February 17, 2009 | General

Plant A Row, Grow A Row

BioCycle February 2009, Vol. 50, No. 2, p. 23
Composting Council of Canada develops a program that feeds the hungry, and promotes compost use.
Susan Antler

WHILE much of the mantra for composting has recently focused on diversion from landfill benefits, the value of the finished compost to the health and vitality of soil has equal, if not greater, merit.
To get this message across, the Composting Council of Canada (Council) has spent considerable emphasis during its annual Compost Week celebrations developing events involving gardening openings, tree plantings and compost samplings.
These happenings always serve the Council incredibly well in terms of awareness and enhanced linkages. But once the end of “the week” arrives, we are faced with the challenge of finding ways to support the other 51 equally important weeks remaining in the calendar year. That realization led us “down the garden path,” thinking about how to develop a program to extend communication efforts throughout the garden season. We ended up championing Plant a Row • Grow a Row, a program that encourages gardeners to share the extras from their harvest with those in need.
The Council first heard about this program through its members in London, Ontario, who had become active supporters in a local initiative known as Grow a Row. In the program, London Composts!, a group comprised of composting facilities, educators, businesses, the municipality as well as staff at the local research station of Agriculture & AgriFood Canada, contributed compost to public gardens, planted vegetable gardens at their facilities, used its communication networks to get the word out and planned annual fundraising events through the sale of donated compost.
Having experienced the program’s success in London, the Council set out to develop a template for similar initiatives across Canada. The plan was to kick off the initiative during Compost Week, develop it throughout the summer and create harvest celebrations in the fall – all the way along “spreading the compost” message.
As the Council started to gear up, we learned about a similar program spearheaded by the Garden Writers Association (GWA) in the United States: Plant a Row for the Hungry. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, and to avoid competing with basically a mirror-image program, we teamed up with GWA members in Canada, secured the support of the Canadian Association of Food Banks (CAFB) and headed towards the launch pad.
Through the Council’s discussions with the CAFB, we learned that Grow a Row was not exclusive to London, Ontario. It had actually started in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1986 when Ron and Eunice O’Donovan, with extra potatoes remaining after their own family, friends and neighbors had their fill, dropped the rest off at the local food bank. The next year, Grow a Row, was introduced. While the program extended its reach year after year through the City of Winnipeg, involving schools and community groups, and securing the commitment of local farmers, visitors to the City would learn of the concept and take it back to their hometown and start it there.
That’s how the program in London, Ontario started as did the one in Edmonton and elsewhere. There was limited organization or correspondence between these communities, most not realizing that they were part of a larger dynamic or that similar programs were developing south of the border.
Once the Council reached the point of initiating a national program launch, it was faced with a dilemma: how do we choose between the two names, Grow a Row or Plant a Row for the Hungry? We decided to combine the two, respecting the heritage of each, and came up with Plant a Row • Grow a Row. Introduced as part of the Council’s celebrations for International Compost Awareness Week in 2000, the program has found a place in the minds, hearts and gardens of people throughout Canada. In the first year, gardeners donated 125,000 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks in Canada. In recent years, we have exceeded 1,000,000 pounds in a season.
The reality is that Plant a Row • Grow a Row, with limited funding, is fueled by the generosity of the Council’s members and gardening friends who give their time, connections, talents and compost. Scotts Canada has been a long-time supporter, providing promotional row markers as well as communication support. Rittenhouse has designated funds annually to help with the printing of posters and bookmarks.
The rest is based on the strength of a simple and very good idea. Namely, plant and grow an extra row of vegetables and share them with those in need. For the composting community, Plant a Row • Grow a Row is a terrific program for all kinds of reasons. First, the connection between growing vegetables in soil that is well prepared with compost is fundamental. Add to that the compost bin, the landing zone for all the garden residuals of the season.
From there, the Council encourages its compost facilities to become involved in their local community program. The value of donating finished compost is enormous and equally appreciated by the gardeners who have chosen to champion the program. It also helps connect these facilities with their surrounding community, which engenders short- and long-term goodwill.
With “a picture being worth a thousand words,” the Council suggests that its members establish a vegetable garden at their facility (hopefully close to the entrance so visitors won’t miss it), to show the growing power of their compost in the garden.
In 2009, Plant a Row • Grow a Row will continue to expand – and this time it will be extended to the pint-sized crowd with the introduction of Plant a Row • Grow a Row JUNIOR. With support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Council is in the midst of developing a teaching curriculum and outreach effort to encourage children and their families to grow vegetables, both for themselves as well as for those in need.
Pretty incredible really. A program that has at its core the concept of helping folks who are hungry is actually returning the favor to its supporters who need every bit of equivalent help to make composting a day-to-day reality throughout our land.
Susan Antler is Executive Director of the Composting Council of Canada, a national nonprofit based in Toronto dedicated to the advancement of composting and compost usage.Visit for more information.

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