Gardeners welcome spring despite COVID-19

But with community gardens ordered closed, the season looks uncertain for some green thumbs

Currently, Peterborough City and County and the neighbouring First Nations are approaching a total of 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19. While there have been no deaths in the area, the sad news out of nearby communities like Bobcaygeon has many of us feeling overwhelmed and worried.

And yet, it is another warm day, buds are appearing on trees and green shoots are pushing up out of the soil. No pandemic, it seems, can slow the advance of spring, and that means local green thumbs are preparing for another season of gardening. 

Yesterday, I visited the garden of Hayley Goodchild, a food historian, gardener and a program coordinator at GreenUP. Goodchild self-isolated for a period last month after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 (she did not have the virus, it turned out). During her time in isolation, Goodchild focussed on getting her garden ready for the season.

“Even in good times, I find gardening very therapeutic,” she says. And during COVID-19, it’s even more important “to have something grounding you…that feels normal.”

Gardening, Goodchild says, is a hopeful practice — and that’s something we all need right now. 

“When you’re gardening you are inherently doing something that is optimistic. You’re growing something with the intention and the expectation that it’s going to continue in the future, so it just gives you something to focus on down the line that isn’t negative.”

Heirloom seeds for sale from local business UrbanTomato. Owner Jill Bishop says some seed companies have so many orders they’re backed up by weeks. She’s seen a lot of orders too, but still has some stock available. (Photo courtesty of UrbanTomato)

Goodchild isn’t the only person gardening during the coronavirus crisis. Jill Bishop, who runs a local seed company called UrbanTomato, says this year’s sales are exponentially higher than normal. “Seeds are a hot commodity,” she says, noting that the COVID-19 crisis is leading people to consider more seriously the idea of growing their own food.

Season uncertain for community gardens

Not everyone has a sunny backyard to garden in like Goodchild. For those who don’t, the city’s community gardens provide plots of land where you can grow vegetables, herbs, flowers — whatever you like. 

But the upcoming season for community gardens is uncertain — gardens were included in the list of “outdoor recreational amenities” ordered closed by the Ontario government on March 30.

The day after the provincial order, Moe Garahan and Rhonda Teitel-Payne, both co-chairs of the Ontario Community Growing Network, wrote an open letter calling on the government to identify gardens as an essential food service so they can continue to operate through the pandemic. 

“Tens of thousands of families rely on community gardens to produce food for their families each year,” the letter says. “There has been a marked increase in demand for this service since the beginning of COVID-19 across Ontario.”

Joelle Favreau leads the Nourish Project, the community food initiative that coordinates Peterborough’s gardens, and she agrees the city’s community gardens are crucial right now. She points out that even before COVID-19 hit, local low-income individuals and families were struggling with food insecurity. Community gardens, while they won’t solve food insecurity entirely, are part of the solution. (From 2011 to 2014, Peterborough’s household food insecurity rate was 16 percent — a third higher than the provincial average. More recent data is not yet available.)

In addition, social distancing and confinement “are really taking a toll” on people’s mental health, Favreau says, while “gardens, and just being in nature, provide an avenue for helping people to gain more peace.”

Favreau says the gardening season doesn’t begin in earnest until May, so there is still time to figure out a solution that keeps the gardens open while making sure everyone using them stays safe and healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak. “We want the season to go ahead,” she says.

To save the gardening season, Nourish, along with a network of community gardens across the province, is developing a set of protocols to ensure safe use of the spaces. These protocols will be submitted to local public health units for approval. With the protocols in place, it’s hoped the province will reopen community gardens.

Rethinking our food system

By now, you’ve likely encountered empty shelves at grocery stores due to shoppers stocking up faster than supply chains can keep up with. To Favreau, those images are indicative of a much larger problem than just panicked overbuying. 

COVID-19 is “highlighting the fact that we have a really broken food system,” she says. “I’m hoping that we learn the lessons from this crisis and that we create a much more resilient and equitable food system at the end of it.” To Favreau, that means focusing more on local and regional producers rather than relying on imports. It also means strengthening the social safety net so everyone can afford healthy food. 

At least one seller of local food, Anthony Lennan of the Food Shop, says he’s seen an uptick in business since the pandemic started. “A lot of new customers are finding out about me or a lot of customers that have been meaning to come in finally have the time and the desire,” he says. “People are getting a bit more excited about local food.” 

Lennan says customers appreciate that the store is smaller and less chaotic than the big grocery stores right now, and that knowing where the food comes from reassures them that it is safe. “Everything in here was touched by the picker or the farmer and me, and that’s it,” he says.

This isn’t just happening in Peterborough. National media outlets like the Globe and Mail and the CBC have also reported a new interest in gardening and local food production as a result of the pandemic.

This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on April 7, 2020. It was lightly edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.


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