FLEETWOOD — The City of Surrey wants Jess Thompson and Cindy Quach’s “unsightly” garden to be removed, despite the garden’s health benefits to their family and environmental perks to their community.
In the summer, Thompson and Quach started a hügelkultur garden on their rented one-acre property in the 8300-block of 168th Street. Hügelkultur is a European farming technique that has proven to be a popular method sustainable food gardening.
“You bury biomass at the base before you warm the bed – you would take things such as branches, leaves, tree trunks, and then put your growing medium over top,” said Quach.
“Over time, the biomass decomposes and releases heat and nutrients.”
The garden provides fresh fruits and vegetables for them and their two children while also preventing the growth of hogweed, an invasive plant with sap that can cause long-lasting blisters, scars and even blindness.
Following hügelkultur methods, the couple mowed down the hogweed, suppressed it with recycled coconut husk, put woodchips on top and created raised bed gardens around their house.
But despite the prevention of hogweed growth, neighbours have complained to the city’s bylaw and licensing department about the garden. Nearby residents initially raised a stink over, well, the stink of the manure when it was first brought in.
“When the woodchips and the manure were freshly delivered onto the property – before the beds were actually built – that was when the complaints started coming in to bylaws,” said Quach. “Before we even had a chance to level out the piles to form the garden beds, the bylaw officer came and looked at the place.”
The smell subsided once the manure was worked into the garden beds, but Quach said there were still complaints to the bylaw department that their garden is an eyesore.
“Initially, (the officer) said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic, you’re doing the neighbourhood a favour,’” she recalled. “But then a week went by and I suppose more complaints came in to bylaws and we were served with this letter that the property is not in compliance with the unsightly bylaw.”
Thompson and Quach were given 22 days to remedy the infraction under the Unsightly Premises Bylaw, which outlines such criteria as accumulation of refuse, damaged landscaping and broken fencing as reasons a property can be unsightly. They said they called the officer for clarification and were told that levelling out the piles would put them in compliance with the bylaw.
“We levelled it out, we formed our beds, he came back and he was not satisfied,” she said. “They were expecting flat beds, but we’re doing a hügelkultur bed.”
The garden beds resemble small, brown hills made up of bark mulch and soil. Neighbours have also complained about the height of the garden, but Thompson and Quach have noted that, given time to grow, the hills will compress in size while becoming leafy and green in colour.
“The unfortunate thing is there’s no neighbourly communication,” said Quach. “We could have had a chance to explain it to them, but instead of talking to us, they called bylaws instead.”
Thompson added, “They just saw material coming in and they didn’t understand what it was, but they never asked us.”
Furthermore, Thompson and Quach’s property is fenced and surrounded on most sides by trees, including large evergreens lining the front yard along 168th Street. Quach said most people would have to make an effort to see their “unsightly” garden, and Thompson noted that neighbours in support of their garden are wondering why the city isn’t targeting other dilapidated houses in the area.
“There’s one down the street that’s getting hit with graffiti quite a bit,” said Thompson. “When they see an unsightly property, there’s ‘obviously unsightly’ and then there’s somebody trying to do a garden.”
The couple has a petition with about 90 signatures from residents in favour of the garden, as well as verbal praise from the Ministry of Environment and a letter of support from Bob Boyd, a longtime public health inspector with Fraser Health.
“The hügelkultur or raised bed/mound is ideal for urban and suburban lots,” reads Boyd’s letter, noting that the garden falls in line with the City of Surrey’s green movement by conserving water, recycling, composting and eating a 100-mile diet. “These days, when we are constantly hearing about going ‘green,’ growing food in your backyard should be encouraged.”
Jas Rehal, manager of bylaw enforcement with the city, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the infraction, but said the investigation is ongoing and that the city is working with the owners on a solution.
Ultimately, Thompson and Quach picked hügelkultur gardening as their remedy for hogweed because it was cost-effective, eco-friendly and low maintenance, while also producing more than 90 per cent of their vegetables. If they’re forced to remove their garden, it will be costly and the hogweed will grow back in the area.
The couple hopes to present to the agricultural advisory committee on their situation.
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But Jerry Filewich, who lives next door and who signed a letter with 10 others who want the city to shut the garden down, said the garden smells, attracts rats, will drive down property values and is “unsightly.”
“I look out the window and I have to see that crap,” he said. “It’s not a garden, it’s bull----. This is not the place to have a farm.”