Secret Gardens
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Secret Gardens

Leslie Street Allotment Gardens
Located in the shadow of the Ashbridges Bay wastewater treatment plant lies a decrepit, listing chain-link fence along the foot of Leslie Street. The entire area is industrial and isn’t too pretty to look at, but behind the rusted gates of the ramshackle barrier lie 240 little squares of bright green, with splashes of purple, red and yellow.
The Leslie Street Allotment Gardens are one of 20 municipally-run public facilities, which apparently total more than 2,000 individual plots citywide. It is here in Toronto’s secret gardens where apartment dwellers and health foodies can grow their own vegetables, plant wildflowers, or just spend a silent, zen-like day with their fingers in the dirt. So, why doesn’t the City want to talk about them?

Operated by Toronto’s Parks & Recreation department, the allotment gardens are doled-out for $53.50 per year to a waiting list of residents, which begins anew each year on February 1. Once one lands a choice plot, the fee has to be renewed each year and the “leasee” gets the right to first refusal annually. The City operates allotment gardens in High Park, West Deane, York Gardens, and the Silverthorn hydro land, among other locations.
It’s a somewhat strange sight to see these quirky little gardens at the edge of a waste treatment facility, but even weirder is that these wonderful little green beds never appear on the public radar. The City of Toronto website makes nary a mention, and there aren’t any brochures or publicity available at City Hall. With the Mayor’s focus these days on increased environmental responsibility, it seems to us like the City should be actively promoting and converting space for new allotment gardens. In comparison, the City of Montreal operates almost 6,700 allotment plots.
Still, most Torontonians don’t even know they exist. Perhaps the lack of attention is due to age—the High Park and Leslie Street allotments date back to the early 1970s. Since the allocated land for municipal allotment gardens is also tucked-away on hydro tracts or leftover city property, they’re perhaps also out of sight, out of mind.
We spoke with some allotment garden growers this week in the Leslie Street location about what’s so special about these places. One gardener told us how it’s a way for people who live in condos and apartments to be able to grow what they eat, know it’s healthy and give away any remainders to others. Others noted the therapeutic effect of tending flowers and vegetables.
An allotment garden shouldn’t be confused with a community garden. Community gardens are on private land, and are usually opened up by the owners to be shared. Community gardens often have Boards or organizational committes who make co-operative decisions. Also, community garden members have to maintain the garden throughout the year and supply their own materials, whereas allotment gardens have topsoil, fencing and water provided by the City. Foodshare has some further information on community gardening and how to start one.
The Leslie Street garden [Google Maps] is one of the first allotment gardens in Toronto, established by Beach(es) residents who also got the Leslie Spit opened to the public on holidays and weekends. The only greenhouse allotment garden is operated out of Riverlea Park near Dundas West and St. Clair, with 145 indoor plots.
Toronto is in the beginnings of an increased public awareness on our environmental issues, and the Mayor hopes that we can become an eco-example to other cities of similar size, even though places like Chicago have not only caught up with us, but have surpassed us with more effective environmental initiatives and eco-development. Despite the greater issues, we can take a moment to enjoy these little garden plots for the weird and charming spaces they are—rickety lawn chairs, mismatched fencing, a cast of offbeat characters and hand-nurtured food that didn’t come wrapped in plastic.
Photos by Marc Lostracco