Community-focused gardening

Embark’s learning gardens provide space for food justice and reclamation

Photo of garden bed filled with soil with white illustrations of plants sprouting out of it
The gardens are also open to students who don’t have plots, offering a space to relax and connect with nature. IMAGE: Krystal Chan & Kelly Chia / The Peak

By: Meera Eragoda, Features Editor

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect Embark Sustainability Society is a non-profit group located on SFU’s campuses.

Gardening is an act of love — a love for the planet, a love for your community, and a love for yourself,” said fifth year Nimrit Basra. The garden plot she rents from Embark Sustainability Society helps her “build a reciprocal relationship with the earth,” manage stress, and find joy in sharing their harvest with loved ones.

Embark is a non-profit on SFU’s campuses dedicated to addressing systemic sustainability issues such as food access and climate change through a justice, decolonization, equity, diversity, and inclusion lens. Their learning garden plots are one way they further this mission. Having started as a student initiative in 2012, they now feature an impressive 84 raised garden beds and 24 vertical garden plots. 

These plots are found on the Surrey and Burnaby campuses. The 3’x4’ raised plots are rented out yearly to individual students and student groups for an affordable price of $15/box or $25/two boxes for the year, with a cap on two boxes due to demand. 

While registration for plots is currently closed (and booked through to January of the next year), Embark is running a Burnaby Learning Garden Cohort program for 10 students to learn the gardening ropes for free, with guidance. The program runs on Thursdays from June 2–August 11. All the tools are provided and no experience is required. Applications are due on May 20, 2022

Gardening as food justice

With the arrival of gardening season, The Peak spoke with Embark’s gardens manager Pablo Vimos and programs manager Desiree Gabriel about the importance of giving students access to this green space.

“The idea behind [the gardens] is creating a space on campus to grow food, get in contact with the land, and to change the landscape that companies offer into a more agricultural environment,” Vimos said.

Gabriel added, “At Embark, we prioritize two areas: climate equity and food justice. And our learning gardens obviously very much focus on food justice. So our gardens provide students a space to explore the connections to food production and deepen their understanding of food justice in our communities.”

Embark provides garden users with a variety of food options to help them find more nutritious alternatives to mainstream organic grocers which are costlier and offer less cultural selection. Working through a food justice lens allows Embark to provide students with “low-barrier access to gardening and cultivating their own food,” said Gabriel. 

The gardens also aim to provide an antidote to the harm caused by universities. The university structure can increase stress and isolation, and require students to remain sedentary and focused on screens, Gabriel explained.

Gardening, she said, gives students a place to “reconnect with nature, and also develop skills through hands-on experience without worrying about the framework of grades and scrutiny.” The gardens are a way for students of any identity to gain mindfulness practice, be out in fresh air, find independence from mainstream food systems, and access organic fruits and vegetables.

Cycles of food and life

Along with helping students build skills and gain a better understanding of food production, Embark’s program also enables students to “build community and develop food literacy in a way they might not be able to in classes.”

Food literacy refers to “how to grow food and how to prepare food,” Vimos explained. The former is done through the learning gardens and the latter through Embark’s complementary Community Kitchen program

When growing food, Vimos teaches students the garden cycle from “planning, planting, caring for the garden, harvesting, and composting.” Being involved in the cycle helps students understand how it changes depending on the crop being grown. For example, growing a radish would take 35 days while growing garlic would take nine months. 

A key teaching of the cohort program is the interconnectedness of land and animals (including humans), which Embark honours by growing organic food. Care for the land includes care for all the living things in it. “When we start gardening, the first thing that we acknowledge is that we are part of nature and as a part of nature, we should work with it, not against it,” Vimos stressed. 

With their garden program, Embark tries to strike a balance between allowing certain bugs and protecting crops through natural pest control, such as garlic and chili pepper. Vimos said in urban environments, when people come across a spider, often their first thought is to kill it. “But, when you are in the garden and you see a spider, your attitude changes, because then you realize, ‘oh, this spider is a gardener’s friend.’” This is because spiders often eat other bugs like mosquitoes. Not using pesticides also makes it easy to take a bite out of a particularly enticing vegetable right from the garden bed while ensuring soil health.

An organic approach also helps gain an understanding of nature’s cycles and how they relate to food production. Understanding the influence of things like the moon, the length of days, and temperature help gardeners match “the right crop with the right season,” Vimos said.

Staying attuned to the world outside the garden by making connections between what’s growing in the plot and what native plants are growing in the surrounding environment, lead to deeper understandings of the seasons, Vimos said. Both Vimos and Gabriel stressed the importance of learning about Indigenous food systems which existed before Europeans colonized the global food cycle in order to understand there are multiple food pathways that exist. 

Connecting to land and community

Their garden and kitchen programs build not only resiliency, but community. Gabriel explained the gardens build excitement and lead to people sharing recipes with each other. 

Vimos also shared a story about a previous cohort witnessing three deer walking into the garden. “Our gardens are open. So the deer and wildlife just show up now and then, and they like to taste the leaves of berries, the leaves of beans, the shoots of apple trees, and we just need to be patient, resilient. We cannot do anything without that. It became part of the land, part of where we live, and we just accept and remove whatever was eaten.”

Gabriel said, “It was amazing to see the different reactions of all the cohort members when the deer arrived, adding “there was a mixture of fear to amazement to really stark happiness. It was interesting to see how differently everyone perceived the deer coming.”

