Nestled in a neighbourhood where the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, once owned land lies a not-so-secret urban back-yard paradise where upside-down tomatoes grow.
Sandwiched between the Eramosa and Speed Rivers, St. Patrick's Ward, now known as "Ward One," (usually referred to as 'the Ward') is one of Guelph's oldest neighbourhoods. In the heart of the Ward lies Alice Street, said to be one of Guelph's oldest streets. It is here that one family's not-so-secret urban garden oasis exists.
Alice Street and St. Patrick's Ward were once the bastion of Italian immigrants, which is no longer the case. The Ward was identified as an industrial area by city fathers of the time, and the factories attracted many immigrants who brought with them a tradition of vegetable gardening. Vegetable gardening in the Ward and throughout Guelph is undergoing a renaissance, with garden tours the latest hot fund-raising fad.
A view of Alice Street, one of Guelph's oldest streets.
The area was a mix of industrial and residential, although almost all the industrial businesses have either folded or moved. The neighbourhood was featured in the 2009 This Old House for the unique cottages that exist in the area.
Unfortunately, due to the demise of industry in the Ward, the area is home to brownfields. A brownfield is a former industrial property that has been abandoned and never cleaned-up (rehabilitated). The brownfields in Guelph's Ward One have been a contentious issue for many years, with only two such properties cleaned-up and put back into use.
A river-side view of the now vacant WC Woods factory. The factory closed suddenly in late 2009, throwing 250 people out of work.
With the decline of the neighbourhoods' industries, the neighbourhood experienced difficulties. While many neighbourhoods in Guelph have issues with illegal drugs such as heroin, crack and meth; one corner in the Ward was dubbed "Crack Corner" by residents, reflecting the prevalence of crack in the neighbourhood at the time.
There has been a focus on revitalizing the Ward. The City of Guelph has a plan, but a lot of the changes in the neighbourhood are the results of the work of residents who look after their homes and participate in the neighbourhood group.
Mark McAlpine and his wife are two residents of the Ward. They moved into their Alice Street home in 1999, slowly creating the gardens they desired to see. Their gorgeous back yard, which simulates the environs of a cottage get-away, reflects their years of attention.
Mark was recently featured in a New York Times article about the latest gardening trend, "Growing Vegetables Upside Down." Because of that article, McAlpine has been a hot item, journalistically speaking.
Mark McAlpine and some of his upside-down tomatoes.
Surprisingly, McAlpine has less than a dozen upside-down tomatoes, although his four years of growing upside-down tomatoes inspired the next door neighbour to give the practice a try. Other than the pots of tomatoes and Mark's extensive bonsai collection, the rest of the garden is conventionally planted. Mark's neighbour had "... an eureka moment," which has resulted in both experimenting with maximizing space. They have planted one tomato in each hanging pail conventionally, and the other upside-down. McAlpine swears that his upside-down tomatoes produce just the same amount, if not more than his normal tomatoes.
Mark's garlic, artichokes, peppers. In the background, to the upper right, you can see hanging containers with upside down tomatoes planted.
Mark planted pepper plants upside-down last year quite successfully, but hadn't done them in hanging pots this year because he had enough space in his veggie garden. Mark also had a small plot of heritage tomatoes he was growing normally. He didn't want to experiment with those tomatoes, as he wants to save the seed. The garden beds closest to the house contain vegetables, such as artichokes, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. The garden beds further out back, just over the little footbridge that spans the little pond, are essentially wild, although Mark will be experimenting this year with a patch of corn in the back to see how that fares.
When the McAlpines moved into their home, they learned the neighbourhood had a strong tradition of growing food. "Our neighbours used to tell us that this whole yard was just garden at one point," Mark said, adding "If you have a wander through the alleys of the ward, you'll still see gardens." Mark was pleased to be carrying on the vegetable growing tradition, even though his patch is much smaller than what originally existed in his yard. Mark put in raised beds, bringing in soil from outside the neighbourhood, so was not worried about soil contamination, which is a risk in some parts of the neighbourhood due to the prior industry.
Mark and his gardens. Behind him are the hanging buckets with upside-down tomatoes.
Mark is a little shy about all the publicity he's been getting, saying he doesn't know how he got to be the spokesperson for upside-down gardening, but he expects the attention to die down now.
Upside-down gardening has been touted as a low maintenance method of gardening where there are problems with insects, or where people lack garden space.
McAlpine and his wife don't have any children, but have a dog and two cats who also love the back yard.