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Odessa garden supports Kingston’s vulnerable community

The stories we tell as we till the land are stories that we will carry with us always”

Sophie Kiwala at the Jalal Community Charity Garden in Odessa with volunteers Felix Akol and son Chris. Photo via Sophie Kiwala.

A little patch of land in Odessa — transformed into Jalal Community Charity Garden — has touched the lives of so many people.

The property owner, the organizers, the volunteers and the recipients of the fresh vegetables grown within the garden have all been enriched by the experience of gardening with a purpose.

All produce grown in the 100 x 50 foot garden goes directly to local emergency food service providers in Kingston, such as Lionhearts Inc., Martha’s Table, Lunch by George, and St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Sophie Kiwala, Kingston and the Islands MPP from 2014 to 2018, said that the seed of the idea was planted back in 2019, when a friend of hers who owns the land in Odessa challenged her to start a garden.

“I was too busy at the time… and the land needed a lot of remediation,” Kiwala said.

When the pandemic hit, she decided she had to do it. “I knew that it would be a very challenging time. Food distribution systems would be basically strangled because of (lack of) access through the US (borders),” she said.

Kiwala explained that having been a politician in the past gave her the contacts she needed. With her contacts in place, and with generous federal funding grant under her belt, she started the groundwork for the plot of land.

The land is owned by a couple from Pakistan, Salaluddin and Ulfat Jalaluddin. Kiwala disclosed that the couple wanted nothing in return, but a chance to feed the homeless and vulnerable.

“This was a great way for them to be able to give back by providing the land. All he needed to do was to find somebody who knew how to garden,” Kiwala explained.

An avid gardener all her life, Kiwala admitted that her involvement was “a good fit.”

If you build it, they will come

Kiwala’s first impression of the garden site wasn’t a very good one.

“There was no way that anything would grow in that land at the time,” she said.

Her Facebook post read: “I surveyed the land, and was immediately concerned. The elevation of the garden was lower than the road that bordered it by about five feet or so, and the land was covered in weeds and scrub hay”.

In the spring of 2020, she also faced additional challenges as there were no seeds available at the stores.

“By the time we prepared the land, the seeds were almost all sold out,” Kiwala said.

When she put out the call for help, people responded. Loving Spoonful, an organization providing programs pertaining to food security, provided seeds.

Seeds donated by Loving Spoonfuls. Photo: Sophie Kiwala

“I knew as soon as I got the donation of seeds that we would be able to figure out a way to make this garden work,” Kiwala admitted.

Then came a donation of soil — 100 per cent organic mushroom compost — from Pyke Farms (now Marshalls Garden Centre). Tomlinson Organics also donated soil.

“We built the sand base underneath, kept building it up. We managed to grow a significant amount last year,” Kiwala said.

This year, volunteers helped augment the soil with more organic compost. They also built a 12 inch-by-12 inch drainage ditch all the way around the garden because torrential downfall became problematic.

Future plans for the community charity garden include adding a greenhouse for starter plants, putting up signage by the barn detailing how the garden came about, as well as acknowledging donors and volunteers with name plates.

“It’s been a wonderful collaboration from people who have come from far and wide,” Kiwala said.

“When everybody is focused on trying to make sure that we make a community where people are not hungry… when that is your modus operandi, everything else falls into place,” she said.

Gardening Lessons

As with any new project, the first year tilling the community plot was a steep learning curve for everyone involved.

“We learned from last year what works best,” Kiwala said.

Growing corn wasn’t ideal, as it required too much water and space, and the quality of the corn was poor. Certain varieties of lettuce they grew became “wrinkly” and would hold a lot of dirt — which in turn, made volunteers who prepared hundreds of meals work even harder. Beets were labour-intensive to clean.

This year, Kiwala said that they will plant salad ingredients that don’t require a lot of upkeep: romaine lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and carrots.

“This year we’re ahead of the game,” she said.

Bountiful Harvest

Kathy Mourtos donated her first batch of tomato seedlings.
Photo: Sophie Kiwala

Kiwala shared the story of Kathy Mourtos, a fellow Rotarian who volunteered last year, who has never done gardening before.

“She (just) delivered a beautiful tray of about 18 tomato plants that she had grown from seeds. She was so thrilled! That donation was enough to fill one whole section,” said Kiwala.

Volunteers have certainly helped the project become a success, with whole families showing up to help.

“We’ve had children who came out with their families. I’ll never forget the expression on their faces as they plant the seeds,” Kiwala said.

“How wonderful it is to plant a seed in the ground, which will grow into a plant, which will feed people who can’t afford to feed themselves,” she added.

Call for help

There is an immediate need right now for more pepper plants — Kiwala said they’re looking for red, green, yellow, orange pepper seedlings. Any pre-grown cucumbers or zucchini would also be helpful.

Most of all, they are hoping that more volunteers will help out, especially in the next two weeks, as they start planting seedlings.

“We usually require three to four hours a day (per volunteer), from 3 p.m. until 7-8 p.m. People can water and weed,” Kiwala explained.

“The stories we tell as we till the land are stories that we will carry with us always.”

To volunteer, email Kiwala at [email protected]. For more information, visit the Jalal Community Charity Garden Facebook page.

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