Encouraging students to join, Vimos said, “Don’t be afraid. We will learn on the way and if something doesn’t work out, well, it’s a learning garden. We are learning, it’s a learning process.” 

Two green leaves covered with dew and the one in front curling to the left
Embark learning gardens provide a space for healing and community. PHOTO: Krystal Chan / The Peak

Grow through what you go through

Gardening as a process to gain mindfulness and provide a therapeutic practice is something Tricia-Kay Williams supports. Among her many hats, Williams provides counselling at SFU to help support Black students and runs her own counselling practice, Metamorphose Counselling.

Williams currently runs a series of IBPOC Garden Therapy Workshops at SFU and spoke with The Peak about them.

When she saw an email from SFU Health & Counselling (H&C) asking if anyone would like to use the two plots H&C rents out from Embark, she jumped on the opportunity.

“I was super interested in this. And the reason I’m so interested in it is because my grandparents in Jamaica were farmers.” Williams’ grandparents were pea and bean farmers and she recounted her fascination with being able to help with harvest and taking produce to the market. It was what inspired her own gardening journey and with Embark’s garden plots, she saw an opportunity to use them “as a space for students to be able to gain a better understanding of themselves.”

The workshops are specifically open to Indigenous and Black students and other students of colour. She highlighted the significance of this as being the ability to reclaim space and the “connection to nature.” She explained BIPOC have been historically separated from accessing land, either through slavery or other displacements. “This [gardening] is livelihood, this is building community. This is connecting to pieces of ourselves that help us to be self-preserving.” Williams added it can also be “healing and sustaining.”

The IBPOC Garden Therapy workshops run in a series, corresponding roughly to the main stages of gardening: planting, maintenance, and harvesting. Each theme has four workshops and though the workshops on planting have wrapped up, the ones on maintenance will begin on May 27, 2022. They will be open to students whether or not they attended the planting workshops since Williams will provide a quick recap of the planting workshops in the first session. Though the workshops provide students with everything they need, Williams said students may opt to bring their own gloves to ensure they fit.


With the planting workshops, Williams wanted to explore different ways of planting and how that can be applied to the different life journeys students take. A couple different ways planting can happen is through getting seedlings that have already been prepared for you and placing them in your garden or the more “challenging process” of growing them from seeds. Williams said, with seeds, “you have to take so much care to ensure that they grow and even though it doesn’t matter how much care you put into it, sometimes they won’t.

“So you think about the different ways of planting and look at life and society and circumstances that we place ourselves in. You can see how there can be similarities or correlations that you can draw, right? And it will be different for everybody.”

Williams spoke about how different soil conditions are required for different plants and similarly, societal conditions will impact people differently. She asked her cohort, if a seed is planted in rocks, even if it comes up, will it have enough of a foundation to grow and succeed? On the other hand, “a person that had all the nutrients, the right soil, and had somebody that was taking care of it for a period of time, that person will hopefully get to the place where they have all the things they need to succeed.”

The workshops were a “very open process.” Williams focused on the planting and got people thinking about how the process might apply to their lives. “There’s so much that can come out of the idea of planting a seed and waiting for it to grow.”


The upcoming maintenance workshops will focus on giving plants the appropriate conditions to grow in. “Sometimes you have plants at home, and you have to prune the plant from time to time to cut away dead leaves.” She added you also need to ensure each plant is receiving the right amount of light and water.

Williams plans to explore different concepts weekly such as how pruning can be applied to students’ lives. “We think about this idea of letting go of, you know, negative or toxic people in your life [and] being able to reflect and look at ourselves and identify areas that we need to improve on as well.” This reflection can be “really important to self development and also the idea of improving as a society.”


The last in the series, which won’t begin until September, will be harvesting. Williams explained, in Jamaican culture, “harvesting is a celebration. It’s a time where you’re able to see the benefits of all the work you put into planting.”

This is an opportunity to “see the benefits of who you are as a person in society and be able to celebrate that.” Celebrating and embracing the joy of seeing all your hard work pay off is something Williams thinks is missing in today’s society.” These small things deserve celebration, Williams said, because they are “an important part of increasing confidence and your sense of self. 

“In order to get to the big things, there are really small things that you would have to accomplish.” 

Other Embark stories

Along with H&C, Embark plots are rented out to student groups. This year, groups renting spaces include Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), English Student Union (ESU), Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry, SFSS Women’s Centre, and the Resource and Environmental Planning Student Association.

Chantelle Spicer, director of engagement of SFPIRG, highlighted the potential the green space holds. “We are very excited to be growing food this summer to support folks at the WatchHouse who are standing in resistance to TMX. Being able to grow food not only supports this important work, but provides opportunities for us as an organization to learn, create an outlet for students to organize in creative ways, have mental health breaks, and support connections to the land and seasons.”

Anita Shen, ESU FASS representative said helping with ESU’s plot gives them “access to fresh veggies and a chill place to enjoy plants and learn about gardening.” Encouraging other English students to join, they added, “But much more than that — it connects me to the SFU community and makes being a student here less lonely.”

Applications for Embark’s Burnaby Learning Garden Cohort can be found on their website. Up-to-date information on Williams’ upcoming IBPOC Garden Therapy Workshops can be found on the H&C website.