The Last Victory Gardener in Vancouver – A Secret Artist
Title: Cliffside Arbutus Tree. “He painted for over 50 years, totally unrecognized, every week, every month, every year.” See more of Donald Flather’s work here.
Flash from the past – 1979 article in City Farmer Newspaper
By Kerry Banks
City Farmer Newspaper
Vol 2 No. 1, October, 1979
(City Farmer began in 1978 by publishing a newspaper. Kerry is a founding member of City Farmer. He is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist. See bio further on.)
(1979) – Dr. Donald Flather and his wife Grace have one of the more unique vegetable gardens in Vancouver. It’s the last remaining ‘victory garden’ from the city’s World War Two home food production effort.
Beginning back in the early forties, the Government of Canada made a concentrated effort to get city and town folk involved in growing their own food. Large advertisements were placed in the daily newspapers.
“Plant a wartime garden,” they urged. “Home production of vegetables is needed now more than any time during the war. Help by growing the vegetables your family needs.”
The Flathers responded by obtaining permission from the city to make use of the vacant B.C. Hydro right of way boulevard in front of their Kerrisdale home. The garden they planted in 1942 still flourishes today; a 37 year old artifact from a time when being a city farmer was synonymous with being a Canadian patriot.
“The ground wasn’t very good originally,” remembers Dr. Flather. “It was full of stones and bits of broken brick and glass. Apparently there’d been a big greenhouse on this site before we moved in.”
“The first year our garden was only a marginal one, we planted carrots, onions, parsnips, … that sort of thing. But it grew in size each year as we gradually built the tilth up.”
“Our front lawn at the time was reserved exclusively for raising potatoes. Our neighbours on either side of us did the same.”
Dr. Flather can recall that during the war years the B.C. Hydro right of way that extends down their street was covered with vegetable gardens. “They ran up and down the boulevard on either side of our garden for 100 yards,” he says.
Title: River Scene. See more of Donald Flather’s work here.
At the time, the Flathers had just one of the many productive gardens in the city. A report released by the Federal Agricultural Supplies Board for the year 1943 valued the 31,000 tons of produce taken from 52,000 victory gardens in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and North and West Vancouver at 4 million dollars, the equivalent of 20 million dollars worth of supermarket produce today.
In Dr. Flather’s mind, the figure of 31,000 tons of produce is likely an understatement. “In those years you could find at least one good sized victory garden on every block in the city.”
One has to wonder why people gave them up.
“In our neighbourhood,” says Dr. Flather, “there were those gardeners who died, others that moved away and some people who became too affluent.”
What was commonplace in the war years of the 1940′s is today an object of curiosity. Passerbys are constantly stopping to gawk at the Flather’s victory garden.
“So many people stop and get out of their cars to stare, one of our neighbours suggested we could put up bleachers and sell tickets,” jokes Mrs. Flather.
We don’t consider our garden fabulous,” states Dr. Flather. “I’d say it’s rather average actually. We grow for productivity, not show.”
That’s no idle boast. The Flather’s 18’ by 50’ garden supplies a harvest of over 20 different crops, including corn, carrots, onions, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, celery, rhubarb and parsnips.
This summer they‘ve harvested a year’s supply of potatoes, collected 15 pints of beans and canned so many tomatoes that they no longer have any shelf room left.
“We have a 22 cubic ft. freezer in our basement,” notes Mrs. Flather. “We can just get the lid closed.”
“Over half of our food we‘ll have to give away to friends and relatives. We couldn’t possibly eat it all ourselves.”
Do they ever buy any vegetables?
Yes, avocados. But not too often, we’re really not that fond of them.”
Title: Mount Robson. See more of Donald Flather’s work here.
Each year Dr. Flather tries a different type of crop in his garden. This past year he’s enjoyed success with a new type of tomato called Ultra Grow. Those varieties of vegetables that prove unproductive or unflavorful he drops from his repertoire.
Dr. Flather helps his vegetables along with a combination of compost and chemical fertilizers.
“Not many people know it, but if you ask them, the City will deliver a load of leaves free of charge to your doorstep. l’ve found them to be an excel- lent conditioner for the garden.”
