I love gardening, but I have to admit that I haven’t always been very good at it. Growing up, I watched as my grandmothers planted flowers every year and tended to them lovingly. As a child, I visited many farms belonging to close friends or family, in order to help out and watch their tasty veggies grow. But then I would head back to my little basement city apartment where just my mother and I lived. We would then grab a can of something or some store-bought veggies from the fridge for dinner. I never really put two and two together on where any my food came from or on the importance of what you put into your body. I wanted to learn, but never knew where to start.
That’s where my friend Heather comes in. First off, she’s an amazing nutritionist, but she also knows a whole heck of a lot about gardening and growing her own food. She grew up learning from her family, but has also taken the time to learn on her own, in order to cultivate special spaces to grow and nurture her love for fresh, local and organic produce. Alongside our lovely friend Taylor, who is also a freakin’ incredible nutritionist, these wonderful humans started something called By Nature, which gives back to the local community in Toronto by running educational and mindful workshops and events.
This year, they partnered with an organization called Building Roots, which is a social venture working collaboratively to create urban agriculture, kitchens, markets, retail and food hubs within the community. They believe that all neighbourhoods need places to grow, cook, share and buy healthy food. With “food deserts” located all over urban city centres, they’ve built a pop-up market in Moss Park in Toronto, made from a repurposed shipping container.
After meeting with local residents, they discovered their frustration with the lack of fresh and affordable food in their area. And with that, came the solution of retrofitting this storage container and setting it as a permanent place where fresh fruits and veggies could be purchased at an affordable price, with the money going back into keeping this initiative going. And where did some of this fresh food come from? Well, right down the street, grown with lots of love and support.
I watched as Heather and Taylor helped to turn a piece of land, right in the middle of busy Toronto, into a place where fruits, vegetables and herbs could grow in abundance and then be sold at this market, all while giving back to the community and keeping their food fresh and local. I was there to help on the days when they first planted the gardens. And I joined for many more days of weeding, watering, harvesting and smiling throughout the summer. I was also there on the last day of the season, when we had to pull out the remainder of the plants in order to prepare for next year. Every single part of the cycle felt just as important as the rest.
It became almost meditative for me. A release in order to rebalance and ground myself again. I poured hours of time, love and sometimes even pain, into the earth around me. All the while, being able to connect with two women who inspire me greatly. We found out through our time together, that we continually and consistently work on filling each other’s proverbial buckets – we never look to drain them. And that, folks, is the definition of true friendship.
One week in the summer, while working on the garden, I took home a bunch of fresh herbs – since they were growing so abundantly. Amongst my haul was some basil. So, I whipped up some pesto and enjoyed the fruits (or herbs, really) of our labour of love. In honour of this incredible summer, while only making a tiny impact on this initiative, I thought I would share my delicious recipe with all of you!
Roasted Walnut Basil Pesto
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed and chopped (approx 2 oz)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup garlic, minced or crushed (roughly 5-6 small cloves)
1 tbsp hemp hearts
sea salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp fresh thai basil, washed and chopped (optional)
In a pan on medium heat, toast walnuts until lightly browned. Add the walnuts, basil, garlic, hemp hearts, sea salt and pepper into a food processor or blender of choice. Add oil as you are blending, until it’s a thick yet creamy texture. I like to leave mine a bit chunky, but you can blend as much or as little as you’d like. You can add more oil if you’re looking for a creamier texture.
Serve as a dip, a spread, in salad dressings, on pizza, tossed on pasta, or on roasted veggies!
During my time working on this garden, I found out that not only are Building Roots working on shrinking the food desert, they’re constantly expanding on their ways to give back. The space has become so much more – with workshops, events, and activities running all year long. Also, with the support of the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere and the Ontario Trillium Foundation, they are working to create community cohesion in Moss Park with a series of community initiatives, including youth, children’s and cooking programming.
If you’re looking for a way to give back while learning a new skill, be sure to check out what’s in your area – because you never really know what kind of connection you’ll find until you make it.
Photos & Recipe by Catherine Sugrue