When darkness falls upon the city of Montreal one might assume that it’s the mischievous raccoons who rule the night. But at a warehouse just outside the city, a less obvious critter is causing the trouble.
A family of groundhogs has hit the proverbial jackpot by setting up camp at the Sun Youth Community Garden. Veggies most commonly at risk include cucumbers and zucchinis. Luckily these bandits don’t seem to care for tomatoes or peppers.
Yes these whistlehogs have even managed to evade the city’s animal control unit whose official position on the matter continues to be, “Well, we can’t just displace them”.
No, of course not. Wouldn’t want to inconvenience the groundhogs.
“In our first year, the groundhogs ate all of our cucumbers, so we joked that we’d just fed our first family,” Ann St Arnaud tells me with a laugh. “This year we bought fencing to try and protect the garden beds, but the baby groundhogs got through the holes.”
Ann is the Assistant Director of Emergency Services and Communications at Sun Youth, a charitable non-profit organization that has been supporting families in the Greater Montreal area for over 60 years.
Sun Youth was founded in 1954 by a group of children who identified a lack of activities for kids in their neighborhood. Taking it upon themselves to solve this problem, they created a handwritten newspaper called The Clark Street Sun, which reflected the everyday life of these inner-city children. Only two copies of the paper were ever produced (the original and a carbon copy). So instead of being sold, the paper was loaned to the kids’ parents for two cents.
“I think that their parents may have given them the money just to get them out of their hair!” jokes Ann.
Well, it worked! The profits allowed the kids to purchase sports equipment and grow the organization. Today, Sun Youth has 67 employees, 1,500 volunteers and 30 different community programs, including sports activities, a used-clothing bank, emergency services, crime prevention programs and one of the largest food banks in Montreal.
Over the last few years, Ann and the Sun Youth team began trying to incorporate more fresh products into the food bank. From there, the idea for a community garden grew.
“We always wanted a garden but didn’t have the means to do it,” said Ann. “Once we identified the need, Foresters said yes right away. We had just acquired a piece of land by the warehouse so now we had the space, and then Foresters provided the materials, the plants and the volunteers.”
Last year, the garden yielded 200 pounds of fresh produce. Now in its second year, the Sun Youth team has already harvested 225 pounds of food – and counting!
Because of the garden, the Sun Youth food bank is now able to offer families fresh food that they often wouldn’t be able to afford. “A recipient told me it had been so long since they’d seen a real piece of fruit that they almost didn’t recognize it,” said Ann. “This just shows you how difficult it can be for our families to make ends meet. Food is the first place in their budget that they cut.”
Now in its second season, Ann and the team have already begun to expand the garden. This spring, Foresters volunteers returned to help install an irrigation system that’s rigged to a timer, giving volunteers a break from watering duty on the weekends.
In addition, the Sun Youth team also began experimenting with some creative planting techniques to address the thievery.
“We planted a strawberry tower and even tried growing salad on top of raised palettes,” said Ann. “Basically, everything that the groundhogs like to eat we try to plant high off of the ground. We’re going to outsmart them! They’re not climbers…right?”
I’m sorry to tell you Ann, but I looked it up and it turns out they can climb!
While the garden has been hugely impactful, it’s just the beginning. The garden is part of a much larger plan, which Ann details with excitement. “We want to go beyond the food bank and create a community kitchen where people can gather, learn and cook food together.”
And it doesn’t end there. Ann and the Sun Youth team have some innovative ideas for how they can continue to make positive change and support their community. Their next big dream is to plant a second garden on the roof of the Sun Youth building itself.
“The rooftops in the community are flat, so there’s an opportunity to help solve food shortage problems,” Ann explains. Plus, it’s unlikely that the groundhogs can climb that high!
“We’ll keep adding to the garden and making it better,” says Ann. “For us, this is just the beginning and we hope Foresters feels the same!”
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