His leaves are mixed into the compost pile with grass and other green vegetable cuttings. Employed as a mulch and spread in the garden as needed, the leaves have a blotter effect, helping to retain valuable moisture in the soil. As well, leaves serve as a soil texturizer, supplying aeration and retarding the growth of weeds.
“Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t use cedar needles in the garden, but that’s basically an old wives tale,” states Dr. Flather. “Cedar needles might take a little longer to rot down, but they won’t harm your plants. That was scientifically proven in a series of Saanich Island experiments done using 12 different wood mulches in 1951.”
Dr. Flather uses the more concentrated forms of chemical fertilizers such as 16-20-10 and 16-16-16. He claims the milder mixtures are mostly filler and “diluted so the greenhorn won’t kill his plants.”
He applies his fertilizer in parallel strips about 2 inches from the young plants – roots can easily reach when they need nutrients.
He doesn’t believe chemical fertilizers to be hazardous if properly applied. “A plant,” he says, “can’t distinguish between natural and artificial minerals.”
The Flathers have not restricted their horticultural efforts to the victory garden. Their backyard resembles a commercial nursery. There is a greenhouse here for starting seedlings, dozens of scattered planters, several thriving beds of flowers and dwarf fruit trees, a trellis of sweet peas and another of grapes, plus a variety of healthy fruit trees. The Flathers harvest fruit from cherry, pear, peach, nectarine, and apple trees and from their strawberry and raspberry bushes.
The 30 year old apple tree is the backyard’s centerpiece.
By careful grafting techniques the Flathers now possess a tree which provides them with no less than 28 different types of apples!
I asked ‘the doctor if he could forsee anything causing a return to the tremendous productivity of the victory garden years in Vancouver. “There’s at lot of wasted potential here,” he suggests, gesturing down the grass covered boulevard. “There could be food gardens extending all the way along here as far as 57th Ave.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the higher prices of vegetables and the slump in the economy might not be a blessing in disguise. Harder times I’ve found, usually help bring people to their senses.”
“The Secret Life Of Donald Flather”
Written by Daniel Wood
Beautiful Bc Magazine
As David Flather, then 28, stood in the doorway of his grandparents’ Vancouver home four years ago, he was struck by a sense of erieness. His grandmother, Grace, had just died. His grandfather, Donald Flather, had passed away in 1990. Together with his aunt and uncle, David was there to begin the task of emptying the cluttered home of 54 years of occupancy. His grandfather had been a Vancouver school teacher and packrat of the first magnitude. His grandmother had rebuffed every effort to clean the house after her husband’s death. She wanted nothing moved, believing her husband was still there, still inhabiting the place. And in a strange way, she was right.
The livingroom walls were covered with Donald Flather’s paintings — large, abstracted landscapes that had a familiarity David couldn’t quite define. A half-dozen more paintings were stacked — like a firescreen — in front of the fireplace. In the hall, in the diningroom, in the bedrooms, every wall held more of his grandfather’s artwork. When he pushed open the door to the upstairs studio, where David on occasion had watched his grandfather paint, he paused and asked himself: Where do I put my feet? Dozens of large, framed landscape paintings stood on edge, filling the room from wall to wall. They leaned against each other and against the room’s shelving where hundreds of slide trays, jammed with Flather’s travel photos, were stacked among the musty collection of art books. In the corner by the north window stood Flather’s easel.
Kerry Banks – Bio
From the Trent University Alumni Magazine
Kerry Banks has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 30 years. During his studies at Trent, he majored in history and wrote for The Arthur – and he credits his involvement with the student paper for giving him the exposure, confidence, and technical skills he needed to become the writer and journalist he is today.
After graduating from Trent, he applied the skills he learned from The Arthur – writing articles, creating layouts, taking photos, and writing headlines – at the Peterborough Common Press, a local weekly newspaper that was published in Peterborough in the 1970s. However, in 1977, he started working as a freelancer full-time and moved to Vancouver, where he lives to this day.
Over his career, he has won several national Magazine Awards and Western Magazine Awards. His work has appeared in Vancouver Magazine, Equinox, Western Living, WestWorld, and Maclean’s. In addition to writing articles on business, arts, culture, travel, and the environment, he has written several sports books.