerly hauled these matted lumps for replanting elsewhere.

Next came the negotiation of what to plant. Already late in the season to be starting anything exotic, the talk turned to dinner club days of yore, and how to engage this adult crowd in a way that might gently force socialization (a soft poke of the gardening glove).

A small budget from the condo association of under $200 and a field trip to a few of Calgary’s extensive nurseries netted nearly mature basil, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme and chives – everything needed to make a cassoulet, pesto, or salad du jour (hmmmm….all good potluck choices). Radishes, spinach, and gourmet lettuces were also started from seed, and there may yet be a crop or two this season.

Wanting to keep the momentum going, a notice that the herb garden was open for snipping went out with a cautionary “share well with others” message.

But there was no need. Slowly but surely, residents looking for “bouquet garni” ingredients began participating in the fresh forage, noted Tompkins.

While she admits it’s not exactly a 100-mile diet, the garden has shown there may be something about growing your own food that’s hard to resist – even if it’s just the single chive in the egg-white omelette that appeals to some hunter-gatherer instinct.

What’s next for the garden? Maybe a potager design? A Meyer lemon or bay leaf tree in the middle of the planters, surrounded by heirloom tomatoes? Cocktail parties? Salsa lessons? A pizza oven?

With the large space and the morning sun, Tompkins said they decided there was enough interest in a weekly yoga group.

Also, with chairs and tables already on the deck, the group planned to start beaming movies against the side of the building. The first film on the docket? 100 Mile Journey (a tale of fresh food and friendship).

Now that, agrees Tompkins and Merritt, is community.

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