When the pandemic hit, Luke Baulk took it as an opportunity to reflect on his career path. As a graphic designer, Luke had been working in retail environment design – designing not just spaces, but customer experiences. He enjoyed learning what made physical spaces enjoyable to be in, but felt there were other options for him where he could utilize his creativity and passions for the environment and community. “Design is everywhere. It combines aesthetics and functionality to provide benefits to the user’s experience” said Luke in an interview in his “office” at the United Way Garden Hub on Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Daniel J. Patterson campus. Luke takes the meaning of functional design to a whole new level through his work as one of United Way’s Community Garden Operational Leads.

Luke’s desire for improving the lives of others was a common theme throughout the conversation. He found a Horticultural Technician program at Niagara College that would allow him to do just that. The program focuses on sustainable growing techniques and maintenance practices to help increase the biodiversity of the urban and suburban landscape. With his background in design, Luke used this new knowledge to find a perfect balance between aesthetics and functionality to create crop plans that would eventually become the backbone of United Way’s Niagara College garden hub.

“This job with United Way ticks a lot of boxes for me. I get to spend my days in nature, creating beautiful spaces that function as sustainable food production hubs as well as places for people to visit, connect and learn. At the end of the day, I know that everything we grow here will benefit people in my community too. It’s a win-win.”

During his two-year diploma, Luke was introduced to Erin Riseing, United Way’s Community Growing Programs Coordinator when he had the opportunity to volunteer as a student, helping build the first Garden Hub at Niagara College in the spring of 2021.

“I was intrigued with the project and watched it grow through that first summer. When we were assigned a class project in our Sustainable Food Production course to create a full season crop plan I was excited to dig in and get my hands dirty – no pun intended,” he said. A collaborative practical assignment put together by Professor Mary-Jane Clark in collaboration with Erin Riseing and United Way. The project had students design a plan that considers the days to maturity of crops, seasonal crop rotations, sustainable farming practices and much more to get a consistent harvest throughout the growing season. “Design plays a big part in planning a garden or farm. From how you lay out your garden beds and the plants within them; to how the trellis’ are built and the functionality of the space. And in order to get the best harvest, you have to consider thoughtful planting methods like companion planting, meaning plants that mutually benefit with the goal of enhancing growth and protecting against pests. The Three Sisters Garden is a perfect example of that. An Indigenous planting method that uses corn, beans and squash that all work together to increase yields, decrease disease and limit pests.”

Companion planting was one of the many practical growing strategies the program taught, but for Luke this method has other meaning.

“Being Ojibwe, working out here under the escarpment and using these methods is really meaningful. It connects me to the land I’m on, my culture and my community. Being able to work within food production with the ultimate goal of improving food security for my community, has been incredibly rewarding to me.” Maximizing the yields in both Garden Hubs means more food produced, and more food going out to community members in need. “This job with United Way ticks a lot of boxes for me. I get to spend my days in nature, creating beautiful spaces that function as sustainable food production hubs as well as places for people to visit, connect and learn. At the end of the day, I know that everything we grow here will benefit people in my community too. It’s a win-win.”

“Being Ojibwe, working out here under the escarpment and using these methods is really meaningful. It connects me to the land I’m on, my culture and my community. Being able to work within food production with the ultimate goal of improving food security for my community, has been incredibly rewarding to me.”

Luke gives a lot of credit to his time at Niagara College, where he learned from industry experts like Paul Zammit, a self-proclaimed life-long learner and horticulture industry expert. “I was lucky enough to be invited back to speak to his classes about the initiative and hosted them out for a practical class out at the garden, it was an honour for me” said Luke. “I really love educating people and it was an opportunity for me to learn too. The fact that I am able to take what I’ve learned at Niagara College and from professors like Paul and Mary-Jane, and apply it directly to improving the community I live in, is exactly where I wanted to be when deciding to shift careers and I am happy to share that passion with other students.”

Healthy food is the fuel that helps us live, work and play – like the produce grown in the Garden Hubs. No person should have to choose between fresh food or other basic needs, but as food insecurity becomes more prevalent, accessing local food programs is inevitable for some. This is where local partnerships like the Niagara College Garden Hub are crucial for helping local agencies have fresh food on hand when they need it. Including healthy, culturally appropriate food in our diets plays a significant role in overall health and well-being. “It’s wonderful that Niagara College recognized the opportunity to utilize the greenspace available at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus in a way that benefits student curriculum and our community simultaneously” said Luke. Through this partnership with Niagara College Canada, a stronger community can be fostered through greater access to food, social connection, food literacy and student enrichment.

Garden hubs like this one not only grow and distribute food, but create opportunities to bring people together – to connect, learn and grow as individuals. Building social capital in ways that are not always obvious. A connected community is a stronger community.

Food grown at the United Way Garden Hub (in partnership with Niagara College Canada) and the Vineland Garden Hub (in partnership with Absolute Change Management) is given to agencies and community orga