Article by Lisa Hall, Home Suite Hope Volunteer Reporter
Many of the customers of Upper Oakville Shopping Centre may be surprised to know that tucked in behind the north-west part of the complex, lies a 5,000 square-foot garden known as Blueberry Fields.
Blueberry Fields is no ordinary garden. Indeed, it’s a labour of love of its main caretaker Ken Stockstill, an urban gardener and the centre’s longtime superintendent since 2004.
“Blueberry Fields is a community garden and 100 per cent of what we grow – vegetables, fruits and herbs – is donated to charity,” explains Stockstill.
In 2015 the owners of Upper Oakville Shopping Centre (UOSC) approached UOSC property manager Megan Richardson and Stockstill, wanting to create something from the vacant lot behind the centre. Richardson and Stockstill saw an opportunity to do something special – to give back to those in need in the surrounding community – an idea the owners wholeheartedly supported.
That fall, Stockstill planted 60 blueberry shrubs on the hill leading to the vacant lot, then set to work on his vision – modelling the design of the garden like a horse farm because it’s attractive, family friendly and he and Richardson wanted the garden to be inviting to guests.
Stockstill chose the name inspired by the blueberry shrubs. Figuring he couldn’t choose “Blueberry Hill” because it’s a song, and same with “Strawberry Fields”, he landed on “Blueberry Fields” as a combination of the two and created the sign by repurposing one from an old tenant.
Next, they needed to find an organization to be the main beneficiary of the garden and they came across Home Suite Hope – an Oakville-based charity that does transformative work to end the cycle of poverty in Halton and surrounding communities by providing vital programs and services to support single-parent families.
“We thought Home Suite Hope (HSH) was a great match for Blueberry Fields,” said Richardson. “We were very impressed by the charity and how it offers families in need a whole package of support, including nutritional guidance, to really help them turn their lives around. We welcomed the chance to partner with Home Suite Hope to help provide their program participants – local families – with healthy eating options.”
HSH CEO Michelle Pommells said she’s delighted that Upper Oakville Shopping Centre chose to partner with HSH. “Blueberry Fields is a truly original concept. With the dramatic rise in food prices, having access to the garden’s healthy produce has made a real difference to our families’ wallets, not to mention their nutrition and health.”
“A lot of low-income families need to rely on food banks and out of necessity, a lot of that food comes from a can,” said Stockstill. “What we’re providing as a complement to that is fresh vegetables and fruit.”
Stockstill, who grew up in California and has a background in agriculture, explains that the goal of the garden isn’t just about providing the food, it’s also about educating people and children in particular, about where the food comes from.
“Most people have no idea about the work that goes into getting the food to your table.”
The ground breaking for Blueberry Fields took place on May 14, 2016. The first major planting was a few weeks later, in 2,000 square feet of growing space – 20 beds of 100 square feet each, with 60 yards of triple mix brought in wheel barrel by wheel barrel and 70 yards of mulch donated by A-Star Tree Experts.
Blueberry Fields became a true community project supported by an incredible group of volunteers – both from the surrounding neighborhood, and local companies, such as Genworth Canada – Homeownership, First Canadian Title, Hewlett Packard and Canadian Tire Financial Services and organizations, including Home Suite Hope.
56 student volunteers from Iroquois Ridge – the nearby high school, were responsible for the heavy lifting of the first year – the really important work to set the foundation.
While Stockstill looks after the daily maintenance, supported by Richardson, volunteers are required to keep the garden going – everything from weeding, to harvesting, distribution and other logistics.
The garden, which is completely organic, was an incredible success in its first year, with yields far exceeding expectations. Despite the unprecedented amount of rain in the summer, 2017 was even more successful resulting in the following being donated to local families in need:
- Over 100 kg. of potatoes
- Over 50 kg. of zucchini
- Over 12 dozen ears of corn
- 2 dozen heads of broccoli
- Bushels of Brussel sprouts
- 3 dozen eggplants
- And lots of kale, tomatoes, mixed lettuce, beets, herbs and berries
“In choosing what to plant, the basic concept is anything that can go into a stew, such as carrots, onions potatoes and beets,” said Stockstill.
“Potatoes really are the foundation – then we build around them. They are the most economical, are easy to grow and have the biggest yield. Plus, there are so many ways to prepare them. We also try to do companion planting – maximizing the space in the bed, and planting crops that grow well alongside each other, such as beans. Beans are great because they put nitrogen back into the soil, where most crops deplete it.”
When asked what the plan for Blueberry Fields is for 2018, Stockstill says he’d like to see the education piece expanded – including more emphasis on teaching people about the work behind growing the food and helping families understand how to cook the produce properly and to make it stretch the furthest.
He’s putting out the call for volunteers for 2018 now, to help with all aspects – especially bed preparation, planting and weeding – and he would particularly welcome seasoned gardeners who could help educate others.
He’d also love to see other communities follow Blueberry Fields’ example and has already been contacted by someone in Newmarket wanting to set something up in his community.
“We all know the price of food isn’t going to go down,” he said. “If a program like this is needed in Oakville, it’s needed everywhere.”
Home Suite Hope
Home Suite Hope helps low income single-parent families who are homeless or precariously housed in Halton go from crisis to stability, through long-term affordable housing, skills development and education. For more information visit www.homesuitehope.org.
Upper Oakville Shopping Centre
The Upper Oakville Shopping Centre first opened its doors in 1986, and has been an intricate part of the Iroquois Ridge North Community ever since. Tucked away at the corner of Upper Middle Road and Eighth Line in Oakville, UOSC has been a neighbourhood go-to place that provides a one-stop service oriented shopping centre for families to find everything they need for their daily lives including a variety of restaurant and food choices. For more information contact the management office at 905-849-4722.