The Peterborough Community Medicine Garden: Rediscovering The Commonweal

Musings From A Conversation With Kelly McDowell

KELLY MCDOWELL AND PATRICIA REMY – On the crest of a low hill on the northeast side of the East Bank of the Otonabee, at Trent University, I meet Kelly McDowell. She and another woman are at work in a garden, which looks to me at first glance like an assemblage of different plots. I don’t see the usual rows of vegetables. The other gardener, Kelly tells me, is Emma, the coordinator of the Trent Vegetable Gardens (TVG.) The TVG is dedicated to providing local, organic and affordable fresh vegetables. It supplies Trent’s Seasoned Spoon Cafe. The “produce” (that is the usual and my spontaneous choice of word) from the garden plots she cares for is crafted into the cuisine served there.

“Produce”: what an odd designation, I then think to myself. Is this any way to refer to the seeds, flowers, fruits, and nuts with which the garden plants gift us? How would I like it if the sum of my labours was referred to as ”produce.” Doesn’t produce sound more like something coming off an assembly line?

Kelly explains the layout. The Trent Vegetable Gardens hosts growing space for Trent students, faculty, community members and staff with special attention to their diverse cultural backgrounds. The BIPOC gardeners grow food plants they know from home. There are, for instance, various types of peppers, tomatoes, okra, bok choi, and Thai basil on their plots.

The site on the hill is also the location of The Community Medicine Garden, also there for community members, Trent students, faculty, and their neighbours. Again, all who tend the plants may partake of the harvest.

The Peterborough Community Medicine Gardens at Trent is a counterpart to the medicinal herb garden also hosted at the historic Hutchison House on Brock St, in the city. The medicine garden on the hill at Trent evolved from a plot at the Mount, begun by several herbalists in town. It moved to Hutchison House and became its medicine garden. At Hutchison House, most of the herbs are medicinal plants brought and grown by Settlers. The venture developed further, one part of it moving to the Trent site, which is dedicated to the medicinal plants known to the indigenous residents of Turtle Island.

In addition to cultivating medicinal herbs for consumption, the stewards of the Peterborough Community Medicine Garden cooperate not only with the Trent Vegetable Garden, but also connect with the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre. They cooperate with TRACKS (Trent Aboriginal Culture Knowledge and Science) and the Indigenous Environmental Studies Programme.

The efforts of the Peterborough Community Medicine Garden have been recognized: it has received support in the form of an operating grant from the United Plant Savers in the USA.
With another smaller grant from the United Plant Savers, the Community Medicine Garden will be building a sanctuary for medicinal plants which are at-risk. The beauty of this project is that it will not only be bringing back at-risk medicines for generations to come, but will educate stewards and build access which would otherwise be unavailable.

Back to “produce.” The medicine garden does not “generate produce.” The Gardeners strive to work with the soil and the plants in a relationship of mutuality. I struggle to find words to describe adequately their aspirations, attitude, orientation, and behaviour in relation to the garden. Gardening becomes a contemplative practice, a bodily expression of spirituality: hoeing and raking, together, with simple, non-invasive hand tools, experiencing the miracle of growth, how from the soil, with water, light, and air, plants gift us with sustenance.

Engaging with the earth and what grows in it is in-and-of-itself a healing activity. It can sometimes even assuage climate grief, lead us to venture a communal, non-exploitive way of being, encourage us to become gentle survivalists. The garden becomes a sanctuary where such intuitions may bud and hopes for a non-destructive way of relating to one another and the Earth flourish.

The Gardeners invite you to medicine walks.

Information is available on their Facebook page: PTBO Community Medicine Garden. https://www.facebook.com/ptbocommunitymedicinegarden

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