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In a city where every inch of real estate is expensive, cramming plants between sidewalks and streets to make boulevard gardens is a way to grow community spirit. Saba Farmand shares their stories

Saba Farmand leads a walking tour of boulevard gardens in East Vancouver on April 22, Earth Day.Photography by Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Saba Farmand never planned on becoming a tour guide.

A landscape architect and arborist, he can be a little nerdy about urban design and streetscapes. When he moved to East Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood five years ago, he was fascinated with the community’s boulevard gardens, so he started photographing them. He created an Instagram account, @eastvan_blvd_gardens, to feature the colourful and creative displays.

“I just really like going on walks through the neighbourhood, and I started noticing how many great boulevard gardens there were around here and how they dance with the surrounding streetscape,” Mr. Farmand says.

Boulevard gardens are what some people create in the tiny strips of land crammed between the sidewalk and the street. Ordinary residents, faced with these empty spaces in front of their homes and in commercial areas, take them over to plant flower gardens or grow vegetables. Some are simple flower beds or neat rows of peas. Others are ornate works of living street art, combining flowers, shrubs and trees. More than a few are homes for gnomes.

In a city like Vancouver, where the cost of land is soaring, the gardens offer a way for everyday citizens to reclaim some ownership and pride over their neighbourhoods, and satisfy the need to tend land.

“Public gardens … often don’t have that same personality that a lot of boulevard gardens do,” Mr. Farmand says.

Tulips near Windsor Street and East 28th Avenue.

As his enthusiasm for these tiny gardens grew, so did his followers. Last July, a local environmental non-profit asked him to host a community walking tour. He agreed, as long as any money raised went to the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, a group that supports recent immigrants and refugees.

It was a one-off event, but Mr. Farmand is still doing the tours on his own, advertising them on his Instagram account and donating the proceeds. The tours are becoming a neighbourhood staple, and a regular chance for Mr. Farmand to share his many thoughts on his favourite topic.

“Boulevard gardens help to increase the sustainability of a community,” he says. And he’s not just talking about the environmental benefits, such as providing flowers for pollinators and habitats for birds. He’s referring to the social and economic sustainability of neighbourhoods.

“You’re more likely to run into a neighbour and talk to them if you’re out gardening,” he says, adding that he notices people tend to be friendlier in neighbourhoods with more boulevard gardens.

A boulevard garden surrounds a tree near Prince Albert Street and East 20th Avenue.

Near Glen Drive and East 11th Avenue.
Near Fraser Street and East 54th Avenue.

This garden has tiny gnome homes on Comox Street in Vancouver's West End.

An old tire and free library near East 37th Avenue and Ridgeway Street in East Vancouver.
Hedges and grasses under moody skies near Prince Albert and East 23rd in East Vancouver.

A fascinating fact about these little gardens, says Mr. Farmand, is that most people assume they’re illegal. Many are surprised that the City of Vancouver actually encourages it, he says, so long as gardeners follow the published guidelines.

Hayden Kremer, the green thumb behind one of Mr. Farmand’s favourite street-side gardens, says when he first started, he figured he was probably breaking the rules. “I was completely in the dark that this was okay.” Mr. Kremer has come to appreciate the community-building elements of gardens like his. His neighbours plan to start their own boulevard garden next spring.

But not every city allows boulevard gardening. For example, some municipalities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland are still working to develop their own guidelines to allow it, Mr. Farmand says.

Boulevard gardeners Hayden Kremer and Megan Reiter.

Gardening on public land can also come with challenges. Some have recounted tales of tomatoes mysteriously disappearing, he says. And two years ago – just months into the COVID-19 pandemic – there was a rash of tree and flower thefts from residential gardens in East Vancouver, including one case where the perpetrator was caught on camera ripping a Japanese maple right out of someone’s front garden.

But Megan Reiter, one of the gardeners whose plot is part of Mr. Farmand’s walking tour, says thefts are rare. “With tulips, for example, if I have particularly exotic ones, sometimes they’ll disappear,” she says.

As the popularity of Mr. Farmand’s tour grows, he hopes to eventually expand beyond East Vancouver. While he’s focused so far on photographing the gardens themselves, he plans to start a series profiling the gardeners behind them and maybe one day write a book. In the meantime, he’s planning more walking tours over the summer and will continue tending to his blossoming Instagram community.

Mr. Farmand continues his walking tour.

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