Growing pains

A central-downtown parking lot is up for grabs as an urban garden, with a corporate catch. Lindsay McCarney gets the mixed reaction.

Diggin’ it Kyla Milne does her part in a local community garden.
photo Julé Malet-Veale

Generally, the name “Hellmann’s” doesn’t tend to conjure up images of urban greenery or gung-ho gardeners. It might bring to mind tasty sandwiches, but that’s about it.

That’s something the company is looking to change. In early April, Hellmann’s flooded Halifax mailboxes with packets of carrot seeds. “Your Hellmann’s urban garden is only a few months, and a few blocks, away,” the accompanying purple pamphlets declared. More specifically, our Hellmann’s urban garden is slated to bloom downtown this May, at a parking lot at 1462 Queen Street that Hellmann’s is leasing for its promotion. Rather than digging up the existing concrete, Hellmann’s plans to install an 18-by-40-feet soil-filled platform to house the garden.

Halifax gardening neophytes and experts alike are being encouraged to submit 150-word essays to the Hellmann’s website, explaining why they’d like a garden plot. The same promotion is also being run in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver, thereby ensuring that the Hellmann’s name becomes associated with good, wholesome gardening in cities across the country. About 10 local gardening enthusiasts will be chosen to tend plots in the Hellmann’s garden. The company is accepting submissions until May 9.

“Hellmann’s wants to inspire Canadians to ‘eat for real’ by providing them with the space to grow their own fresh produce,” emailed Sharon MacLeod, the brand-building director at Hellmann’s Unilever Canada Inc.

As of two weeks ago, Hellmann’s had received more than 50 essays from Halifax residents eager to start gardening. But the company’s promotion has inspired something entirely different in at least one Haligonian—anger and scepticism.

“Community gardens are for people. They’re not for multinational corporations,” says north-end resident Geoff Tanner.

When Tanner first heard about the contest he became annoyed and read more about the promotion. Then he started typing.

The result was an email that Tanner sent to about 200 email contacts and listservs. In it, Tanner encouraged people to submit fake essays to the contest, criticizing Hellmann’s parent company (international conglomerate Unilever) and protesting against the corporate co-opting of community gardens.

“A community garden, generally, is something that people work and even fight for in order to gain, and then continue to work hard or fight for, maintaining it over the years,” says Tanner.

At the moment, the Hellmann’s urban garden is scheduled to have a four-month lifespan—from mid-May until September 15. Then the plots will be taken down. “The gardeners will be able to tend to their plot all summer long without having to worry about preparing their garden for winter,” said MacLeod.

Tanner criticizes this rigidly defined window of gardening time. “Gardens are peaking in the middle of September,” he says.

“It’s not a community garden—it’s an advertising campaign.”

Asked about the potential tension of a corporate-sponsored garden, MacLeod emailed this response, “Hellmann’s hope is to make a contribution to communities. We are thrilled to be offering more gardeners the opportunity to grow their own fresh produce.”

While Hellmann’s may temporarily be providing additional garden space, the company’s plots are hardly the only community gardening opportunity available in the city.

The non-profit North End Community Gardening Association allows interested gardeners to reserve and tend plots in its community gardens for $20 (their plots are currently full but have a waiting list), and Spryfield’s Urban Farm Museum Society hosts garden-related programs and events.

The city also boasts the Seymour Green Community Organic garden, on the Dalhousie campus. Local gardener Kyla Milne has been involved with Seymour Green in the past and is currently helping the project secure further funding for the upcoming year.

Milne agrees that corporate sponsorship of a garden could have a downside, but she still entered the contest. “I just thought, oh what the heck, I’ll apply for it and see what happens.”

Besides, the Hellmann’s promotion has got people talking about urban gardening. “And that’s a really positive thing,” says Milne.

“Hopefully it sparks people’s interest.”

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