A Year in the Life of Montreal's City Farm School

A still from my new film on Montreal's City Farm School.


Obsessed. Yes I think I have an obsessive personality. Those of you who know me know it includes opera but also growing fruits and vegetables. Making documentaries - that's another obsession (also I get paid for that one).

So two of those obsessions just collided with my new documentary A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF MONTREAL'S CITY FARM SCHOOL. It's been a pleasure to edit it in the darkest days of this pandemic. All those smiling faces, memories of hot summer days and bountiful gardens in my video......while snow beat against the window.

The City Farm School is a hidden gem in the agricultural life of Montreal. You may have even bought produce from it on Concordia's Loyola campus in Notre-Dame-de-Grace or healthy seedlings from its annual sale at the Concordia Greenhouse (Henry Hall building on de Maisonneuve.) Episode one features the miracle of seeds. As co-ordinator Jackie Martin explains she starts off with a box of seeds and ends up with a soccer-field sized greenhouse full of seedlings with help from all her students. No wonder the customers speak so highly of the annual sale in this video. See for yourself.........

Yes it's a course that teaches urban agriculture but as the gardeners in this film will testify it's so much more.

"In urban life I just feel so stuck between concrete and exhaust so doing this has really given me a sense of peace," says one gardener.

"I love it and I don't want to leave. It's just so empowering to know how to grow your own food," says another.

Working at the City Farm School on the Loyola campus.

Although it's housed in the Concordia Greenhouse in the Spring and on campus at Loyola in the Summer the City Farm School market gardener apprenticeship is not a college course. It's open to the whole community. You have to dedicate a certain number of hours a week and one Saturday a month but that is no burden. Gardens are split into two - there is the farm where we grow crops for market and then students get their own shared plots where they grow whatever they like to take home and cook. (The CFS  also offers a medicinal herbs course). The pandemic means only virtual courses are offered at the moment.

Harvesting many types of eggplants at the farm

In the monthly workshops you get advice from beekeepers on keeping a hive, from restaurant owners on fermentation and food preservation, from expert gardeners on composting, growing mushrooms on logs and many more subjects.

I filmed while participating in the course, so I'd often put the camera down to plunge my hands into soil, water the plants or make sauerkraut. On the market gardener course you're expected to devote several hours to setting up the farmers' market stand and selling to customers. This was one of my favourite things - when customers asked how fresh the beans were - I could tell them that I just picked them an hour ago! You can see some of my bean-picking skills in Episode Two below.....

Spending so much time with like-minded people means friendships develop and I'm happy to say I keep in touch with some of my farm collegaues. We had a socially distanced walk and lunch in the summer and in the fall we just did a zoom seed swap. Some are now working full-time in agriculture. Marie has an amazing flower business BeeBalm Botanicals while Jen is passing on her knowledge to schools to get kids gardening.

Me and my camera at the farm school.

I'm a different person since City Farm School. I'm much more confident with growing things and I'm no longer afraid of bees. I have a new found respect for nature and now I spend time staring at bees instead of running away from them. Also when my vegetables need pollinating I positively pray for them to appear. I've also taken to trying to pollinate plants myself with a small paintbrush. I'm definitely greener. I make kombucha (fermented tea which is very trendy right now but cheaper to make yourself), I have developed a house plant collection, I grow dozens of types of vegetables from arugula to round zucchini, some fruits and have started a cutting garden to make summer bouquets for guests (when we are allowed to have them again). This fall we picked branches from our woods and made wreaths for the season. 

In episode three you can take a look at some of the all-day workshops offered on the course including restaurant owner Jeremiah Bullied who runs Poincaré Chinatown. He leads a fermentation and preservation workshop. His resto serves fermented foods and the fermented fries with black garlic mayo are life-changing. They deliver. Also Jackie Martin explains how she came up with the idea of setting up the City Farm School. Many of us are very glad that she did.

Proud preservers - pickling our vegetables.

This Spring I have many packets of seeds ready to sow in my raised beds. I used to have one, now it's up to nine and half plus two small greenhouses. I'm also planning a squash arch - I just hope we get enough sunshine. Some firsts include carrots, cabbage, leeks and sprouts not to mention several different squashes. For the cutting garden I'm trying dwarf sunflowers, strawflowers, rudbeckia, pincushions, calendula, zinnias, sweet peas and cosmos. As I explain in the videos I might never have done any of this if it wasn't for inspiration of City Farm School.

You can watch all three episodes on my YouTube channel here.
For more information go to City Farm School.

My fellow farmers on our plot: Elyse, Jen and Charlie


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