In the heart of Montreal’s bustling Latin Quarter, and inside one of the city’s biggest CEGEPs, there’s a place 18-year-old student Daphné Prud’homme goes to escape it all. The Cégep du Vieux Montréal’s garden is an oasis made from 120 plastic buckets planted with a variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs scattered across two of the school’s cement balconies.
Prud’homme has been tending to the garden since she enrolled at the CEGEP in 2015, even travelling downtown during her summer break to help out. When she joined the club of gardeners, all she knew was that the school had an environment committee and she wanted to be a part of it. At least once a week until the end of October, she darted to the fifth-floor terrace to care for the tomatoes and kale and stayed at it for up to three hours at once. “It’s very relaxing,” she says. “It allows you to cut through the day’s stress, forget about the things bugging you and focus on the plants.”
The jardins-terrasses, or terrace garden, is the initiative of Dorothée Bezançon, hired by the school in 2008 to manage the projects that assure its Cégep Vert certification, a label several CEGEPs in the province have attained through environmentally friendly ventures. The garden started in the spring of 2010 and took on a life of its own, Bezançon says, with dozens of students and staff volunteering to nurture it throughout the years.
The season starts in March, when a group of five to 10 volunteers (students and staff) grow the seedlings they will later plant in mid-May and fertilize with comfrey, an herb grown at the school, and marine algae from Quebec. Whoever is around tends the plants over the summer, and the growing season ends in October. Prud’homme says the most satisfying part is watching tiny sprouts grow to a jungle-like cluster that needs abundant trimming by the end of June.
Bezançon holds urban agriculture-related workshops during the winter, when there’s no gardening to do, to garner interest in the project and in response to what she says is a growing interest among students to produce their own food. “We eat three or four times a day, so it’s a huge part of our life, and to be able to feed yourself is giving yourself power,” says Bezançon. Student volunteers receive no extra credit for the hours they put in, except for the option of having the commitment mentioned on their report card (most don’t put in the bureaucratic effort to do so).
In a school already known for its alternative spin on basic college programs—Prud’homme is working toward a diploma in social sciences with a focus on activism, for one—Bezançon says students who participate in the garden often take on a variety of urban-agriculture projects in university. “For me, the credit is this knowledge that allows me to grow my own food, show others how to [grow theirs], and that I can use in future projects,” says Prud’homme. “That’s what I get from this.”
Over the summer, the garden’s most productive season, she would take a bus and subway from her home on Montreal’s South Shore, a 40-minute-plus commute, to tend to the plants. On the way back, she would bring home tomatoes, lettuce, kale, herbs to make tea, and enough jalapenos to dry and spice up her spaghetti sauce throughout the winter. Though she’s not yet sure what she wants to do for a career, she would like it to have an environmental bent, and envisions one day being able to produce nearly all her own food. For now, Prud’homme says, “I’m mixing a necessity with pleasure.”