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Guerrilla vegetables 

David McLearn has spiced up Halifax public spaces while providing hundreds of locally grown meals to those in need.

click to enlarge MEGAN FILDES
In an age of self-made screen-addicted pundits, in which the winner is the one most heard/followed/friended, David McLearn is a rare breed. He doesn't have an email account. He doesn't self-promote. He doesn't talk much. And he's pretty soft-spoken when he does.

But, his laughter could fill any space, even the wide outdoors where he spends most of his working life. He does his job playfully, with unfettered joy.

McLearn does have a cell phone; his gardening role with the city requires it. He calls me back from Conrose Field at the western tip of Jubilee Road, where he is harvesting beets. "I guess it officially started about five years ago," he says, "when we renovated a bed of old perennials and replaced them with edible flowers and vegetables, with the tall ones in the centre, leeks on the side with beets, Swiss chard, Portuguese kale."

He's referring to Halifax's use of herbs and vegetables in public gardens, spaces once reserved for the strictly ornate. But unofficially, it started a little earlier. True to his nature, McLearn didn't tell anyone he was planning to put vegetables in city gardens. He just did it.

He had been on the job nearly two decades and figured it would be fun to spice things up, try something different. "I bought the seeds with my HRM credit card. I got permission once they found out."

It took a while for anyone to notice the oddities. As Halifax writer Elizabeth Peirce put it, poetically, in her book, Grow Organic: "Cornstalks were flanked by cheerful yellow marigolds and Scarlet Runner beans climbed the chain-link fence, their bright red blossoms drawing the bees. A zucchini flower peeked out between the snapdragons on a side hill."

Under McLearn's skilled hand, everything blended together beautifully. "It looks like a flower bed," he says, "with a lot of colour; everything is pretty. The beets are quite showy."

click to enlarge MEGAN FILDES

In recent years, McLearn has planted two vegetable beds at Conrose, two at St. Mary's garden, two off the Bicentennial Highway, one at Cowie Hill, two at Saunders Park and one at the Public Gardens. And a little kale in Parade Square. Some of the beds are strictly vegetable and others are mix of vegetable and flowers.

The veggies go to Hope Cottage, which doesn't normally accept fresh produce but made an exception with so much available, easily and predictably. "They love it," McLearn says. "They open at nine so I harvest at eight and get it to them when they open." Last year the city donated 265 grocery bags.

By the time his bosses knew what McLearn was doing, the vegetables were well-established, and he says he's never received any flak about it. If anything, with the growing popularity of local food and community gardens, McLearn's experiment contributes to the city's stated goal of improving its food self-sufficiency, and has proven a hit with the general public. "We have an open house every May and we give away vegetable and herb plants. They go pretty quickly."

Bev MacPhail, of the city's parks and open spaces department, says that staff fondly call McLearn their "own little guerrilla gardener." That guerrilla was officially recognized two years ago with a Halifax Regional Municipality director's award and a chief administrative officer award.

After years of herb and vegetable cultivation, McLearn says the food is less work than the flowers. "I find it easier to weed," he says, "and they attract more beneficial insects." That makes for a stronger, healthier garden system.

Still, he's got his hands full and has no plans to expand. There's plenty to keep him busy until he retires. He's just glad that, much as he loves the work, he doesn't have to take it home, where he's not much of a gardener at all.

But he continues to experiment here and there. "I'm always trying out new varieties," he says. "It depends on city budget."

And, while he's generally careful to cultivate only vegetables that can handle Halifax's ridiculous precipitation, he says, "I'm not immune to sticking a tomato in here or there and see what happens." And once again that great laugh echoes across Conrose Field and over the Northwest Arm.


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