Gaia College News
Cowichan Bay Gardening Services
A new business venture for the Cowichan Recyclists
by Brenlee Brothers
Erin Ward and her son Eric with the Cowichan Recyclists bike and trailer, which will be used for her gardening services.
Patrick Devlin photo
Erin Ward is coming back full circle to a dream she’s had for years. Cowichan Recyclists has started offering gardening services by bike and bike trailer in the Cowichan Bay area on Vancouver Island. Co-owner Erin Ward specializes in food growing, native plants, and low maintenance pollinator gardens, with deer resistant and drought tolerant plants.
Ward has had many years of experience working in environmental stewardship projects, such as the creation of community gardens and natural habitat restoration projects. She has a Diploma in Organic Landcare from Gaia College and a Degree in Geography and Ecological Restoration from the University of Victoria.
When she moved to Cowichan after completing her degree, Ward had a lot of knowledge around native plants and forest ecology, but not so much awareness around growing food. At that time, she didn’t even know what rosemary was, she said. “When I moved here I was more of a nature background person, I was interested in native plants and getting to identify them.” But Cowichan’s culture of local organic food growing really enveloped her.
Before taking courses with Gaia College, Ward worked at Cowichan Land Trust as a Landowner Contact. The position involved helping landowners identify native species on their properties and formulating restoration plans. “When I was doing that, I always felt really frustrated that I wanted to know more, and have more answers for people,” she said.
The diploma program at Gaia supported her to develop knowledge and confidence in relation to her work. The school’s insightful awareness about the sensitivities of other living beings and caring about the landscape was really impactful to her, she said. “There is sort of a land stewardship ethic to Gaia College.”
Ward and her husband Patrick Devlin enrolled in the courses together, with the intention to start their own garden business. But things ended up going in a different direction when they took ownership of Cowichan Recyclists in 2017. Devlin had been working with the business since 2011 - which if you aren’t aware - picks up recycling and organics by bicycle.
The initial owners saw a need for this service because in the town center of Duncan, businesses have to take care of their own recycling. The city streets are also very narrow, which makes it hard for big trucks to get in. It didn’t make sense to have trucks idling fuel while picking up recycling, so the business has been “pedaling waste alternatives since 2007,” and now serves 140 customers.
While running the Recyclists full time and having a child along the way, there wasn’t much time to think about a gardening business, but it was always in the back of Ward’s mind.
In 2021, Ward started volunteering on the garden committee at her son’s school, where she helped create planting plans for the raised garden beds and planted the forest restoration sites at the school. “I kind of inspired myself all over again from that experience,” she said. Which ultimately led to the Recyclists gardening idea. “I guess maybe I didn't have the guts to do it until recently, because it’s too close to my actual dreams.”
A Food Forest Project where Ward designed the terraces, pathways, pergola location and plantings for this part of the garden.
Erin Ward photo
It will be nice to branch off the family business and separate from the husband-wife collaboration a bit, she said. Devlin will continue with the recycling business, while she digs into the gardening service - a welcome change for Ward. “I need to be around things that are beautiful,” she said. ”I need to feel inspired or I just can’t function.” Considering that housing and the cost of living is so high, most people feel like they don’t have time to grow food, and instead just want low-maintenance plants, she said. “I’m really interested in promoting and supporting people to grow food.” She would like to meet her clients wherever they’re at, with the intention of building long term relationships.
There are some particular issues that food growers face on Vancouver Island. With increasingly hot summers, the Island is seeing intense periods of drought, and sometimes barely any rain for five months at a time. In Cowichan Bay, water restrictions are getting pretty heavy, Ward said. “We even had poor water quality issues this year, where we had to boil water for a while.” Choosing plants for all the environmental changes is hard, but it’s also why she wants to focus on incorporating drought resistant plants into her garden plans.
The first Recyclists garden project after being planted and composted in November 2022. The plants shown here are deer resistant, drought tolerant, and pollinator plants.
Erin Ward photo
An issue that food growers face in the Cowichan Valley region is the pervasiveness of deer eating everything in the area. Although deer fencing is an option, it can be expensive and sometimes special equipment is required to get through the soil, and even then it’s not very aesthetically pleasing. Ward is interested in collaborating with someone who has building skills to offer a well-rounded service to people in the community. I like the idea of collaborating, she said. Someone can build the fences, and she can focus on beautifying them to make them fit into the landscape somehow. “I think the comradery and the knowledge sharing would be exciting to be a part of, because owning your own business can be stressful,” she said.
Ward wants her gardening business to feel like it’s a community of local neighbors, and she wants to be able to help people enjoy their gardens. There’s something that feels really cozy about that to her. Sometimes it helps to not only have plants, but to have insects and birds to lure you in, she said. ”So I can talk to people about how enjoyable that is and how interesting it is to just sit there and watch the bees...otherwise, life is so busy,” she said. “If I can do designs or be creative about solving problems in the soil, that's going to be really fulfilling for me.”
This beautiful flower is Camas growing in their home garden. Camas is a starchy bulb that you can cook and eat. It was a highly consumed and highly traded plant among First Nations people in the region.
Erin Ward photo
Also - for other folks thinking about an electric bike gardening business in B.C.,the government offers a rebate when you purchase one as part of a provincial climate change funding initiative. Cowichan Recyclists received a $1,700 rebate.