hey say that pets have become substitutes for children for many millennials, which might mean that plants have become substitutes for pets—with all the love and devotion that entails.
Victory Gardens, a Vancouver-based worker co-operative, has spent a decade transforming urban spaces into thriving gardens—slices of nature thoughtfully carved out in a city of glass skyscrapers. The co-op is named after the “victory” gardens of the World War eras, when food shortages led to a rise in community-owned food-growing initiatives across North America.
For cofounder Samantha Phillips, forming Victory Gardens in 2012 (and quitting her full-time job in the process) was the outcome of a lifetime spent with her hands in the soil. “I don’t necessarily have a farming background, but I’ve been a lifelong gardener,” says the Emily Carr graduate. “I grew up growing food with my dad. He had a huge garden, and we would grow organic vegetables together.”
Victory Gardens was established with “a food sovereignty perspective,” Phillips says. “And being able to utilize underutilized spaces for food production to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Be it on the roof of a downtown office building or the tiny patio of a one-bedroom apartment, Victory seeks to help clients craft what they deem food-focused ecological landscapes. Vegetable gardens teem with organic onions, beets, carrots, peppers, squash, or cauliflower; budding explosions of florals and the buzz of bees define their pollinator gardens, which also attract hummingbirds; and aromas of mint, lemon balm, lavender, chamomile, and rose hips envelop their herb gardens.
Victory specializes in native plants that will thrive in the acidic soil of the region—which optimizes water intake—while strategically planting perennial herbs and flowers alongside vegetables to attract pest predators. “Whenever we’re planting landscapes, we’re prioritizing plants that are beneficial for the environment or useful for humans,” says Phillips, who works with clients to tailor gardens to their needs. The co-op also works with a team of contractors on all angles of the landscaping process, from irrigation to trees.
And while they offer one-on-one or group coaching on the care and maintenance of gardens, Phillips has found that more and more customers are approaching Victory with fully formed ideas in mind and an existing knowledge of gardening. It’s a trend she attributes to the pandemic.
“Since COVID, people’s interest in gardening and transforming their spaces has become a priority,” she reflects. “Everyone’s going through stressful pandemic times and trying to figure out how to pivot, and it seems like a lot of people have turned to gardening as an answer. They can’t travel, so they’re spending time at home and investing in their yard. Or it’s an outlet for mental health: they’ve been working at home and they need something just to get them away from their desk.”
Even institutions, from offices to schools, have a piqued interest in garden spaces recently. “We’re definitely seeing more commercial and corporate gardens, as well,” says Jenna Jaski, who began volunteering with Victory in 2014 and upgraded to co-owner four years later. “We’re seeing a real shift in larger businesses that have office space transforming their roof, for instance, or the roof of a parking garage, into productive food-growing space—and then engaging their team members in a lunchtime coaching session. We also have a project at Lansdowne Centre in Richmond that is a public education and food-growing space that we manage, and the food goes to the food bank. So, it’s really engaging the community.”
These sort of locally-focused education initiatives are a core part of Victory’s mandate. Jaski is the lead facilitator of Victory’s Classroom Gardener program, a joint project with UBC curriculum and pedagogy PhD candidate Megan Zeni, which offers customized consultation on school gardening: the practise of utilizing gardens and outdoor space for teaching. “We empower teachers to take their classes outside and teach their whole B.C. curriculum in a school garden,” explains Jaski. “We grow vegetables with the students, and we provide resources and professional development sessions for teachers to teach outside.”
The initiative is supported by grant funding from UBC and the National Science and Engineering Research Council, and is focused on schools with lower socio-economic standings. “A lot of behavioural issues seem to go away in a garden, and they engage more with their classmates,” Jaski says. ”I see that a lot with gardening with kids: them being fully present.”
Victory’s sense of responsibility extends beyond gardening concerns, too: as a workers co-operative, the company operates as a social enterprise where members are co-owners and manage operations together. Alongside Jaski, Maxim Winther joined Victory as a member in 2015, after a year working for the co-op, and is now the lead carpenter and “problem-solver.” Together, Phillips, Jaski, and Winther are the core members of the co-op and work alongside each other to ensure operations are as holistic as their gardens—from small pay differentials between members and non-members to streamlined training for their staff.
Funnily enough, all three members of Victory Gardens have no formal training in farming or gardening. Passion for dirt, the earth, and the sense of calm that comes with gardening, however, are enduring commonalities among the team. “I feel like I could feel my blood pressure go down,” Jaski says. “Especially when we’re crazy busy in the spring, and we work really long hours, and it’s hot and sweaty and dirty all day, and then I go to my garden—and even though my community garden space is on a very busy traffic corner and it’s loud—I always feel like it’s quiet to me.” Creating spaces for this specific type of quiet feels like a lost form of art that Victory is re-harnessing, seedling by seedling.