Canada

How our pandemic gardening is reconnecting us to the food we eat

Since the pandemic lockdown began, my house plants have been joined by a few new arrivals: Tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, cilantro and spinach now clutter my tables and counters.

I know I’m not alone. As COVID-19 restrictions have worn on, I’ve noticed that more and more people are starting to grow food in their homes.

Perhaps it’s the boredom of having no extracurricular activities. There’s also the fear of the grocery store, the difficulty of keeping fresh herbs around when you’re shopping in bulk. And there are the whispers about food insecurity, of problems farmers are having in Canada and abroad.

Regardless of my reasons, my father would be proud.

See, this isn’t the first time I’ve grown my own produce. My father has been an organic vegetable farmer my whole life, and still is today, on a farm in rural British Columbia. He’s always said people aren’t connected enough to their food, and I count myself lucky to have grown up eating according to what’s in season.

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Sylvain Charlebois is a Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy. He says he’s “not surprised at all” that people are turning to gardening during the pandemic. With concerns about food security and more stress than we know what to do with, he says, a garden is “great for the soul.”

Amid news of temporary foreign workers struggling to make it to Canada during the pandemic, there have been worries about a potential shortage of domestic produce, says Charlebois, “that could actually push people to produce their own.”

Farmer Doug Saba stands in front of a field of organic garlic in rural British Columbia in early May.

My father, Doug Saba, tells me over the phone that he thinks Canadians have become spoiled for produce, something I’ve heard from him before.

He says because of all the cheaper produce that comes from the United States, it gets harder every year to make money as a farmer. But he thinks demand for local produce could go up due to COVID-19.

Daniel “Ocean” Rinzler, co-owner of Toronto’s Healthy Garden Company, says the company is seeing a lot of interest right now in their services, which include setting up backyard gardens for city dwellers.

“This pause and this shift, we hope, is also creating more awareness of dependency on big box stores,” he says.

Rinzler says he believes gardening is good for our mental health because it’s rewarding work.

That’s what Isaac Würmann has found. He’d never been a gardener, but in a few short weeks it’s turned into a hobby that’s taken over his whole home.

Würmann, a freelance writer in Winnipeg (and a friend from university), told me his mother loves to plant flowers and the occasional tomatoes. When Würmann decided to help her out he became obsessed with gardening, talking about it to “anyone who will listen.”

The plants are everywhere, even lining the staircase of their home.

Isaac W�rmann's new obsession with gardening during COVID-19 has taken over the whole house.

“I don’t know what compelled me to do it,” he says. “I just really kind of fell in love with … the act of planting these seeds.”

Würmann has lived in cities for most of his life and says he’s discovering what the plants that grow common produce look like for the first time. He’s ambitious, too, even trying to grow watermelons.

The new hobby is also helping him deal with the pandemic. Despite the world around him, Würmann says, he’s feeling pretty positive and hopeful.

Isaac W�rmann's new obsession with gardening during COVID-19 has taken over the whole house.

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It can feel dangerous to look for silver linings during our COVID-19 restrictions. I’m not someone who believes the pandemic is a “good thing” in any way, shape or form, but I do think that more people growing their own food is a positive shift.

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Charlebois agrees. He says it will help people feel less vulnerable during a time when nothing feels certain, and help foster an appreciation for the work of farmers. He says those gardening for the first time will learn to love rain, often the bane of a city dweller’s existence.

Charlebois himself grew up on a farm that had a vegetable garden the size of a football field. His suggestions for people just starting out? The “easy stuff,” like lettuce, radishes and beans. And if you’ve got the time and space, a small greenhouse could go a long way toward helping you increase your yield.

Garlic grows in rural British Columbia.

For me, growing your own food renews your appreciation for it. Growing up on a farm, we generally ate according to what was in season. As a result, I associated certain crops with certain times of the year, and with certain dishes we only made when those crops were in season.

On our farm, asparagus is the first thing to grow anew, amid leeks and other things that have weathered the winter, insulated by the snow. The first handful of asparagus feels like a small celebration. I hardly ever eat it otherwise. Even my father, who’s been growing asparagus for years, says he gets excited about it every season.

Asparagus grows in rural British Columbia in early May.

Rhubarb is also a milestone for him: “It’s the first thing you can make pie out of.” (Pie is big in our household.)

Strawberries are probably the most anticipated part of the year — in our neck of the woods, they begin in early June. To me, they are inextricably linked with homemade strawberry shortcake and fresh jam.

In fall, the root vegetables are in full swing. So is garlic, a cash crop for market gardeners. Squash is harvested. Meals are hearty and colourful and full of starch. It’s also the perfect time to make pumpkin pie, which we make using squash, because they’re the same thing.

These are things I hardly ever buy at the grocery store. Asparagus in the winter is expensive and boring. Strawberries in clamshells are white on the inside and taste like a faded memory. Garlic is often dry and weak — I skip straight to jars of prepared garlic once I’ve run out of the good stuff.

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Gurneet Dhami has rediscovered gardening while staying at her parents' house during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Gurneet Dhami, a nutrition student studying in Halifax, went back home to Vaughn, Ont., to stay with her family and work on her thesis during the lockdown.

Since then, her family has started rediscovering their love of gardening — in her childhood home they had a garden and fruit trees, says Dhami. Now, they’re looking at a “blank canvas” and trying to plan a new garden.

They’re hoping to grow some staple herbs for South Asian cooking, such as coriander and mint, as well as tomatoes.

Gardening has always been a way for her family to connect, says Dhami, and it also brings them closer to their food.

“When you do it yourself … it’s more meaningful.”

She says it’s important to remember not everyone has the space, time or money to start a garden during the pandemic. She hopes people who are rediscovering their relationship with food are also thinking about those who don’t have the privilege to do so.

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As I write this, it’s raining in Calgary and my tomato plants are lined up on the patio outside. Inside, our basil and other herbs are still small, reaching up toward the window where they normally get their sunlight.

Strawberry plants grow in rural British Columbia.

I may not be growing strawberries or have acres of garlic on the go, but I know that when my herbs and tomatoes are ready, they will taste just as special as that first crop of asparagus.

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