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Parking Lot Garden

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By Malcolm Jolley

It is as though they are deliberately trying to discredit Joni Mitchell: a paradise on a paved parking lot. "They" are big mayonnaise, or rather Hellmann's, who are trying to position their product as a part of a healthy eating, fresh vegetable kind of diet (the tagline is "Eat For Real") and (the anachronisation of Ms. Mitchell aside) they're doing a pretty good job.

This summer Hellmann's Canada ran a draw, the winners of which won a garden plot in a downtown city location (Vancouver, Montréal and Halifax had gardens). In Toronto, the garden is tucked into a corner of a parking lot at Bay and Gerrard and it's the only swath of green for blocks around. Tanzeel Merchant, a 33 year old condo-dweller, saw an ad, submitted his name and soon found himself with a patch on the northeast corner of the garden surrounded by 11 of the same size. He was given a bunch of seeds and seedling and something to do on his lunch break. He couldn't be more pleased.

It turns out Tanzeel has never gardened before and entered the draw on a bit of a whim. He lives a few city blocks north in a condo wit no balcony, and works in an office nearby. What's more he's never gardened before in his life. Friends have helped him and he soon found he loved getting his hands dirty. Soon he was harvesting organic tomatoes, squash, eggplant, onions, peas, broccoli.

The greatest challenge to parking lot gardening, Tanzeel tells me, is heat. The few inches of soil over the asphalt mean that water evaporates easily. The garden is being watered by rain water caught in a bucket with a hose. Still, he's been producing steadily since July and the veggies looks deliscious. So good, in fact, that the nearby Shwarma shop asked to buy his crop. Naturally he refused: he enjoys eating his produce to much. In particular, Tanzeel waxes poetic on tasting his chard for the first time: "Not at all bitter, like what you find in the stores." Nothing comes close to the just-picked flavour.

The garden is enclosed by a fence of only three or so feet high, so I ask if there's been any trouble with theft. A little girl in the program lost a few cucumbers, I am told, but she was consoled when the other gardeners gave her some of theirs. Generally though, the passing public have only been supportive. Tanzeel tells me he often interrupted in his work as strangers stop by to give advice.

It's a bit of a chore to pick the garbage out of the plot, but other than that if you stare at the rows of green, this garden could be just as easily down on the farm as anywhere else. As if I needed any more evidence of how much nicer a garden is over a place to park a car, Tanzeel points to a butterfly. "Look at that," he says, "have you ever seen bugs downtown?". The insect life is flourishing along with the greens. When it's time to leave, Tanzeel hands me a plumb firetruck red tomato and I think all is well at Bay and Gerrard.


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